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Louise Nevelson was an iconoclast artist known for her monochromatic abstract expressionist sculptures. She rose to be an internationally known artist and worked into her 80s.
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Born on September 23, 1899 in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Russia, Louise Nevelson studied Cubist art with Hans Hofmann and later at the Art Students League in New York City. Nevelson began to attract attention in the early 1940s, and gained wide fame in the 1950s, when museums began buying her work. She is now considered one of America's most innovative sculptors.
"I think most artists create out of despair. The very nature of creation is not a performing glory on the outside, it's a painful, difficult search within."
"I think all great innovations are built on rejections."
"I seek truth. What I seek is anything that will work for me. I'll use a lie if it works, and that [becomes] the truth."
"The freer that women become, the freer men will be. Because when you enslave someone, you are enslaved."
Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Russia on September 23, 1899. Her parents, mother Mina Sadie and father Isaac Berliawsky, had a comfortable lifestyle due to Isaac's successful lumber business. However, the family experienced harsh discrimination for being Jewish in Tsarist Russia. In 1902, Isaac traveled to the United States to start a new life for his family. Young Leah was so traumatized with her father's absence wouldn't speak for six months.
By 1905, Isaac Berliawsky had settled in Rockland, Maine, and after finding employment, sent for the family. They initially struggled financially, but in time Isaac built a successful lumber and real estate business. While the Berliawskys enjoyed a beautiful home and comfortable lifestyle, their progressive views (her father advocated for women’s rights and her mother was a freethinker) made them stand out in the small town. The scrutiny made the family feel isolated.
By her own account, young Leah knew that she wanted to be an artist at an early age. She became disgruntled living in a small town and planned to get away. After graduating from high school, she set out to gain her independence. In 1920, she changed her name to Louise and married Charles Nevelson, a man from a wealthy ship-owning family. In 1922, she gave birth to her only child, Myron (Mike), who later became a sculptor. Louise soon bristled at the expectations of an upper-middle class lifestyle, and after 11 years of ever-increasing discontent, she took her son to live with her parents in Maine and separated from her husband.
In 1932, Nevelson traveled to Germany to study Cubism with Hans Hofmann, until the Nazis closed the school. She followed Hofmann to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, an art school where Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists studied. She worked in various media—painting, sculpture and printing—often exemplifying an established modernist style. Early in the 1930s, Nevelson was a "starving artist," living simply and for her art. She survived by selling some artwork and, in time, her reputation as a sculptor grew.
In the 1940s, Nevelson experimented with different styles and materials such as wood and junk that she found in the streets of New York. She began working with monochrome paint, particularly black, and assembled the sculpture pieces in groupings. Nevelson created works that illustrated how freedom of expression was a political act. While making a reputation with her art, she cultivated an extravagant personal lifestyle that included glamorous gowns, heavy face makeup and unconventional hairstyles.
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