Visu­al Arts

The Sculp­ture of Louise Nevel­son: Con­struct­ing a Legend

Brooke Kamin Rapa­port, ed.
  • Review
By – December 12, 2011

This vol­ume is much more than a cat­a­log pub­lished for the four-month exhi­bi­tion in 2007 of the works of Louise Nevel­son at the Jew­ish Muse­um in New York, which, indeed, it is.* More than half of the book is com­prised of dis­tinc­tive pho­tographs of the sculp­ture, as well as the exhi­bi­tion check­list and a chronol­o­gy of the artist’s life and works. The essays that com­prise the text deserve care­ful atten­tion, detail­ing Nevelson’s long life and artis­tic career, ana­lyz­ing her art, plac­ing it in the con­text of the larg­er world of post World War II art, and dis­cussing her dra­mat­ic per­sona and its impact on the pub­lic when women artists were just begin­ning to be con­sid­ered seri­ous­ly. Nevelson’s Jew­ish roots are explored in Louise Nevelson’s Self-Fash­ion­ing: The Author of Her Own Life,’” where the emi­nent his­to­ri­an Michael Stanis­law­ki con­jec­tures about the Nevel­son fam­i­ly in 19th cen­tu­ry Rus­sia, con­clud­ing that their set­tling in Rock­land, Maine could be relat­ed direct­ly to their Russ­ian past. 

Nevelson’s incor­po­ra­tion of found objects (“for­aged wood”) into mon­u­men­tal mono­chro­mat­ic struc­tures is expli­cat­ed in the essay Black, White and Gold” by Arthur C. Dan­to. Oth­er essays by the edi­tor Brooke Kamin Rapa­port and Har­ri­et F. Senie deal with her biog­ra­phy and her pub­lic works respectively. 

Nevelson’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with her Holo­caust memo­ri­als, Homage to the 6,000,000 I and II, one locat­ed in Osa­ka, Japan and the oth­er in Jerusalem at the Israel Muse­um. Nevel­son also exe­cut­ed sculp­tures on com­mis­sion for syn­a­gogues and oth­er reli­gious institutions. 

For an appre­ci­a­tion of Nevelson’s art, this book offers a won­der­ful array of pho­tographs; for a win­dow into her Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty, the essays touch on her life, her self­de­f­i­n­i­tion, and the works that relate to Jew­ish themes. 

The sub­ti­tle of the book, Con­struct­ing a Leg­end,” ambigu­ous­ly ties her auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tions to her sculp­tur­al con­structs. While it is some­what mis­lead­ing, the book itself is a well-researched con­tri­bu­tion to the field of art criticism. 

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions