It is worth going to some trouble to get your hands on a copy of Dawns + Dusks. Louise Nevelson was a great artist and she lived her life as art. Her reflections and aphorisms are sage, inspired and grounded in a visceral need to connect through self-expression. The book, an extended conversation transcribed from interview tapes, delivers a portrait of Nevelson that feels like the real thing. It is her voice, as much as her thinking, that resonates. I am tempted to take quotes from every page and paint them on the walls.
Louise Berliawsky was born in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and her father soon emigrated to America and sent for his family. She grew up in Rockland, Maine where a Russian-Jewish immigrant family with four kids, a father who owned a lumberyard and an unhappy mother who carried herself like royalty was strictly outsider material. Louise wanted to be an artist from the beginning and her family supported that idea and saw that she received an education. She became Louise Nevelson when she married the son of a shipping magnate—a marriage that introduced her to society in Manhattan, bankrolled her early art, acting and music studies and produced her only child, Mike.
But Nevelson chafed at any sort of confinement. Eventually she left her marriage, studied art in Europe to learn the new style, cubism, and ended up back in New York, single mother, raging artist, still studying, determined to draw her life according to her own vision. She recounts friendships with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, studies with Krishnamurti and the artist Hans Hofmann, artistic epiphanies on the streets of the city and in museums at sudden glimpses of color and light that affected her deeply. All of life became art for her–she showed early sculpture in the first exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art, took up modern dance, scavenged wood from curbs and trash piles to use in sculptures when she couldn’t afford materials. She didn’t become truly famous until she was about to turn sixty—one art critic in the 1940s caught himself just in time to avoid praising her as a significant force in the art world when he observed that she was a woman, a category that, apparently, didn’t count.
She continued to court gallery owners and show her work—the reclaimed wood bits were nailed together into arrangements of totemic walls that she painted all white or black or gold. Entire rooms of museums were dedicated to shows of her work so that the patrons would have a complete experience of the environment the cubist-inspired sculpture created. I always found these exhibits mesmerizing and moving and spent as much time as I could lurking in them, entranced by the feeling of Nevelson’s work, alive to its energy. I consider her solidly in the handful of artists who are my absolute favorites, whose work I would own and treasure if fortune ever dictated I live in a private gallery.
“I always wanted to show the world that art is everywhere, except it has to pass through a creative mind,” she said. “When I am working, I know that I am working back into time, through all civilizations. Maybe my eye has a great memory of many centuries.”
She struggled for recognition but she never doubted her gift or her path. “I do like to claim that my being here has shaken the earth a bit,” she mused to MacKown. Once an interviewer asked her what she would like to come back as in her next incarnation. Nevelson didn’t believe in reincarnation but she had a ready answer for the question anyway.
Eavesdrop on this book if you can. It will spur you do something important, lasting and unafraid with your life.
Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations With Diana MacKown Louise Nevelson | Scribners 1976