Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on April 24, 2006 with the permission of the Farnsworth Art Museum and the author. This text was written in conjunction with an exhibition celebrating the opening of the Nevelson-Berliawsky Gallery of Twentieth Century Art held in 1994 at the Farnsworth Art Museum.

If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the Farnsworth Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Louise Nevelson - The Farnsworth Collection

by Suzette Lane McAvoy



When I was growing up in Rockland from grammar school to high school, there was no museum. One of the great joys of my life is that we have a first-rate one now -- a beautiful building that encloses creative works that can stand with the great ones. That is something that I had not expected in my wildest dreams to find in a town in Maine -- that jewel that shines.[1]

-- Louise Nevelson


Louise Nevelson wrote these words following an exhibition of her work at the Farnsworth Art Museum in 1985. On that occasion she expressed her desire to see a new gallery constructed at the museum where a selection of her works could be on continuous display.[2] Nearly ten years later, that dream has become a reality through the generous gift of the artist's late sister-in-law, Lillian Berliawsky.

The inaugural exhibition in the Nevelson-Berliawsky Gallery for 20th Century Art features selections from the Farnsworth's own Louise Nevelson collection. The majority of these works are gifts from the artist herself From 1981 to 1985, Nevelson donated eighty-seven items of art to the museum, including fifty-six of her own works. The artist's brother, Nathan Berliawsky, also made significant gifts, as did her sister Anita Berliawsky Wienstein.

It is perhaps fitting that the Nevelson collection at the Farnsworth is especially strong in early works by the artist, as it was Rockland where she spent her formative years and discovered her love of art. Born in Tsarist Russia in the autumn of 1899, Nevelson emigrated to Rockland with her family in 1905.[3] At an early age Louise received recognition from her school teachers as "the artist." She later stated, "From the first day in school until the day I graduated, everyone gave me 100 plus in art. Well, where do you go in life? You go to the place where you get 100 plus." [4]

Louise's move to New York City, following her marriage in 1920 to Charles Nevelson, a cargo-ship owner, was instrumental in her development as an artist. Her attraction to the city was immediate and lasting. She called New York, "a city of collage... the whole thing is magnificent.... There's no place like it." [5] Upon her arrival, she began vigorously pursuing her interest in the arts, studying painting, acting, dance, and singing. After her son, Mike, who was born in 1922, had reached school age, Louise enrolled full time at the Art Students League. Over the next two years, 1929-31, she studied painting with Kenneth Hayes Miller and drawing with Kimon Nicolaides.

A distinguished artist and teacher, Miller taught the fundamentals of classical oil painting while encouraging students to find their own artistic voice. Totally devoted to his own life as an artist, he inspired Nevelson to embrace art as a way of life. Although little of her student work remains, the Farnsworth collection contains four early oil paintings which date from this period. In Female Nude, c. 1929, a cluster of easels and canvases suggestive of a classroom setting can be seen in the background. Although the drapery is awkwardly handled, the convincingly modeled figure reveals that Miller's lessons on the sculptural qualities of painting were absorbed by Nevelson.[6]

The two line drawings, Nude and Four Figures, both c. 1930, were executed around the time of Louise's study with Kimon Nicolaides. Nicolaides was a popular teacher whose book, The Natural Way to Draw, remains a standard text. He placed special emphasis on gesture drawing, stating that, "No matter what path you pursue, you keep going back to gesture.... In gesture drawing you feel the movement of the whole." Nevelson seems to have embraced Nicolaides' approach, and she excelled at gesture or as he called them "scribble drawings."[7]

The majority of Nevelson's drawings from this period are of nude, female figures in which she conveys three-dimensional form by the "rhythmic swelling and attenuation" of line. Her exaggeration and simplification of the figure recalls the work of Miro, Matisse, and Henry Moore. Her sure handling of the "relationship of mass to rectangle... anticipates the box format and rectilinear framing of her mature sculpture."[8] Of particular interest in the drawing Four Figures is her early use of the totemic form in the stacking of the three heads to the left of the central figure.

By 1931, Nevelson's studies at the Art Students League had confirmed her resolve to pursue a career in art. "...I knew I had it," she said, "and I felt that through this special perception I could live a meaningful life."[9] Although her husband strongly objected, Louise was determined to study in Munich with the influential avant-garde teacher Hans Hofmann, who she believed was "the only person who could explain and teach Cubism, Picasso, and Matisse." [10] The landscape, Maine Meadows, Old County Road, c. 1931, was probably painted during Nevelson's brief visit to Rockland prior to her departure for Munich later that fall.[11] Her light-hearted, fanciful depiction of the countryside outside of her hometown expresses her joy at the time. As if to suggest her newfound confidence in herself as an artist, Nevelson has filled the daylit sky with colorful stars.[I2]

Hans Hofmann is the one teacher Nevelson acknowledged most frequently later in her career, yet she actually studied with him for a very short time. She arrived in Germany when Hitler was gaining increasing power and, consequently, found Hofmann distracted by finalizing his plans for emigration to America.[l3] Nevertheless, Nevelson credits him with introducing her to Cubism and the "push and pull" of negative and positive space, concepts which would become important in the development of her work.

By the fall of 1932, Nevelson had again returned to New York and re-enrolled in classes at the Art Students League. That winter she took an apartment on York Avenue.[14] Inspired by her immediate surroundings she completed the painting, York Avenue, New York City, in 1934. Despite her long-held interest in architecture, this work is one of only two known cityscapes among her extant paintings. [I5] The work reveals Nevelson's early interpretation of Cubism; she has translated the three-dimensional forms of the buildings into two-dimensional shapes conforming to the picture plane. As Arthur Guagliumi points out in his dissertation, "Assemblage Art: Origins and Sources": [16]

Nevelson freely interprets the visual phenomenon of Cubism. She tends to refer to it in its simplest, most literal interpretation rather than the idea of its faceted and simultaneous imagery. She sees the breakdown of the cube and somewhat avoids the philosophical implications of perceiving form in nature from various vantage points in the visual mind.

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