Skip to main content Smithsonian Institution

Additional Online Media

Catalog Data

Nevelson, Louise, 1899-1988  Search this
35.2 Linear feet
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
circa 1903-1982
The papers of Louise Nevelson measure approximately 35.2 linear feet and date from circa 1903 to 1982. The collection documents aspects of the life and work of the sculptor, focusing especially on her later career. Papers include correspondence, personal business records, writings, scrapbooks, early art work, photographs, interviews, awards and honorary degrees, books, and an extensive amount of printed material. An unprocessed addition of 17.6 linear feet donated 2017 includes personal and business correspondence, financial records, photographs of Nevelson and her works of art, writings by Nevelson, video recordings, and printed material.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of Louise Nevelson measure approximately 35.2 linear feet and date from circa 1903 to 1982. The collection documents aspects of the life and work of the sculptor, focusing especially on her later career. Papers include correspondence, personal business records, writings, scrapbooks, early art work, photographs, interviews, awards and honorary degrees, books, and an extensive amount of printed material. Interviews, awards, and honorary degrees comprise a series of biographical material, along with scattered personal papers such as a graduation program, wedding announcement, teaching certificate, invitations, miscellaneous notes, and material relating to Nevelson's family. Correspondence consists of letters and enclosures from a wide range of professional contacts, including museums and art centers, universities, art associations, women's and charitable organizations, artists, and philanthropists, among others, concerning the exhibition, sale, and donation of Nevelson's art work, and her various arts-related activities, as well as some letters from friends and family. Correspondence can also be found amongst the subject files, which also include clippings, notes, printed and other material organized according to subject and relating to certain exhibitions, and various artistic and professional activities. Whether this organization originates with Nevelson, one of her assistants, or Archives staff is unknown. Found amongst Nevelson's business records are consignment receipts, statements, correspondence, inventories, disposition cards, notebooks, and lists, stemming from her business dealings with the Martha Jackson Gallery and related matters, usually carried out by her assistant at the time. Business records relate in particular to the large and complex project of inventorying Nevelson's art work undertaken sometime in the early-1960s. Nevelson's writings consist mostly of poems and poem fragments, as well as a short-lived dream journal and scattered writings on art, and reflect some of her ideas about art in general and her work in particular. Also found are a large number of scrapbooks and an extensive amount of printed material, which likely stem in large part from Nevelson's concern to document and keep a record of her accomplishments. Scrapbooks contain clippings, exhibition announcements and catalogs, and other material documenting Nevelson's early career from roughly the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Also included are loose items comprising a scrapbook of sorts on son Mike Nevelson and various scrapbooks compiled by others as mementos of particular events. Printed material includes an extensive amount of clippings and publications, exhibition catalogs and announcements, and a variety of other printed material relating or referring to Nevelson or merely featuring her name in print. Also included are several books, some of which are about or feature segments on Nevelson. This material documents both her critical and commercial success, and her role as personality and minor celebrity in the mass media later in her career, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Art work consists of early drawings and watercolors made by Nevelson as a child and adolescent and while studying art in high school and New York, which document her artistic tendencies as youth and her early development as an artist and which provide an interesting contrast to her later work in sculpture. Photographs include ones of the Berliawsky family and Nevelson as a child, adolescent, and young woman in the 1920s and 1930s before she became known as an artist; ones of Nevelson from the mid-1950s to the late-1970s, once she had become known, and began to be honored, as an artist; and ones of Nevelson's art work, as well as of various exibitions and installations of her work. Also included are a number of slides of the artist and her art work, including photographs taken by Dorothy Dehner in the mid-1950s at Louise Nevelson's house on Thirtieth Street. An unprocessed addition of 17.6 linear feet donated 2017 includes personal and business correspondence, financial records, photographs of Nevelson and her works of art, writings by Nevelson, video recordings, and printed material.
The Louise Nevelson papers are arranged into ten series: Series 1: Biographical Material, 1918-1975 (Boxes 1, 17, OV 21; 0.8 linear feet) Series 2: Correspondence, 1931-1979 (Boxes 1-2; 1.5 linear feet) Series 3: Subject Files, 1955-1971, 1977-1978 (Box 3; 0.7 linear feet) Series 4: Business Records, 1946-1954, 1958-1962 (Boxes 3-5; 1.8 linear feet) Series 5: Writings, 1936-1970s (Box 5; 0.1 linear feet) Series 6: Scrapbooks, 1935-1970 (Boxes 5, 18-19, OV 22-27; 1.3 linear feet) Series 7: Printed Material, 1916, 1930s-1979 (Boxes 6-13, 19, OV 28; 8 linear feet) Series 8: Art Work, 1905-1929 (Boxes 13, 20; 0.3 linear feet) Series 9: Photographs, circa 1903-1979 (Boxes 14-15, 20, OV 29; 2.3 linear feet) Series 10: Unprocessed Addition, circa 1942-1982 (Boxes 30-49: 17.6 linear feet)
Biographical Note:
Louise Nevelson was born in 1899 in Kiev, Russia. Her parents, Isaac and Minna Berliawsky, and their children emigrated to America in 1905 and settled in Rockland, Maine, where the young Louise grew up as a bit of an outsider in local society. She decided upon a career in art at an early age and took some drawing classes in high school, before graduating in 1918. Two years later, she married Charles Nevelson, a wealthy businessman, and moved to New York. She proceeded to study painting, drawing, singing, acting, and eventually dancing. In 1922, Nevelson gave birth to a son, Myron (later called Mike). She eventually separated from her husband in the winter of 1932-1933; and they divorced officially in 1941. Beginning in 1929, Nevelson began to study art full-time at the Art Students League, where she took classes with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Kimon Nicolaides. In 1931, she went to Europe and studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich before traveling to Italy and France. She returned to New York in 1932 and again studied for a time with Hofmann, who was by now a guest instructor at the Art Students League. In 1933, she met Diego Rivera while he was in New York working on his mural for Rockefeller Center and casually worked as his assistant for a short period. Shortly thereafter, she began to work in sculpture and joined a sculpture class taught by Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance. She continued to draw and paint, and even took up etching, lithography, and other techniques at different points in her career, but from this time on, she concentrated on sculpture. Her early sculptures were primarily in plaster, clay, and tattistone. During the thirties, Nevelson exhibited in a number of group shows (both non-juried and competitive ones), garnering some recognition for her work. In 1935, she taught mural painting at the Flatbush Boys Club in Brooklyn, as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), then went on to work in the fine-arts division as an easel painter and sculptor until 1939. In 1941, Nevelson had her first solo exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery, run by Karl Nierendorf who represented her until his death in 1947. Both this and a one-woman show the following year received favorable reviews. It was around this time that she discovered the decorated shoeshine box of Joe Milone, a local tradesman, and arranged to have it exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, an occasion which received much notice in the press. In the 1940s, Nevelson produced a great many works in stone, bronze, terra cotta, and wood, most of them being cubist studies of the figure. In 1943, she had a show titled "The Clown as the Center of his World" at the Norlyst Gallery, which featured works on a circus theme constructed from discarded pieces of wood and other material. This new work was not very well received at the time, and it wasn't until the mid-1950s that she began to work with discarded and found objects on a regular basis. During the early-1950s, Nevelson attempted to exhibit her work as often as possible, eventually receiving various prizes and notices for her work in the press. She continued to struggle financially though and began to teach sculpture classes in the adult education program of the Great Neck, Long Island public schools in order to make ends meet. In 1955, she joined he Grand Central Moderns Gallery, which was run by Colette Roberts, and had several one-woman shows there. These included: "Ancient Games and Ancient Places" in 1955, featuring Bride of the Black Moon, "The Forest" in 1957, featuring First Personage, and "Moon Garden + One" in 1958, featuring her first wall, Sky Cathedral. During this period, she was painting her wood black and putting together entirely black exhibits; she went on to create works in white and gold in the early-1960s. Around this time, she also began to enclose her small sculptures within wooden boxes. Nevelson joined the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958, where she received a guaranteed income and finally achieved a certain degree of financial security. Her first show at the gallery, "Sky Columns Presence," took place in the fall of 1959. In 1960, she had her first one-woman exhibition in Europe at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris. Later that year, her work, grouped together as "Dawn's Wedding Feast," was included in the group show, "Sixteen Americans," at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, and other younger artists. She made her first museum sale in 1962 when the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased the black wall, Young Shadows. That same year, Nevelson's work was selected for the thirty-first Biennale in Venice. Over the years, Nevelson took on several assistants, including Teddy Haseltine, Tom Kendall, and Diana Mackown, to help in the studio and with daily affairs. She also participated in various artists' groups, and served as President of the New York Chapter of Artists' Equity from 1957 to 1958, and as President of the national organization from 1962 to 1964. She left the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1962, and after a brief, unhappy stint with the Sidney Janis Gallery, she joined the Pace Gallery, which was run by Arnold Glimcher, in the fall of 1963. She proceeded to have shows of new work there about every two years for the remainder of her career. She had her first museum retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1967, which featured over a hundred of her works from her drawings from the 1930s to her latest constructions. And in 1968, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. By this time, Nevelson had achieved both critical and commercial success as an artist. Nevelson always experimented with new materials; she continued to construct her black wood walls, but also went on make constructions from aluminium, plastic, and metal. In the fall of 1969, she was commissioned by Princeton University to do a monumental outdoor sculpture in Cor-ten steel (her first), and went on to do commissioned works for the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse, and Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, among others. In 1973, the Walker Art Center organized a major exhibition of Nevelson work which traveled around the country over the next two years. In 1975, she designed the chapel for St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. Nevelson was widely honored for her work during her lifetime. Over the years, she received honorary degrees from Rutgers University and Harvard University, among other schools, as well as numerous awards, including the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in Sculpture and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 1971, the gold medal for sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, and the National Medal of the Arts in 1985. By the time of her death on April 17, 1988, Nevelson was considered by and large one of the most important American sculptors of the twentieth century. Sources consulted for this biographical note include Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life by Laurie Lisle and Louise Nevelson by Arnold Glimcher.
Related Material:
Other resources relating to Louise Nevelson in the Archives include oral history interviews with Nevelson conducted by Dorothy Seckler, June 1964-January 14, 1964, and Arnold Glimcher, January 30, 1972. Also related are a 4 part untranscribed audio recording of an interview with Nevelson by Barbaralee Diamonstein, an audio recording of an interview with Nevelson conducted by Barbara Braun in 1983, and a video recording of Nevelson's 1958 exhibition installation at Grand Central Moderns gallery.
Donated 1966-1979 by Louise Nevelson and in 2017 by the Farnsworth Art Museum, via Michael Komanecky, Chief Curator. The Farnsworth Art Museum received the materials from Nevelson and Nevelson's family.
The bulk of this collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website, with the exception of the 2017 addition. Use of material not digitized requires an appointment. Mike Nevelson letters are sealed.
The Louise Nevelson papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.
Sculptors -- New York (State) -- New York -- Interviews  Search this
Works of art  Search this
Sculpture -- Exhibitions  Search this
Sculpture, Modern -- 20th century -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Women sculptors -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Louise Nevelson papers, circa 1903-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
See more items in:
Louise Nevelson papers
Archival Repository:
Archives of American Art