Bringing Art Home: Louise Nevelson Shadow Boxes


It’s funny that Louise Nevelson’s wooden sculptures resemble jigsaw puzzles because as an artist, she doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. She is the rare kind of artist that has been both canonized and minimized by the art world — her works are held in some of the world’s most prestigious art collections, but her name is rarely uttered in art history textbooks and introductory lectures. Part of this might have to do with the art establishment’s unfortunate bias toward male artists, but Nevelson’s greatly underestimated importance seems much more related to her work’s sheer inability to be defined. Though creative forces in their own right, artists like Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol fit more or less securely into the larger narrative of art history, and their work is emblematic of the cultural zeitgeists of their time. Nevelson, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal, with enigmatic three-dimensional works that defy all the standard -isms. While her works certainly nod to predecessors and contemporaries like Picasso and Duchamp, they appear to have no stylistic allegiance. Even when paired with other artists’ works, as happened at MoMA’s recent Abstract Expressionist retrospective, Louise Nevelson’s work stands out, not quite sure where to fit in but utterly captivating.


Above Image: Sky Cathedral, 1958. Wood, painted black. From the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

Born in the Ukraine in 1899 and raised in Maine, Louise Nevelson displayed a zealous interest in art from a very young age. In its 1988 obituary for Nevelson, the New York Times wrote, “A feeling for wood had been bred into her, and by the time she was 6 she was already working with small pieces of wood that she had scavenged from her father’s lumber yard. She told friends in later years that in school she was always cold and only found warmth when she was in art class.”

As a young woman, Nevelson studied art at New York’s Art Students League and the artist Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich. A wildly creative individual, Nevelson entertained various artistic pursuits during her young adult life, ranging from modern dance to painting, but her original predilection toward tactile, three-dimensional work stayed with her throughout her career. In the 1930s, she returned to her first love: sculpture. In the 1940s and 1950s, Nevelson’s work matured into what she is most well known for: large-scale mural-like sculptures composed of wooden boxes filled with all manner of bric-a-brac. Although many of Nevelson’s works are composed from seemingly random scraps of wood and leftover architectural elements, she has skillfully created a unified whole through cohesive, monochromatic color schemes. One of her famous wall pieces might be constructed from bits of old chairs, scrap wood, salvaged railings and rusted gears, but all of these disparate pieces have been abstracted into a unity of form through a coat of paint. In the end, that seems to be what Nevelson’s pieces are about: a celebration of formal beauty and the simple elements that created it.


Above Image: Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–1977. Painted wood, mirror. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although Nevelson blazed the trail with these newfangled assemblages, her work is quite simple at its core: It’s a collection of objects, arranged beautifully and painted a single, unifying color. Because of this, numerous artists, professional and amateur alike, have adopted similar aesthetics. So, too, have countless art teachers. I can still clearly recall when I was taught to make Nevelson-esque miniatures in my elementary school art class. As educational devices, the lessons provided by Louise Nevelson’s work can be quite illuminating. They illustrate the power and simplicity of materials, no matter how humble, to create something beautiful.

To celebrate this wonderful (and oftentimes unappreciated) artist, we decided to put together a wonderfully simple Nevelson-inspired DIY sculpture of our own. Perhaps you, too, will be inspired to make one of your own! For full instructions, continue after the jump! — Max


Above Image: Sky Cathedral, 1982. Painted wood. From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Materials

  • small wooden or cardboard box
  • hot glue gun
  • black spray paint
  • spray primer (if you’re using plastic or glossy items that are more difficult to spray paint)
  • an assortment of objects (Objects should be no larger than the size of your box. We chose a collection of items from our local dollar store, but this is also a wonderful opportunity to recycle old, unused objects or to have some fun dumpster diving!)

 


Directions

1. This really couldn’t be simpler: glue your objects, however you see fit, into your box using your hot glue gun. The more space you use and the more dynamic your composition, the better!

2. Spray paint it! You might need to apply a few coats to get everything covered. If you’re painting over shiny metals, plastics or any other material that doesn’t readily accept spray paint, you might want to coat your piece with a spray primer before applying your final spray paint color. Take your time with the spraying, and be sure to get deep inside all the nooks and crannies of your piece!

3. Pop a string on the back of your box and hang it on the wall! Presto — your own handmade Nevelson art!

Alexis

Neat!

More time consuming but it might be worth spraypainting everything first and then assembling, that way you can be sure you’ve got everything evenly coated and you won’t get buildup in corners.

Elisabeth

I LOOOVE Nevelson! We have a beautiful piece at our Art Museum in Cincinnati.
Thank you for sharing!

homeMADEhome

As an art student almost 25 yrs. ago I was lucky enough to meet L.N. and also be in Louise Bourgeois’
Home (for a lecture)…BOTH women told us they didn’t think about being “women artists” in a male dominated artworld. They only thought about the work process. One of the best things I learned in my whole art school experience. AND Louise Nevelson wore false eyelashes made out of copper filament. She was to this day thee coolest artist I ever met

Sheila

We had to this exact project in high school! When we all turned it in, there was a whole room full of Nevelson inspired artwork in various colors. Composing objects together was not as easy as I thought it would be. Maybe I need a re-do with my older self.

Sarah

I always loved her piece at the Montreal museum of Fine Arts. I am really excited to try this and have something similar for my own space. Funny that I have not bought of this before. Thank you for the continuous inspiration.

Arlene

I have taught kids about Louise Nevelson, first graders through middle school. Little plastic toys, mesh, dog biscuits…they all look great when spray painted block or white. The only materials I would suggest avoiding are most yarns and fabrics. They can absorb the paint and the color keeps coming through.

ally

Hers are so breathtaking. it’s like life… combine all the small things to see the big picture

fran pelzman liscio

What a fantastic idea. And you are so right about the spray primer. I used to get a wonderful spray primer at the local superhero/anime/model painting store that my children used to frequent. It gave all my projects a nice even surface for all kinds of paints. I recommend it.

shashinyc

Wonderful writing…thanks, Max. And thanks, Jennifer, for the mention of Rosalie Gascoigne, whom I did not know. Looked her up and, wow! Thanks, of course, to DS for presenting such rich material.

Carell

I just did a lesson about LN with my preschoolers. They learned about what a sculpture is and creating art with recycled items…they loved it

Amy

Thank you! I have always been a fan of Ms.Nevelson. Still have an unused sheet of the USPS stamps that were issued celebrating her. Just couldn’t get myself to break up the coolness.

Once again you have surprised me with awesomeness!

Jessica

Beautiful…I thought the “before” was also great, maybe for a kids room or art project.

Leslie

What a great idea for all those tiny objects I just cannot bring myself to drop into the “donation” box.

Aidel.K

Such a fun post. I remember waaay back in the day, David Letterman had a daytime TV program. Anyone else old enough to remember?! And once he interviewed Louise Nevelson. He was obviously in awe of her. It was a rare television moment. I, too, have done similar projects with art students, but @Don Masse–that is epic! What a lucky few classes you have.

Julie - ArtJulz

Very cool! Thank you for the great directions and illustrations! We used your page in our power point to help guide my 5th graders! They are loving the project! Thanks for sharing!
julie

Helen Efimova,OCT

My children did it! They have been working for a month to bring various pieces together to create a unique whole. I feel proud of my elementary students who took the idea of Louise Nevelson seriously and with much joy. I would like to post some projects in order to share the works.

Avarni

Is this based on a certain piece by Nevelson, or is it just based on her overall work? If it is, what is the piece called?

Mei

What a great project! I’m a dedicated reader-but hadn’t seen this until tonight. I’m going to try it out with my 8th grade art class tomorrow!

Jo Pflanz

Does anyone know the name, color etc of the black paint used in her pieces like “Sky Cathedral” pictured above? The collector I work for wants to me have a base made that matches the piece as closely as possible.

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