The Triumph of Louise Nevelson


The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury in the Colby Museum’s Jetté Galleries expands our understanding and appreciation of an icon of 20th-century art

Visitors explore the art of Louise Nevelson at the Colby College Museum of Art.
By Carl LittlePhotography by Gabe Souza
April 10, 2024

There should be trumpets: The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury stands among the most ambitious exhibitions of the Ukrainian-born artist’s work ever assembled. In blockbuster fashion, the show offers a comprehensive consideration of the world-renowned sculptor’s work from a period of her career when she attained the heights of the art world. 

Nevelson (1899-1988) was forthright, no-nonsense, and determined in her life and art. From her early years in Pereiaslav, Ukraine, and Rockland, Maine, to a place in the pantheon of the most formidable 20th-century artists, she lived an out-of-the-ordinary life.

Highlights of Nevelson’s life in art would include classes at the Art Students League in New York City; working with Diego Rivera on his controversial Man at the Crossroads mural in Rockefeller Center; teaching art as part of the Works Progress Administration; studying printmaking at Stanley William Hayter’s renowned Atelier 17; and playing leadership roles in a number of progressive artist organizations.

She also explored modern dance as a follower of Martha Graham and delved into pre-Colombian art. In the 1970s and ’80s, exhibitions of her work were mounted around the world. She received numerous honorary degrees, including one from Colby in 1975, and awards, notably the National Medal of Art.

World-renowned sculptor Louise Nevelson often used found wood to create her monumental works.

The Colby Museum exhibition touches on all aspects of Nevelson’s oeuvre, from early paintings and drawings to her monumental sculptures. Front and center are her signature free-standing and wall works made from shards and scraps of found wood: boards, moldings, finials, and the like. As she once noted, “I don’t think you can touch a thing that cannot be rehabilitated into another life,” a belief she reiterated in her autobiography Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown (1976): “I feel that what people call by the word scavenger is really a resurrection.” 

With a brilliant sense of composition, Nevelson arranged the shapes into powerful interlocking assemblages. The large-scale Rain Forest Wall, 1967, which was featured in her first retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967, exemplifies her ability to transform leftover/discarded pieces of wood into brilliant configurations. Painted black, this piece, borrowed from a Belgian museum, brings to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.   

Nevelson loved black. As she once observed, she believed black contained all color: “It wasn’t the negation of color. It was an acceptance.” She called black “the most aristocratic color of all” and felt there was no other hue that would give one a feeling “of totality. Of peace, Of greatness, Of quietness. Of excitement.” 

Louise Nevelson, Night Landscape, 1955. Wood painted black, 35 1/2 x 38 1/2 x 15 in. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Glimcher, 85.8. ©2024 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Highlights of the show include a number of non-sculptural works. There’s a haunting self-portrait from around 1935. Graphite drawings and other works relate to dancing, which Nevelson once said “frees your mind and opens it to sculptural possibilities.” Her printmaking prowess is represented in a number of etchings and a group of striking abstract lithographs created at the famous Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1967.

While black predominates, Nevelson turned to other colors on occasion. Dawn’s Wedding Chapel II, 1959, and its related columns are painted white, serving, in the artist’s words, as “a kind of wish fulfillment, a transition to marriage with the world.” Several works, including the stunningly complex Royal Tide I, 1960, get the Goldfinger treatment. 

As Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the museum, noted in a webinar, the Nevelson works arrived on Mayflower Hill in four tractor-trailers from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where the exhibition originated. The list of the 30-plus lenders is remarkable, ranging from the Farnsworth Art Museum, which holds a substantial body of Nevelson’s work, to the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney, and several European collections. 

Visitors will quickly see why such transportation was necessary: many of Nevelson’s sculptural works are monumental. They turn the recently revamped Edith and Ellerton Jetté Galleries into the kind of “environment” the artist sought to create in some of her early installations.

Louise Nevelson, Rain Forest Wall, 1967. Wood, paint, and mirror glass, 83 7/8 x 122 x 10 5/8 in. Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. ©2024 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The setting is most fitting: a group of sculptures, drawings, and paintings Nevelson donated to the Colby College Museum in 1973 appeared in the inaugural exhibition of these same galleries. That gift to the museum was part of her plan to strengthen ties to Maine where she had spent her formative years. While not as blunt as Lewiston-born painter Marsden Hartley’s campaign to become known as “the painter from Maine” in the late 1930s, her efforts to connect solidified her standing as one of the state’s most celebrated artists—and laid the groundwork for a number of future exhibitions, including the present one.

Before entering the exhibition, museum goers are greeted by a kind of overture: six pieces that provide context for Nevelson’s life in Maine. Willard Cummings’s full-length portrait of Bette Davis, for example, evokes the Colby College commencement ceremony in 1975 at which the famed actress and famed artist sat side by side to receive honorary degrees. 

The painting also connects Nevelson to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Cummings, one of the prestigious summer art school’s founders, presented her with its inaugural medal for sculpture in 1971. 

Other pieces in the William D. Adams Gallery, including two wall works by Bernard Langlais (1921-1977) and paintings by David Driskell (1931-2020), Robert Indiana (1928-2018), Lois Dodd, and Alex Katz, provide further connections to Skowhegan—and Colby. A photograph of Nevelson and Indiana captures the two art stars engaged in conversation at the opening of the Jetté Galleries in September 1973.

The accompanying hardcover catalog provides a wealth of interpretation from art historians, curators, a dancer, and the artist’s granddaughter Maria Nevelson, who offers reflections on her eminent ancestor’s “path of self-discovery.” The organizers also asked several contemporary artists who work in a related aesthetic to share their thoughts about Nevelson’s work and its influence on their own. 

The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury, an exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art, is among the most ambitious exhibitions of the Ukrainian-born artist’s work ever assembled.

The volume is an exceptional addition to the literature on this singular artist, breaking new ground, for example, on the influence on her work of the colonial architecture and furniture she grew up with in Rockland. The authors also revisit the critical reception she received in her lifetime. Describing the artist’s “fabled world,” art critic Dore Ashton wondered at how Nevelson spun tales of “the wonderful … that strive toward a mythos.” 

Elizabeth Finch, the museum’s head curator, delves into the circumstances of Nevelson’s return to Maine in the 1970s. The artist had qualms about going back to a culture that had largely shunned her as a child. “Being Jewish and coming from Maine was no picnic,” she stated in an ARTnews article in October 1974.  

The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury provides plentiful evidence of the wisdom of this remarkable—and uncommon—artist’s outlook. From humble beginnings, she made a way for herself that speaks to her extraordinary spirit and determination. Innovative, radical, and arresting, Nevelson continues to rock our world.