The Woman Who Turned Boxes Filled With Junk Into Great Art


A bunch of scavenged old boards nailed together unevenly, and painted black. It might not sound like much, but that’s the revolutionary artwork of sculptor Louise Nevelson, who emigrated to America from Russia as a child. Nevelson grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, and went on to become one of the most unorthodox artists of her time, exploring Cubism, Surrealism, and eventually earning a reputation as a groundbreaking modernist.

Friends described Nevelson (who was born Leah Berliawsky in 1899) as a “hard-drinking, hard-working woman,” and Nevelson herself once said, “The only reality that I recognize is my reality, the work.” Her devotion to her art cost her a marriage, but it led her to great professional success. By the time she died in 1988 she had works in the Israel Museum, MoMAThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many others.

Nevelson’s art was generally made up of scrap lumber—an homage to her father, a woodcutter and junk collector—and she tended to paint whole sculptures one color. At one point she actually kept two separate studios, one for the creation of black sculptures and the other for white works. Whatever the color, Nevelson’s work is challenging, strident, and spectacularly innovative.


Watch an excerpt from a documentary about Nevelson:

Recommended from JTA