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The Lasting Impact of Louise Nevelson's Environmental Art
A closer look 19 Apr 2022

The Lasting Impact of Louise Nevelson's Environmental Art

louise nevelson atmosphere and environment
Louise Nevelson, Atmosphere and Environment XVIII, 1973. Credits: Scottsdale Public Art

Louise Nevelson was one of the most recognized artists of the 20th century. Still today, her works are omnipresent and Nevelson remains at the center of discussions. One of the reasons for this is that a majority of her sculptures were made to be exhibited outdoors. These works, named “environmental sculptures”, are usually wood or metal panels with abstract shapes. Artsper tells you more about these iconic sculptures and their impact, more than thirty years after the artist’s passing.

Atmosphere and environnement

louise nevelson atmosphere and environment
Louise Nevelson, Model for Atmosphere and Environment, 1966. Credits: MoMA

Louise Nevelson’s environmental art only started at a mature stage of her career, in the 50s. The series Atmosphere and Environment is constituted of several imposing sculptures, generally placed in gardens. The first thing one notices about these outdoor sculptures is their color. Like all of Nevelson’s sculptures, they are monochrome. The majority of her sculptures are black, but some are also gold, white or grey. Nevelson’s environmental sculptures are thus directly remarkable.

Despite their color, the panels curiously adapt to their environment, as the artist aimed for. Indeed, her sculptures are composed of different holes and shapes, letting natural light go through and play with these abstract shapes. As a result, although the sculptures are massive and very heavy, they create a feeling of lightness. These environmental sculptures give an impression of being Cubist compositions incorporating their landscape.

Louise Nevelson’s varied inspirations

louise nevelson transparent horizon
Louise Nevelson, Maquette for Transparent Horizon, 1972-73. Credits: 2018 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society

So where did Louise Nevelson find her inspiration? One notes that the majority of Louise Nevelson’s works are composed of debris; she would find them on the street, and rework them to create unusual shapes. Many of her works exhibited in museums are visibly made from quirky objects, but for her environmental sculptures, it is only their shape that she used as inspiration. By assembling them, she was able to create interesting shapes for her walls which, due to their monochrome aspect, seem to harmoniously fit together. She explains: “When you put things together, things that other people have thrown out, you’re really bringing them to life – a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created“.

Nevelson’s panels have often been compared to stage sets. Indeed, Nevelson first started her career with acting studies, before going towards visual art. Just like a stage set, this type of sculpture presents us with a particular environment, or shows us a way to observe it differently. Finally, in the late 1950s, Louise Nevelson traveled to Guatemala and Colombia, where she was inspired by what is called “pre-Columbian arts”. It was actually the artist Diego Riviera who taught her more about it. Her admiration for these arts, but also for Byzantine, Russian, African and Cubist art led Nevelson to dedicate herself to her sculptures.

The Louise Nevelson Chapel, an immersive experience in the artist’s creativity

louise nevelson chapel
Louise Nevelson Chapel, 1977. Credits: Saint Peter’s Church

It’s in the heart of Manhattan, in Saint Peter’s Church, that one can find the Nevelson Chapel. This small room is an immersion in the shapes and shadows which make up the artist’s work. If her outdoor sculptures are merely accessorizing the environment, Nevelson’s art in her chapel constitutes its own environment. It is the only place in which the artist was able to experiment with another type of environmental art, and create an entire place where art completely creates the room’s atmosphere.

This meditation place is also interesting given Nevelson’s Jewish roots. Indeed, the artist, born in Kyiv, only immigrated to the United States during her childhood. As a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union, this chapel is an incredible testament to the artist’s impact. Her work actually had the most impact on New York City, where she lived most of her life. The Louise Nevelson Plaza is another timeless memory of her influence on New York’s landscape.

Environmental art and contemporary challenges

louise nevelson studio
Louis Nevelson in her studio. Credits: Cardi Gallery

It might be because Louise Nevelson was inspired by so many different movements that her art is still revisited and discussed. By blurring the boundaries between the external world and individual sculpture, Nevelson opened the way for new generations of artists; and, particularly, women artists. Indeed, it was rare to see monumental sculptures made by women and, moreover, exhibited in public. In the 1960s and the 1970s, such imposing sculptures could only have been the work of a man. Now studied in the context of feminist art history, Nevelson’s assemblage inspired generations of artists to be provoking in where they find inspiration, and in their shapes and colors.

As an example, in 208, the exhibition A Dark Place of Dreams was focused on the impact of Louise Nevelson’s work, by putting forward three women artists who found were inspired by her compositions. Her monochrome work was presented beside contemporary artists Chakaia Booker, Lauren Fensterstock, and Kate Gilmore. Thus, the art world still celebrates the lasting impact that Nevelson had on future generations of contemporary sculptors.

The legacy left by Louise Nevelson

In conclusion, Louise Nevelson’s art is forever marked in the landscape. Her impact is even more impressive since she started her career at a difficult time for women artists. It was abstract expressionism, a historically masculine movement, that largely dominated. The world of Louise Nevelson is now rooted not only through her Atmosphere and Environment series, but also through her own chapel, and her own plaza. These places invite us, more than thirty years after the end of her career, to ask questions about the place of art in our environment. Finally, Nevelson proves that women artists must never deny themselves a specific format or color.