LOUISE NEVELSON: “I think most artists create out of despair.”

“But when I fell in love with black, it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all.…. You can be quiet and it contains the whole thing. There is no color that will give you the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement. I have seen things that were transformed into black, that took on just greatness. I don’t know a lesser word.” — Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky on September 23, 1899, in Pereiaslav, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. She and her family emigrated to Rockland, Maine, in 1905, and it was there that Louise first professed that she would grow up to be an artist.

“I want to be a sculptor, I don’t want color to help me,” said Nevelson. The shock of her realization and verbalization frightened Nevelson so immensely that she ran home crying, “How did I know that when I never thought of it before in my life?”

Untitled (Moon Goddess,) signed and dated, 1951, cast concrete

“From earliest, earliest childhood I knew I was going to be an artist. I felt like an artist. You feel it—just like you feel you’re a singer if you have a voice. So I have that blessing, and there was never a time that I questioned it or doubted it.” Yet Nevelson was recorded saying, “I don’t say life was easy. For forty years, I wanted to jump out of windows. But I did feel I had the strength and creative ability. There was never any doubt about that. No one could move me till I got what I wanted – on my terms, on earth. And I do. And it did take, maybe not the greatest mind, but it did take courage. And it did take despair. And the hardship gave me total freedom.”

Nevelson gained much of her recognition through her numerous exhibitions worldwide. Her rise to fame was driven by Arne Glimcher’s opening of Pace Gallery in Boston, which shortly thereafter moved to New York. Her earlier dealers included Nierendorf Gallery and Martha Jackson Gallery, both of whom were hugely influential in establishing Modern Art in America.

Dancer, c1945, cast tattistone

Throughout her life, Nevelson embodied and emblazoned the moniker “tortured artist.” In the 1960s, recent Yale graduate Diana MacKown met Nevelson at a poker game.  This meeting led to MacKown becoming the artist’s studio assistant, archivist, photographer, scheduler and general life facilitator. As Nevelson’s fame increased, the world could only approach Nevelson via Diana.  Diana metaphorically guarded the door to the Spring Street home/studio. This allowed Nevelson to be her most productive and not get enmeshed in the intrigues and emotional swings of the art world.

An ardent feminist, Nevelson nevertheless proclaimed, “I’m not a feminist. I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.” For decades, Nevelson vehemently fought the patriarchy and her male peers, not wanting to be known for her gender but for her pure talent. As a major internationally recognized American artist, Nevelson just happened to be a woman. Ever fiercely flamboyant, she was influenced heavily by the sense of fashion and beauty that her mother demonstrated despite a constant battle with depression and illness. Nevelson’s keen compositional eye often lead her to design and construct her own clothes and jewelry, which of course enhanced her larger-than-life personality. On fashion and design, Nevelson was quoted saying, “You make a whole great picture because you want to enhance that one thing.”

In this exhibition we feature several assembled necklaces for the 1984 Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Gluck’s Orfeo. Nevelson created all the set designs, costumes and jewelry for each cast member.

Necklace, designed and created for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Orfeo ed Euridice, 1983. Beer can and fishing floats with black paint and gold leaf.

Due to Nevelson’s involvement, the production of Orfeo ed Euridice was reviewed by the New York Times, a first for a St. Louis performance. In the exhibition there will also be photographs of Nevelson created by the leading photographers of the time and given to Nevelson. These include Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Dan Budnik, and DENA amongst others. These photographs are all from the collection of Nevelson which was gifted to MacKown.

Nevelson coined herself “the original recycler”—a scavenger—and one can trace parallels to and inspiration from Marcel Duchamp’s found object sculptures in the work of her own early career. Working most comfortably in reclaimed wood, we can extrapolate that Nevelson felt a kinship to the raw materials. “My theory is that when we come on this earth, many of us are ready-made. Some of us—most of us—have genes that are ready for certain performances. Nature gives you these gifts. Picasso was drawing like an angel in the crib. You’re born with it.” Coincidentally, Nevelson never felt the ominous weight of work. She never felt as though she was working, but rather creating and giving expression to varying elements.


“I always wanted to show the world that art is everywhere, except it has to pass through a creative mind.”

This exhibition will be open to the public throughout the month of July and will feature numerous creations by Nevelson that were given to her longtime studio assistant, Diana MacKown, along with works from the collection of Arthur Brandt. These works run from the 1930s through Nevelson’s death in the late 1980s, showing the entire course of her life’s creativity. Tregoning & Co. is open from noon until 5:00pm daily, Monday through Saturday; Thursday evening until 8:00, and Sunday by appointment.


“I never for one minute questioned what I had to do. I did not think for one minute that I didn’t have what I had. It just didn’t dawn on me. And so if you know what you have, then you know that there’s nobody on earth that can affect you.”

All of the above quotes are from Dawns + Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown, by Louise Nevelson and Diana MacKown, 1976.



Concurrent with FRONT and the CAN Triennial




Thomas French Fine Art at Tregoning & Co

1300 West 78th Street

Cleveland, Ohio 44102