It’s been goddamned tough,” says sculptor Louise Nevelson about her 25-year struggle for recognition in the cliquey world of art. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
But if the fight was hard, the victory, at least, is total. At 74 Nevelson is acknowledged as the high priestess of American sculpture. This month she is exhibiting in both France and Texas. Throughout the tour, 170 of her works will be shown in five European countries and six American cities in what has been called the biggest two-continent traveling exhibition of any American woman artist.
Regarded by many critics as the originator of environmental sculpture, Nevelson’s works today sell from $3,000 to well over $100,000, depending upon size. She is exhibited in all the major art centers of Europe and is still prolifically producing works at an age when many artists are thinking about their memoirs. But what Nevelson paid for her fame, she knows, will never be refunded in full.
In 1931 she boldly left her husband and comfortable upper-middle-class life, put her small son in boarding school and went to Germany to study art. That same year she returned, but not to her husband. Ahead of her were years of lonely obscurity, with only a small income from her parents to sustain her. “I don’t think I realized the price that would be demanded,” she admits. “But, with all the hardship, I never doubted for a minute that it was the right life for me.”
Today she and her 52-year-old son Myron, also a sculptor, are very close. “I adore him as a human being,” she says. Myron is married with four daughters, one of whom has a daughter of her own.
“I think this business of motherhood, grandmotherhood and great grand-motherhood is great,” Nevelson says. “But I think it is for the birds too. I mean the guilt, the guilt. Of course some people don’t have children and they feel guilty. You’re going to feel guilty anyway, so do it on your own terms.”
Blessed with an aristocratic self-confidence, Nevelson’s life has always been her own creation. “I take credit for everything that has happened,” she boasts. “I demanded it of life.”
Since lifting herself onto the altar of art, she has charmed—and sometimes shocked—the rich and the famous with her flamboyant dress, outspoken honesty and uninhibited warmth.
“I always thought, bluntly, that I was a glamorous, goddamned exciting woman,” she says, breaking into an earthy laugh. “I love to drink and love men. I want to have a ball on earth.” Nevelson’s world, however, was often anything but gay, particularly during those bleak early years. “All my life,” she says, “I wanted to cut my throat.” Ironically it was only after she had gained recognition that she flirted seriously with suicide. A legal suit against a prestigious New York gallery forced her to sell her house in the early 1960s—a financial crisis that depressed her terribly. Luckily, a brief visit to California—where she worked furiously on lithographs—brought her out of it.
Today Nevelson is as involved in her art as when she began. She gets up each morning at six and often forgets to brush her teeth in her eagerness to begin work, which she continues until she’s ready to sleep again. She lives and works in a five-story former sanatorium in New York’s Little Italy. “She’s La Signora of the neighborhood,” says Nevelson’s assistant of nine years, Diana MacKown.
Next to art, Nevelson seems to love dressing up. “It’s a circus,” she says, “if I’m out, it’s a circus.” She stood up and, while unbuttoning her blouse, said, “Look, dear, I’m going to show you something. Look, I haven’t got a blemish on my body, not even a wart…but the point is I don’t like to show the body. I like architectural clothes—Edwardian things, things that are built starchy.”