July 17, 1989 12:00 PM

When Diana MacKown graduated from Yale in 1960, she did not plan to devote her life to an eccentric woman sculptor three times her age. She was 20, passionate about art and determined to make her name as a painter or photographer. And when a friend invited her to play poker with Louise Nevelson, she hoped for no more than a pleasant evening with a world-famous artist whose work she revered. But an ardent friendship developed, and with months Mackown moved into Nevelson’s cavernous studio-cum-home in downtown Manhattan near the seedy Bowery district. There she remained for more than a quarter of a century, serving as assistant, archivist, driver and, finally, nurse to the doyenne of American sculpture.

She still resides in the Nevelson home, but now, 15 months after the artist’s death at the age of 88, MacKown’s existence is no longer the joyous routine it once was. She is confined to two sparsely furnished rooms of the three buildings Nevelson used as work space and residence. The air smells faintly of urine; the cramped quarters aren’t room enough for the dog and three cats that used to have the run of the whole place.

A yellowing eviction notice hangs on the door—one of many she has been served in the past three months. The studio, once crowded with Nevelson’s massive, rough-hewn wood and metal sculptures, is nearly empty: Dozens of works MacKown claims to own have been carted away.

MacKown’s woes are all part of a battle between her and Myron (who prefers the nickname Mike) Nevelson, 67, the artist’s only child and legal heir. At the heart of the dispute is a collection of 47 sculptures and paintings, valued at some $5 million, that Nevelson gave to MacKown by written agreement in 1985—a decade after signing a will that left her entire $1.8 million estate to her son. The will did not include any of the $100 million worth of Nevelson works owned by Sculptotek, the corporation that Mike, a Connecticut artist, helped form in 1976 to manage his mother’s business affairs. Now Mike has seized most of the disputed pieces, asserting that they too belong to Sculptotek.

It is a conflict that has outraged many prominent artists—including Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Edward Albee—who have sided with MacKown. Emboldened by their support, MacKown is preparing to sue Nevelson to recover the works and win additional compensation for her years of service to his mother. “I really don’t want to antagonize Mike. After all, he is Louise’s son, right or wrong,” says MacKown, sitting wearily in front of the only fan in her stiffing apartment. “But I was her closest friend and should have been acknowledged as such.”

The daughter of two music professors, MacKown was raised in Rochester, N.Y. She says money was not her main concern when she became Nevelson’s assistant. “I moved in with Louise because she didn’t like to live alone. She told me there were times she was so lonely, she would have been glad to see a rat scurry across the floor.” A woman of preternatural energy, Nevelson worked constantly. After a long day of hoisting and nailing, MacKown would often drive the sculptor around the city in “Black Beauty,” a rattling 1976 Ford station wagon, looking for cast-off dowels, crates and table legs that Nevelson would make use of in environmental sculptures—huge walls of enclosed boxes painted black, white or gold.

Many members of the New York art community contend that MacKown’s unflagging devotion enabled Nevelson to keep working well into her 80s. “Louise needed somebody to make her insights physical,” says Henry Geldzahler, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Diana was that person.”

Her supporters say MacKown’s sacrifices were ill-rewarded. In 1976 Sculptotek began paying MacKown. By 1988 her salary reached $250 a week, which she now says was not enough for a job that included nursing Nevelson for the last months of her life. “But I would do it all over again,” says MacKown tearfully. “Louise enriched my life.”

It was just two days after his mother’s death that Mike ordered the installation of a metal door blocking the entrance to the third floor of her studio and ordered MacKown to move to two rooms on the floor below. Another entire building was locked up, as was the empty garage, forcing MacKown to rent space in a nearby parking lot for Black Beauty. After instructing her to remove her personal belongings, Mike began to haul away the sculptures MacKown believed were hers. “He took everything except my clothes,” she says. “It was so shocking, I didn’t know what to do. I guess I was hoping the problem would go away.”

Nevelson is not interested in defending his actions, nor does he wish his lawyer to speak on his behalf. “Every time he talks for me, he charges his hourly rate, and I don’t want that. I’m a very thrifty person,” he says, adding only that MacKown’s eviction is necessary because the studio must be sold to pay the taxes on his mother’s estate. “I’ve done the right thing all along. There’s nothing to give me a sleepless night.”

MacKown says she is baffled by Nevelson’s bequest to Mike, who reportedly had a strained relationship with his mother over the years. But MacKown’s lawyer, C. Leonard Gordon, suggests that Nevelson may have sought to make amends for neglecting Mike. After separating from shipping magnate Charles Nevelson, she left her 9-year-old son to be raised by relatives while she pursued her art. As the sculptor said in Dawns + Dusks, the 1976 autobiography assembled by MacKown, “People should think a million times before they give birth. The guilts of motherhood were the worst guilts in the world for me.” Gordon also believes a rift between mother and son may account for what he sees as Mike’s attempt to thwart Louise’s wishes to provide for MacKown. “Mike has acted very angrily,” he says. “When he cleared out the house, he swept out everything.”

Since Sculptotek cut off her salary several months ago, MacKown has been struggling to get by; she has sold some of her remaining Nevelson works, and for a time she earned money driving people to Kennedy airport in Black Beauty but quit when she found she could not afford insurance. Still, MacKown claims she is not bitter. She has spoken up about her plight, she says, “because there’s a history of people who have given a great deal of their lives to creative people, and this will focus attention on their cases too.” As she prepares for possible eviction from her home—which she hoped would someday become a Louise Nevelson museum—she finds that it means less to her than it once did. “Louise bought this place because it was the only one she could find that was empty—she didn’t want to throw anyone out,” says MacKown. “When she was here, the place was magical. Now it’s just three funny buildings.”

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