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Artists Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson

American Sculptor

Movement: Feminist Art

Born: September 23, 1899 - Kiev, Russian Empire

Died: April 17, 1988 - New York, New York

Synopsis

Louise Nevelson emerged in the art world amidst the dominance of the Abstract Expressionist movement. In her most iconic works, she utilized wooden objects that she gathered from urban debris piles to create her monumental installations - a process clearly influenced by the precedent of Marcel Duchamp's found object sculptures and "readymades." Nevelson carefully arranged the objects in order to historicize the debris within the new, narrative context of her wall sculptures. The stories embodied within her works resulted from her cumulative experiences - as a Jewish child relocated to America from Russia, as an artist training in New York City and Germany, and as a hard-working, successful woman. Her innovative sculptural environments and success within the male-dominated realm of the New York gallery system inspired many younger artists, primarily those involved in installation art and the Feminist art movements.

Key Ideas

Although Nevelson's artistic subject matter included her personal feelings about an uprooted childhood, clashing cultures, and nature's divinity, the common thread of feminine biography dominated her output.
Nevelson purposefully selected wooden objects for their evocative potential to call to mind the forms of the city, nature, and the celestial bodies. While the individual pieces had an intimate scale, they became monumental when viewed holistically within the combined environment of the assemblage.
Although Nevelson found her fame creating wooden structures, in the 1960s and 1970s she explored industrial materials like plexiglass, aluminum, and steel. These new materials allowed her to expand the scale and complexity of her works, while also moving the sculptures out of galleries and museums and into public spaces.
Nevelson's dramatic sculptures paved the way for the dialogues of the Feminist art movement of the 1970s by breaking the taboo that only men's artwork could be large-scale. Her works initiated an era in which women's life history became suitable subject matter for monumental artistic representation.

Most Important Art

Sky Cathedral (1958)
The larger than life-size Sky Cathedral is Nevelson's sculptural answer to the monumental Abstract Expressionist canvases of the predominantly male artists that commanded the attention of American art during the 1950s. To create this work, Nevelson salvaged small pieces of scrap wood from old buildings, then nailed and glued these pieces into box-like cubbies and arranged these into one of her earliest wall sculptures. While Sky Cathedral's rectangular, linear basis was informed by the innovations of the Cubists in the early twentieth century, Nevelson formally balanced these with the curving forms of spindles, finials, and architectural moldings, in order to more accurately reflect the enormity and diversity of existence in New York City - her adopted home. She purposely chose wooden forms that were evocative of both the celestial realm as well as the architecture of the urban environment around her. The various boxes that make up the structure also work to contain the seeming chaos of the assemblage. The individual elements join together in the monumental composition to comprise a work that reflects Nevelson's experience in the world, as well as her beliefs in spirituality. Although she was raised in the Jewish faith, she studied a wide variety of religions at different times in her life, each affecting her overall spirituality - the compartments of the sculpture reflect her collection of religions. She purposely painted the entire sculpture black to obliterate the past histories of the pieces and unify the work in the black "silhouette, or essence, of the universe." Black was not a negation for Nevelson, but rather everything, a totality, as it contained all of the colors. Accordingly, she felt the black paint provided her works with an air of greatness and regal enormity. Both the palette and scale of the piece radically shifted the notion of what kind of work a woman artist could create. Sky Cathedral was part of the series of exhibitions in 1958 that marked Nevelson's rise to notoriety.
Painted wood 11' 3 1/2" x 10' 1/4" x 18"s - Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Mildwoff
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Biography

Childhood

Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Russia (now Ukraine). In 1905, her family immigrated to Rockland, Maine, from Russia due to cultural strain between the Jewish community and the Tsarist Russians. Nevelson later recalled knowing that she would be an artist from the age of nine, having been drawn to the field after observing a plaster cast of a statue of Joan of Arc at the Rockland Public Library. She dreamed of escaping to New York to study art while she was still a high school student, and took a job as a stenographer while she continued her studies. Through her job, she met Bernard and Charles Nevelson. Louise married Charles in 1920, and the couple moved to New York City soon after.

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Early Training

Louise Nevelson Biography

In 1922, Louise Nevelson had a son, Myron (later called Mike), but she also sought to hone her artistic calling. From 1928 through 1930, she studied at the Art Students League in New York, but the Nevelson family discouraged her studies. In 1931, she separated from her husband and left her son with Charles, so that she could travel to Munich to study under Hans Hofmann at his School for Modern Art. Her decision to focus on her career instead of motherhood was a crucial one, and informed many of her later sculptural installations. Also in 1931, Nevelson worked as a film extra in Vienna and Berlin. In 1932, when Hofmann immigrated to America to escape the political tension in Germany, she returned to New York.

In New York, Nevelson re-enrolled at the Art Students League, and worked with George Grosz. While at the League, she studied painting, modern dance, and sculpture. She also studied with the legendary teacher Hans Hofmann and the sculptor Chaim Gross. During this time, Nevelson met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and assisted the legendary muralist with his paintings for the New Workers' School. During the mid to late 1930s, Nevelson also worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), though the Federal Art Project that also employed Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Arshile Gorky, among many other artists.

Mature Period

Nevelson first gained attention for her sculpture in the early 1940s, and her works were all found object pieces of varying materials. However, her earliest works were often written off as those of a woman artist, which was akin to a four-letter word at that time. One critic wrote, "We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm...otherwise we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns." During the 1940s, she was aware of, but absent from, most of the contemporary artists' groups, including The Club. In an interview, she credited her outsider status to the fact that she did not fit with museum curators' and critics' preconceived notions of how an artist should be - specifically that she was not old, ugly, or male and thus could not be totally dedicated to her art.

Louise Nevelson Photo

Despite her lack of initial critical success, she remained committed to her art and her sculptures grew in size finally evolving into the large-scale walls in the 1950s. Her favored material of cast-off scrap wood was a radical departure from the endeavors of her male counterparts, like Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder, who worked in traditional materials like metal and marble. Despite their unconventional materials, Nevelson's works established her reputation for sculptural bravado. In 1958, Hilton Kramer declared her exhibitions "remarkable and unforgettable." The following year, Nevelson's installation work Dawn's Wedding Feast (1959) was exhibited in the group show 16 Americans at the MoMA, alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Dawn's Wedding Feast addressed a common theme in her mature oeuvre, marriage, and Nevelson mentioned it was indicative of her "transition to a marriage with the world. "Through exhibitions at the lucrative Martha Jackson Gallery, Nevelson met her future dealer, Arnold Glimcher of Pace Gallery, which still represents her work. From the reputation she gained during the 1950s, she was invited to represent America in the 1962 Venice Biennale. Influenced by the Mayan ruins she encountered on her travels in Mexico and Central America during the 1940s and 1950s, her mature work reflects her interest in the spiritual communion with nature and the emotive relationship between the artistic environment and the viewer.

Outside of her three-dimensional artwork, Nevelson actively sought out artistic enrichment in her daily life, studying modern dance with Ellen Kearns from the 1930s through the 1950s. She also took voice lessons, studied acting, and was active in many artists' organizations like Artists Equity, the National Association of Women Artists, the Sculptors Guild, and the American Abstract Artists. She often hosted meetings for these groups at her house and studio on East 30th Street in New York City. In 1958, she purchased the house at Spring Street, in Manhattan's Little Italy neighborhood, where she maintained a private personal life, but was known as "Mrs. N" by neighborhood children. Her closest confidantes were her friend, the playwright Edward Albee, and her assistant, driver, friend, and housemate, Diana MacKown. Just as she carefully constructed her sculptures, she also cultivated her extravagant personal style. In the late 1960s, she met fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, who dressed her from then on. Although Scaasi designed clothes for Nevelson, she was not content to let him determine her appearance. She added lush scarves, large pieces of eccentric jewelry, elaborate headdresses, and mink eyelashes on a daily basis. She confessed to MacKown that she didn't feel dressed without several pairs of eyelashes glued on, framing her deeply kohl-rimmed eyes. Nevelson carefully cultivated her personal appearance and viewed it as further extension of her intricate artwork.

Late Years and Death

Louise Nevelson Portrait

In 1967, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted her first museum retrospective and exhibited over 100 of her works spanning her entire oeuvre. Two years later, already in her 70s, she received her first commission for a monumental outdoor sculpture from Princeton University, which she fulfilled in 1971 when the Cor-Ten steel monumental screen, Atmosphere and Environment X, was installed on the university's campus. She continued to create public art throughout the 1970s, and she even translated her work into a 1975 design for St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. When asked about this commission and her religion, she noted that her abstract art transcended faiths. Her public sculptures translated her earlier private symbolism and narratives into a grand scale. Accordingly, she eschewed many of the individual themes from her earlier work like death, royalty, and marriage, in favor of broader narratives suited to each location, like urban life or American immigrant experience. Tied to her growing interest in the public realm, Nevelson donated her papers and documents to the Archives of American Art throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, providing a record of her life to the public in perpetuity. After decades of surrounding herself with a visual feast of objects in her own home, she also donated her extensive art collections and ornate furniture to friends and museums. While she kept her lavish wardrobe, she wanted to live in a clean slate and stated that she did not want one thing to impose itself on her or her work. Nevelson continued to create sculptures during the 1980s. She was also photographed by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, who documented her lavishly eccentric image.Upon her death in 1988, she left behind an oeuvre as flamboyant and varied as her persona.

Legacy

Nevelson's work is fundamental to the history of Feminist art, as it challenged the dominant stereotype of the macho, male sculptor. In Linda Nochlin's famous 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" she cited Nevelson as a major influence on the new generation of women struggling to redefine femininity in art. Women sculptors during the 1960s and 1970s, like Eva Hesse and Harmony Hammond, owed a clear debt to Nevelson's exploration of biography through abstract sculpture. Even painters like Joan Snyder, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro were able to create the abstract, feminine works that they did because of the groundbreaking work executed by Nevelson decades earlier. Outside of her influence on Feminist art, her sculpture also set aprecedent for the installation art of the late 1960s and 1970s, since she designed each element in an exhibition to function both as an integral part of the holistic installation and as an individual object. Contemporary artists, like Rachel Whiteread, were clearly informed by Nevelson's abstract installation-exhibitions that reimagined banal materials into monumental abstract sculptures.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Louise Nevelson
Interactive chart with Louise Nevelson's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Hans Hofmann
Diego Rivera
Max Ernst
André Masson
Alexander Calder

Friends

Linda Nochlin
David Smith
Mark Rothko
Willem de Kooning
Eduardo Paolozzi

Movements

Cubism
Dada
Surrealism
Primitive Art
Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson
Years Worked: 1940s - 1980s

Artists

Mark di Suvero
Willem de Kooning
Lee Bontecou

Friends

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Feminist Art
Installation Art

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Louise Nevelson

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life

By Laurie Lisle

Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations With Diana MacKown

By Louise Nevelson

paintings
The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend

By Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Arthur C. Danto, Harriet F. Senie, Michael Stanislawski, and Gabriel de Guzman

Louise Nevelson

By Germano Celant

Louise Nevelson Foundation

Pace Gallery: Louise Nevelson

Pace represents Nevelson, and has exhibition catalogues and other useful information

A Life Made Out of Wood, Metal and Determination

By Andrea K. Scott
The New York Times
May 9, 2007

Louise Nevelson, Finding Her Way

By Jessica Dawson
The Washington Post
October 7, 2004

Nevelson's Legacy and 5 Installation Artists

By David McCracken
The Chicago Tribune
October 13, 1989

Louise Nevelson, Sculptor, Is Dead at 88

By John Russell
The New York Times
April 19, 1988

interviews
Oral history interview with Louise Nevelson

documentary films
Nevelson: Awareness in the Fourth Dimension $

Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
ArtStory: Marcel Duchamp
Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.
Installation Art
Feminist Art
Feminist Art
Feminist Art
Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
ArtStory: Feminist Art
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
ArtStory: George Grosz
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is a twentieth-century Mexican artist whose work has a strong autobiographical component as it addresses issues of feminism and nationalism. Her work is often associated with Surrealism and she is best known for her many, often uncanny self-portraits.
ArtStory: Frida Kahlo
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera was the principal actor in the Mexican Muralism movement and one of Mexico's greatest artists. His large-scale fresco cycles tell the histories of labor, industry, society, and other themes.
ArtStory: Diego Rivera
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner was an American abstract painter and a prominent first-generation Abstract Expressionist. A student of Hans Hofmann's, and a pioneer in the all-over technique of painting that later influenced Color Field artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
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Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Arshile Gorky
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American modern artist. best known for his organic, biomorphic sculpture works, Noguchi was also a furniture designer and landscape artist.
ArtStory: Isamu Noguchi
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and Kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
ArtStory: Alexander Calder
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
ArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
ArtStory: Jasper Johns
Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits, photos of flowers and nude men. The frank, homosexual eroticism of some his work triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks and censorship.
Robert Mapplethorpe
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was a major New York artist whose sculpture, assemblage, and installation brought issues of feminism and the body into Minimalism's formal vocabulary. She is heralded as one of the quintessential Post-Minimalist artists.
ArtStory: Eva Hesse
Joan Snyder
Joan Snyder
Joan Snyder
Joan Snyder is an American painter, best known for abstract "stroke paintings," which recall the geometric constructions of Mondrian and Reinhardt. Much of her work is notable for its politicized nature, raising awareness of the Holocaust and AIDS epidemic.
Joan Snyder
Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is an American feminist artist and author. Originally associated with the Minimalist movement of the 1960s, Chicago soon abandoned this in favor of creating content-based art. Her most famous work to date is the installation piece The Dinner Party (1974-79), an homage to women's history.
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Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro is a Canadian-American artist and a leading figure in the feminist art movement. Often tied to the 1970s era Pattern and Decoration movement, Schapiro began her career working alongside second-generation Abstract Expressionists in New York, followed by forays into hard-edge painting. She is perhaps best known for co-founding, along with colleague Judy Chicago, the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute for the Arts.
Miriam Schapiro
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread is an English artist, best known for her sculptures, which typically take the form of casts. She is probably best known for Ghost, a large plaster cast of the inside of a room in a Victorian house, and for her resin sculpture for the empty plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. She won the annual Turner Prize in 1993-the first woman to win the prize. Whiteread is one of the Young British Artists, and exhibited at the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1997.
Rachel Whiteread
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
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André Masson
André Masson
André Masson
André Masson was a French painter and one of the pioneers of Surrealism. His practice of "automatic drawing" consisted of methodically supressing his conscious mind while creating art, thus allowing Masson to work from his subconscious. He was also known to work after long periods of forced hunger and sleep deprivation, resulting in quasi-hallucinatory images.
André Masson
Linda Nochlin
Linda Nochlin
Linda Nochlin
Linda Nochlin is an art historian and critic who launched feminist art history with her groundbreaking essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"
Linda Nochlin
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
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Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
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Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi was a Scottish sculptor, printmaker and multi-media artist, and a pioneer in the early development of Pop art. His 1947 print I Was a Rich Man's Plaything is considered the very first work of Pop art. He was also a founder of the Independent Group in 1952.
Eduardo Paolozzi
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism
Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
ArtStory: Dada
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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Primitive Art
Primitive Art
Primitive Art
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
Primitive Art
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero is an American sculptor, best known for his large-scale non-objective works that have been tied to Constructivism, Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism. Using materials such as railroad ties, steel and scrap metal, many of di Suvero's works contain moving parts, rendering them kinetic and thus altering one's experience of the work whilst viewing it.
Mark di Suvero
Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou
Lee Bontecou is an American sculptor, teacher and multi-media artist. After studying at the Art Students League of New York in the mid-1950s, she created works that challenged the conventions of sculpture by famously hanging them on walls like they were paintings. Using found objects, scrap metals and other materials, Bontecou incorporated an industrial look to her abstract art.
Lee Bontecou
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism