Oral history interview with Louise Nevelson, 1964 June-1965 Jan. 14 and undated

Nevelson, Louise , b. 1899 d. 1988
Sculptor
Active in New York, N.Y.; Kiev, Ukraine

Size: Transcript: 108 p.

Format: Originally recorded on 5 sound tape reels and 1 cassette. Reels reformatted in 2010 as 11 digital wav files. Duration is 6 hr. 41 min.
Sound quality is poor.

Collection Summary: An interview of Louise Nevelson conducted 1964 June-1966? May 11, by Dorothy Seckler, for the Archives of American Art.

Nevelson discusses The Club, the "Art News Group," and European artists' migration to New York. She speaks of new concepts in art, and debates with Seckler the questions of public acceptance of new art forms and changing standards. She also talks about her work, how she developed her box sculptures, her use of odd forms, spaces and abstractions.

Biographical/Historical Note: Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) was a sculptor from New York, N.Y.

These interviews are part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.

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Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Louise Nevelson, 1964 June-1965 Jan. 14 and undated, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

ORAL HISTORYINTERVIEW WITH LOUISE NEVELSON
1964
INTERVIEWER: DOROTHY SECKLER

DS: DOROTHY SECKLER
LN: LOUISE NEVELSON

DS: When our previous tape ended, Louise, we had been talking about your first box sculpture which had been made in an empty carpet box and in which you had assembled pieces of wood that had caught your attention in various ways, including their nail holes; and I wondered if we might pursue that first experience and how it opened up, and how it developed from there, a little more.

LN: Well, this box was rather long, it probably had a rug 9 by 12 in it but it was very narrow. I didn't use small pieces of wood but I found lumber on the street that had nails and some nail holes in it and different forms and different shapes and I just nailed them together and I knew this was art, and I began to learn more about the technique, learn more about the forms; and went right on. But before that, even at the Nordness Gallery, as I told you, I already used furniture and already used imagery of, say, mankind, with broken glass strewed in and furniture perhaps, and electric lights for eyes. So I was already familiar with these forms, but I enclosed them. And then, as I got more in it, I wanted to enclose them more until now I'm using glass in front of them. There's something -- they get closer to me, I want to embrace them more and I don't want to expose them, like putting them on a stand and in the round. And, year after year and time after time and all the time, they're getting more and more enclosed. And now I'm using glass in front of them. And, in my coming show this fall, I will use other things so that they themselves are growing. In other words, it isn't I imposing altogether -- but I'm recognizing things and using them to create a completeness. It's like a marriage; you are not the total actor; you play with another actor, and my play with the other are my materials. Sometimes they tell me something and sometimes I speak to them so that there is a constant communication toward a oneness, for that unity, for the harmony, and for the totality. And they are changing. It's very strange. I will look at a work that I did, say, some time ago, standing with work I'm doing today and the great difference to me is overwhelming. It may not be to an eye that's not discerning, or not acquainted, but for the one who is doing it, for me, I see great changes all the time. That's what fascinates me. Otherwise it would be repetitious. And that's what drives me, too, to do more.

DS: Before you did your first box -- let's say, had you been carving wood? You had not been assembling it?

LN: No, I had assembled it.

DS: Oh, had you even then?

LN: Oh, yes. At the Nordness Show they were all assembled woods and there were different kinds of wood put together. Oh, yes. Because I wanted the form and I didn't care for the carving. I wanted something more immediate because my creativity was faster and so I wanted a way of saying it and I said it then. But as time went on, I just said before, it became more enclosed and more enclosed. And now it's even more enclosed. I haven't done a piece in the round, so to speak, that could be seen from three dimensions since I have been enclosing. There's something about it -- I can't come out in the open any more. It's become enclosed.

DS: You had spoken last time, too, about your special interest in the quality of the shadow and that seems to be something that belongs in the enclosed form particularly.

LN: Well, I think that the shadow, let's say, for a better word, is the forth dimension. That shadow I make forms out of is just not a fleeting shadow but it has as much form as a Cubistic form would have. It has forms and I give them forms and to me they're much more exciting than anything that I see on earth. That is another reason that I don't particularly need to travel because I'm always fascinated by these forms; they mean something. I call it, for clarification, the fourth dimension. I don't need so much material and matter to tune in and identify and recognize that fourth dimension. To me that's remarkable and very wonderful, very wonderful. And probably night and day are very necessary for my kind of thinking, the light and the dark: very important.

DS: Did you start painting -- the first one, you said, was painted black?

LN: Yes.

DS: And had you been painting your sculpture black before that?

LN: Pretty much. Pretty much. There was some experimenting with painting them, and also different woods put together, the tonalities, but not very much because I didn't want to make sculpture and I didn't want to make form as such and I got through that very fast -- I wanted really to get beyond that. I never thought I made sculpture or made anything. I'm not looking to make anything. I want something else entirely. I want that extra dimension where you don't make things; you live with that place and you give that place a form and in that place where you give form you bring back here and hope to communicate on that level. Some people do get it. Even if it's a little late, they get it. I don't know if I've said it well, but I'll say it again: I don't want to make sculpture and I don't want to make paintings; I'm not looking to make anything. I myself need, for my place of consciousness, a form. It's almost like you are an architect that's building through shadow and light and dark. You are really an architect in that place, but you don't want to make buildings for people; you are -- in another dimension -- you are the architect, you see. But it's a very real world. I never use a word like "imagination" because that word "imagination" means to me that you extend immediately to that great dimension. So it's not imagination. It's a great reality but the material you are using is in that place instead of in this place, you see. So it isn't through the intellect, it's through vision that you give form and structure to that place. And so, naturally, you are an architect in that place.

DS: How do you arrive at your scale? "A certain place" is interesting there. Your boxes, of course, are within the limits of what one can reach -- up and down or within, perhaps with a ladder or a box -- and still it has a sense perhaps of being of a dimension that's unlimited to some extent; it's very real. How do you arrive at these? Well, partly these pieces that are available, I suppose, or that you worked with before. You could make them larger if you wanted to, or you could make them smaller.

LN: I told you I have made them larger.

DS: Yes.

LN: Well, within your being you have a sense of scale and measurement, because anything outside in the world you have inside in your consciousness and consequently you identify with this scale and weight and measure and you're there with it; you're just there with it. For example, I had the straight walls and somehow it came to me that I would like to give circle to the straight. And, before I knew it, I did it. And then I wanted great enclosure so I thought of black. It's very simple. Everything is here and it's up to you to use it. It's not any great shakes to do these things. And again you can think of modern dance, the way the body flows. I told you that, for many, many years, I studied modern dance. Well, that modern dance also has all this; you're not just jumping, but you have space and the body has space. Look, all these places are empty; there's air in them and they have space and, if we recognize that this is architecture and we recognize what we are made of and how we are made and put together, the rest is an extension. And I can still go back to say that it's your consciousness and your awareness of all this. It is kind of a remarkable grandeur and you use this because you identify. So all that I have said all along the line is that I don't want to make anything; what I am doing is living the livingness of life, the livingness of the livingness, and using all these things to extend this awareness.

DS: Do you sense that in other artists too, or do you feel this is a unique experience of your own?

LN: I feel that any artist who knows what the word means has to have these things. I have never seen a Picasso figure or object that wasn't in the right place; they never fall out, they never fall in. They are there to stay. Now that is the body's awareness of the rightness of weight. When he used that period of bone structure, they were right. Or whatever he does. Now I know, everybody knows, that he's a great artist and all, but I wonder if they are aware of these things that he is aware of and that are at his fingertips. I don't think he has to study. He's aware of these things and he uses them so well. But how could he not use them well? It would be impossible. There are different ways of expressing it. For instance, look at some of these wonderful chess players, what they tap; or even ball players. I think they all are aware or they couldn't run for the ball and catch it. Or they couldn't study it. Of course, they study the technique to perfect these things and also, in studying it, they communicate it on that level. A ballplayer wants to know what a ballplayers does. An artist wants to know what an artist does. That's a communication and also it's very enlightening. But you have to know that. You're born with it. Why are some people two feet tall and some six feet tall? They're born with these things. It seems to me we come pretty ready-made, but what we do here is fulfill it. I'm not talking about religion. I don't know where this comes from but . . .

DS: But you have been very much interested in comparative religion at certain periods in your life?

LN: Yes.

DS: How has that entered into your work? Could you define that at all?

LN: Well, in some ways, all my life I didn't feel quite that I belonged here. I didn't really, in my closer being, identify too much on any level, so I just had to fill something in myself, and there was that great hunger, great search. And so, at one time, I thought maybe religion would do it; at one time I thought philosophy would do it; at one time I thought heroic things would do it. I didn't care where I could communicate with it as long as it somehow gave me a measure, some measure, of just contentment. Not really contentment -- gave me some measure of peace between the storms, you see. I had to have my rest period. And so I would search desperately, and search desperately. But I must say that not one yet has fulfilled what I'm searching for. Consequently, I don't stay with it; it isn't that I thought it all, or understood it all. I'm not saying that. It just doesn't quite seem to fit this thing. But it fed me at certain times in my life and, at least while I was searching and hoping to find, it gave me a little contentment. And also I think it absorbed my mind enough to move with it, you see. That is the whole thing in our times that is really difficult for mankind on earth, no matter where, because so much as been broken down and I don't think there's been enough built up. So there's great chaos. That may be in the world, but I don't want that to be with me because I need more structure than that. And so that was a search on that level. But I never found it totally.

DS: You're not aware of it having affected the kinds of forms you use?

LN: No, not affected my form but it affected me as a being. Then naturally something happened to the form because we can't be aware of anything unless it affects us. So you can say -- I don't like the word "indirect" either -- but it's like you say: I'm living, you're living, you eat every day. Well you don't remember if it's the apple or the chicken but something gave you life and it sustained you until the next time. So it gave me life, an awareness of life and naturally that would affect what I was doing.

DS: Louise, in the very recent past, of course, you've been involved with Artists Equity, and I know that, as you said before, in earlier periods of your life, you had been reluctant to become so much involved with this knowing a great many people and being involved organizationally. But now you've come to accept that as something you can give at this period. Is there anything you'd like to say about your experiences all along the line with your fellow artists or with the art community and the way you regard it?

LN: Well, now I find that I can communicate better with artists. I just happen to be able to communicate better. Also, at htis point, I'm in a position where I can be of service and it's not a great effort on my part. On the contrary, the thing that it has given me is just so remarkable: it's opened another consciousness and I feel, there too, it's on a certain kind of level of awareness. And so it's just been very important. The National Artists Equity is not the only thing I'm with. I'm active in other things. But it seems as if it's important to me. And I also think it may be a time in our history when artists must stand together. While in my work and myself I stand alone, in this there is a sort of pooling on another level, and in that level it isn't only that artists will be recognized for certain things, but I think art itself may have more to say creatively. That's what interests me about it.

DS: One of the things that's of interest to me and fascinates me perhaps about you is your ability to be very sympathetic to and interested in many manifestations of contemporary art that are very different from your own, even including such movements as Pop art and so on. This may be rushing ahead of our story too much but I think your openness to the possibilities of many kinds of expression is unusual in someone who is so completely and highly individualized in her work.

LN: Well, now, I see all these movements as very real in my kind of thinking and they are just another side of life. For example, if you open a book and you go through it and on every page is another vision, you don't destroy it; you've recognized it. And I certainly think all these new so-called faces of art are very vital, very living, and very important to my vision. I don't think that one should close himself off because that just doesn't make much sense. I want to see more and more sides. And a strange example: a diamond, even though you can shape it into many forms and it gives off many lights, that doesn't mean that one shines a little more or a little less, or that a little light can't be as important as a big light. It's light. I don't know of any new vision that hasn't its place in the sun.

DS: One of the interesting aspects of your life is, of course -- we haven't mentioned very much -- is your role as the mother of a son who is also an artist - Mike Nevelson. I wondered if there's anything that you'd like to cover as far as that relationship is concerned, and how it grew.

LN: Well, I was just blessed to have a wonderful son. I don't think I gave him any particular attention. I don't even think I understood what being a mother meant, as such. And that, too, became an interesting thing in my life -- to not just communicate on that level but to try to understand another human being. And, as I say, I just happen to have been blessed because it grew into a great communication. Somehow there's nothing closer on a human level than a parent and a child. And it's a great, great, great satisfaction to me, and it's a great satisfaction that he is doing the work he is doing and has found his own avenue of expression, because I can understand how it must be and how difficult it must have been for him to do it. But he has shown his strength on that level and he stands as one individual and I stand as another individual, and I think it's working out very well. And, as far as raising him -- as a mother I found him to be a very gentle person and I didn't have great complexes with him. Somehow, at times, I thought he was older than I because, when I would get into a frustration, he seemed to be the person with the wisdom. And so that was a very remarkable experience; and I think it is remarkable.

DS: He's married now and has his own family?

LN: Yes. I have three granddaughters and they all show signs of creativity. I don't quite know why, but it just seems that that's where life is to us. And I just feel extremely blessed with my son as a sculptor and with the three growing grandchildren, three growing granddaughters. And they happen to be pretty besides.

DS: That's pride. Louise, one thing we should fill in for the record is something more about various shows you've had in your gallery activities. We had followed you through to Nierendorf and Nordness and then, of course, later on I know you went with other galleries. During the middle 40s, what galleries were you showing with at the time?

LN: Well, Nierendorf went to Europe for two weeks after the Second World War, and he stayed a year and a half. I was ready for a show and he came back; in a few days he passed away. After that I didn't show for about four or five years. I was working all the time and it didn't seem to matter. I didn't recognize this quality of being professional and on the scene. So I thought -- well, this is lovely; I have a lot of time for myself. And then the Grand Central Moderns -- Miss Roberts, the Director, came up to me in the Museum and she said, "Would you like to have a guest show in our gallery?" I said, "Well, I'll think about it." And then, since no one asked me and I had not asked anybody, I said eventually, "Yes." That was also a show that I called "The Royal Family." And it also had this theme and it was all ready; it was rather big. I used beams from big houses for kings and queens, and I used these old materials for things; but they were more in the round. So, step by step, there was not really a great difference, you see. But anyway . . .

DS: What year was that again, Louise? -- "The Royal Family?" After the war?

LN: After the war; but it was four or five years after. So I would say it was in the 1950s.

DS: Early '50s probably?

LN: Probably. I have my records upstairs, dear, if you want to see them.

DS: Well, this is close enough. We can correct it later.

LN: Yes. And then I had another show, and another show; I had several shows with the Grand Central Moderns. But I was also showing around, like with a group show or wherever I was asked. And then, since the Grand Central Moderns is really an unprofitable organization, they expect eventually that you go into another gallery where sales are made. And so Martha Jackson asked me to come with her. Then Cordier . . .

DS: What -- that was with Martha Jackson . . . ?

LN: Martha Jackson, yes.

DS: Was that mid-50s or later 50s -- I suppose?

LN: No, it was late 50s. And Cordier came here from France and asked me if he could represent me in Europe. So I had those shows. But then, you see, I had been showing around different places anyway. And then I went with -- what's his name? Sidney Janis.

DS: Before we get to that, though, where did you show in Europe? I want to fill that in.

LN: Oh, yes, I showed at the Cordier Gallery in Paris. But then, you see, we had been sending shows from the Sculptors Guild aknd the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and National Women and, oh, there were other New York Women and other groups. They were sending works of ours though South America, through Japan, through all the different countries; and through America particularly, in different museums and all. So they were really shown quite a bit. And then the Biennale two years ago.

DS: You were very important there.

LN: Yes. Well, then I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to show in Paris where I had three enormous rooms.

DS: Three enormous rooms of the . . .

LN: My . . . yes, show.

DS: That was 1962?

LN: Yes. 1962 -- June.

DS: June in Paris?

LN: No, it was Venice.

DS: Venice, that's right.

LN: Paris -- that was the year before.

DS: Paris was '61?

LN: I think '61, yes.

DS: I'm sorry I interrupted. I just wanted to be sure . . .

LN: That's all right. After Janis, I went to the Pace Gallery in New York, had three shows last year and this year, one in the Hanover Gallery, London, the Gimpel-Hanover in Zurich, and another show in Italy -- Turino. And of course now this month I will show in -- what's the name of that place in Germany -- Dokumenta.

DS: Oh, yes . . .

LN: Oh, yes, and, of course, you knew I was in the "16 Americans" in the Museum of Modern Art. And I've shown at the Whitney. You also know that I am in many museums. I also had a one-man show in Caracas where there's quite a a bit of my work. And also Martha Jackson will have a show of my work in Japan.

DS: Mmm!

LN: In about a month, or this summer -- this summer.

DS: Is there anything you'd like to say about any of these shows?

LN: Well, I had about three or four shows with Martha Jackson.

DS: Yes. They were important ones, too.

LN: Yes. And I had a show last year of etchings and drawings at the Balantroub. I've had, you see, all these shows. I had bronzes with Martha last summer in thegarden.

DS: And the museums -- I suppose it would be too much to list them all -- the most important ones -- how about the ones abroad?

LN: Well, Tate, London. And I think we are going toe be selling to a few more -- the Museum of Modern Art here, the Whitney Museum, Queen's College, New York University, Riverside, Caracas. And I'm in others -- Norfolk Museum, the museum down in Venezuela -- and I don't know -- it seems to me all over the place.

DS: Europeans have apparently received your work very warmly, as well as Americans and you have been a particularly favored American, I think, abroad.

LN: Well, I would say that I think the European artists wwere almost the first to recognize me; and among them, Mathieu wrote a forward for my exhibition in Paris for Cordier. He came to America and he wouldn't fly back 'til he acquired one of my things and took it on the plane with him and he asked American Artist who I was. In other words, he alerted them. And then, when Art had its big show at the Museum of Modern Art, that was the first evening of my opening of the big black wall there. He was so wonderful and I had not met him. I still haven't met him but he wrote an important article. It was a poem and it was published. And so really I feel that my heritage and culture is pretty well rooted in the Western World and I certainly feel very close to their thinking. But then I also feel a vitality in myself that's very close to this continent. And I love the American Indian work. Have you seen my things with Parsons?

DS: I have seen some when I was here before but I haven't seen them recently.

LN: Yes. So that, there again, I understood the American Indian work and I love the American Indian and what he has done.

DS: Louise, your home itself is a museum and has always been such an exciting place for artists; and it certainly has for me. I wondered if you'd like to talk for a moment about the kinds of things you've brought together in this great house and loved and cherished here.

LN: Well, truly, by nature I didn't want to be a collector, but my kind of -- what would you say? -- by communicating with these things; somehow they just come to me and, before I know it, there's a collection. I have even tried not to collect, but then someone will give me something because we attract certain things by our nature. And so it's just sort of a natural for me, just a natural. It is true with, say, for instance, almost, the jewelry. Now my jewelry -- there are things like jade, or they're chunky or they're very refined; they're the two extremes. Well, somehow it was natural and I identify with these things and they mean something. There's a kind of a recognition, like one friend recognizes another. Well, these things I recognize and they seem to belong here. So there was never a great feeling of collecting because too many colectors don't collect the right things. These things, somehow, I do love living with, I do feel they belong. For example, I think my acquaintance with silver -- now silver like, we'll say, Sheffield, that is in a way a poor man's luxury -- but the etchings that were done on them, the work that was done on them -- when you think of the mind that created them through time, they are works of art and my living with them did something for me. I even clean my own silver so to see the forms in them. And the same with linens. I've made some linens of my own and worked on them. Somehow I think that I learned more through these things that I've been living with than books. If you go to a museum, you really walk through a museum, but with these things you live and if you want to look at them again or touch them, or clean them, or not clean them, they're right here, and there's a sensitivity about your sense of touch with them and there is communication with them, and they have been somehow, I think, integrated in my being for creativity.

DS: That's a very, very interesting expression, Louise, that feeling that things around you form you and you form -- and then you almost have a conversation with them, I suppose.

LN: Well, yes, on that level you can say that. You don't have to talk verbally -- not that kind of a conversation, but you certainly have a communication with them.

DS: I remember, of course, the first time I came to your house, the enormous collection you had of the works of Eilshemius.

LN: Yes.

DS: And then the American Indian things and . . .

LN: Great collection of Ralph Rosenborg's things.

DS: Yes.

LN: I have a great collection of his.

DS: Yes. And George Constant -- wasn't he in it?

LN: Well, I don't have many of his, but I have some, yes. I have some different pieces of different works of art by many other artists, but I really have quite a collection of Eilshemius's and I have a wonderful collection, that I think is wonderful, of Ralph Rosenborg's who I think is a very great artist in our time.

DS: And of course your house is full of wonderful pieces of wood that are getting under way to becoming Nevelsons -- becoming works of art.

LN: There again, you see, I feel, by having used old wood and by my understanding them, and being in oneness with them and giving them really to the world, is an avenue for another communication -- that it doesn't have to be what the world thinks are expensive materials because how many times do people abuse expensive materials? But the creator feels that everything is on a level, it only depends on how he or she likes it, not the price of it. And so you can take materials naturally and you give them their position and you place them.

DS: That is an unusual aspect of your work. Some artists have used discarded materials and they have emphasized their pathetic character as discards. You seem to do an opposite thing sometimes. One can still see that it's a simple material and that it might have been part of something else and yet it takes on a new kind of dignity.

LN: Well, in that place that I'm talking about, that place of consciousness doesn't have a price tag. Also, I did say in the beginning that a creator -- what makes the character of a creator are many ingredients and among them one is that you want the other eyes to see what these things are; that all things are wonderful if you see them that way; all things are important if you see them that way; and you can shine them up to that place, you see. I think it's even more than that. I think that -- not to quote the Bible, but on one level, they do say that the meek and the humble shall inherit the earth. And so why shouldn't these inherit the earth? They start on a humble note and they become as much of a unity as any other law that we understand. And so they can stand. Of course, when we speak of silver or works of art or linens or architecture or whatever, it slipped through some conscious mind, or it may not only be one mind but it may be hundreds of years of minds pooled 'til it comes to an essense; and of course in that place you give that consciousness to everything, that you will do as much as you can, as much as you understand, as much as you're aware of.
[BREAK IN TAPE--RESUMES JANUARY 14,1965]

DS: This is a transcript of an interview with Louise Nevelson. It was made in January 1965. A condensation of the earlier part of the tape includes the information that she was not a member of The Club, had not met the emigres from Europe after the war, had not known de Kooning and the other abstract expressionists, had not been influenced by them, but was very much aware of what was going on in the group around Art News.

LN: . . . at that time and Mondrian But I had just met them I wouldn't say that I knew them very well, and, as far as the others, I didn't even meet them at the time. No, I was busy.

DS: At this time you didn't know de Kooning or Rothko or Gottlieb or . . .

LN: No. I might have met them but I didn't know them, so to speak. No.

DS: But their ideas were not, of course . . .

LN: No.

DS: You didn't get Art News and devour it?

LN: No. Well, I got Art News but, I don't know, I don't read very well, I guress. But I didn't know exactly what -- in other words, I was not too aware of these things because I was sort of digging my own way, you see, and it seemed it was a full-time job. And then I didn't know them very well, and they probably were finding their direction. Maybe they didn't even know how serious I was, you see; and we never got to the point of knowing each other well enough to find out.

DS: One of the things some of the artists in that group were being involved in at that time was psychoanalysis and it had occurred to some of them, first having been exposed to the idea of Surrealism and then going into analysis themselves, that there might be ways of drawing directly on the unconscious in their art. Had this kind of thing occurred to you independently?

LN: Never! Because somehow or another I must say that I didn't particularly like the pictures that I saw that were being painted by the Surrealists. I think the only one that really I liked was that wonderful Italian -- what's his name? -- that did these greens and he had the figure . . .

DS: De Chirico?

LN: De Chirico. Now he was the only one out of that whole group that interested me because of his subject matter and the mood he was creating, but I wasn't very excited over the other things. I didn't particularly like the quality of paint. I didn't like breaking up so much of the plane surfaces and the canvas is what I mean, and they were too literary for my taste. So I wasn't really involved.

DS: De Chirico had done somehting which I wondered if you might have noticed at any point. When he was in Ferrara he had painted great paintings into which he had set sort of shallow boxlike shapes, things like those oddly-shaped Italian biscuits, curious things like that, that he saw in the shop windows in Ferrara. They took on geometrical shapes but they were sometimes biscuits or parts of toys, and so on. But you don't recall those?

LN: No, I'm sure. Not only I don't recall them, I'm sure I never saw them because, had I seen them, I would have remembered. They would have interested me.

DS: I just happened to be writing an article on De Chirico after I had talked to you last spring and, when I came to these boxes with these curious things inside, I thought -- well, they're like Nevelson's.

LN: Now where were these boxes? Were any of them ever in America?

DS: They're painted boxes -- they're paintings -- they're illusions.

LN: Yes.

DS: Very concrete, you know, but they're still rather abstracted in their sense of geometrical composition. Well, I suppose some of them have been shown here, I don't remember just where. I'll show you some of them in a book I have on his work. I think it's by Soby.

LN: Well, I'd love to see it. But you see, there's another thing: I have never been that conscious of books, and books on art really don't mean that much to me because almost the total day has been given to doing, in my case, and that goes for my past in other ways. I don't particularly feel so close to things that another mind has left. I think it's wonderful if you can identify with it but I haven't been able to do that easily. It's been much easier for me just to do the work.

DS:

LN: But, as I said, I think De Chirico would be the one I would have said that I liked because there was this great mood in his work that appealed to me so much.

DS: Yes, there was a strange, brooding, melancholy quality . . .

LN: That's right.

DS: . . . beautiful in many of them, I think, especially in his early work.

LN: That's right. At that time.

DS: Yes -- not now. You mentioned, of course, Picasso. I guess because Picasso was everybody's grandfather in a way, except for the younger ones who do not seem to feel it as our generation did. What part of Picasso did you like best, what aspects of Picasso's work?

LN: Well, I like to say all aspects of Picasso's work because in back of his work is Picasso.

DS: This strange, wonderful quality of his of transforming everything, and recreating it in his own way. Now, apparently, the younger men today don't feel any urgency about transforming. They'd just as soon just take, and the idea of invention is much less important, I would gather, to them than it was to all of us for whom Picasso was the big mover.

LN: Well, I think in our time, and I think it's valid, that the artist is taking another role. He really is concerned with ideas, and somehow to me, as I see it, oil paint has become sort of old-fashioned as such.

DS: From their point of view?

LN: Yes. I don't want to, at this point, bring out names but it seems to me that the most prominent young, younger, so-called artists are the artists that have ideas. They're projecting idea more than executing work as such.

DS: That's very true. Perhaps in this country that resulted very particularly after abstract expressionism came really into focus. It was then apparent that what we had was an art concept more than a percept whereas, when I was younger and going to art school, the assumption was that the artist was like a sensitive, fluctuating wire that went out and perceived the world. Now the artist conceived it. He had a basic way of coming at whatever he did which informed everything that he did, everything he made. He was imposing a concept, almost, rather than reflecting a percept of the world. And, maybe for that reason, oil paint seems less palpable, less tangilbe in making something that is there.

LN: Particularly with the oil paint because new paints have come in that dry faster and do things on a different level. In other words, oil paint, I think, gives a luminosity and a beauty that other paints may not, but our time demands other performance, a faster one. The mind pertaining to the canvas or to creation in that dimension is -- the approach is quite different; the approach is different. And it's very possible that we will be coming, as we go along, into new things. Now I have gone to a few shows -- I don't see many -- and it's remarkable that these shows may not be profound but they are inviting a new observation and they are giving it another kind of image.

DS: Could you mention any of them?

LN: I'd rather not do that.

DS: What kind of things? Could you just talk about it from that point of view?

LN: Well, for instance, if you take -- first, you see, the flat surface like painting and sculpture have become closer. Now I went into a gallery and the object or the material or -- what would you say when you use . . . ? -- the subject matter is what I was going to say. The subject matter came out of the canvas. Say, if it was an apple, the apple was blown up to, say, two feet and coming out of the canvas, and they made a whole arrangement out of this. Well, it's very interesting. I don't feel it's profound; but somehow it's interesting and it is also giving us for the moment -- the eye -- it's giving to the eye anyway a new way of seeing this.

DS: You don't think it might be at the same time robbing the eye of a certain sensitivity? I mean if you see an apple blown up several times its size nad painted a flat color -- well, this makes it very readily recognizable and very identifiable and you don't have to look for any subtleties of light or space. It's just there, you know, appleness. That doesn't seem to you as possibly a blunting . . . ?

LN: Well, may I say -- I did say in this case that the apple wasn't black. It might come out where a painting or sculpture would become one.

LN: Well, I wouldn't say that. I do feel that we can't have everything and so one thing has been given up and another thing has been gained. I do feel it may be lighter, lighter in to do this, but there is room for it because all music also must have rest periods. This is always found and so this may be a quieter period in some ways, but it also is transitory and may be leading to something so I suddently wouldn't reduce it. But, nevertheless, I think there is a period where we have surpassed, where we need light, shade, and this and that of the old school. I think there will be new ways of saying these thigns.

DS: You mean you think that we will not return to the light and shade and space and so on?

LN: No, not that way, because -- I use the word "architecture," you see -- there will be different performances. The artist will somehow even be more of a composer, even more. He will take shadow, he will take reflection, he will take the objective or whatever he does and he will become an architect of this and he will give it his stamp of the way the sum total will come together. And I don't think there will be a return because we don't return to, say, in science things have been very important, very valid, that have been discovered and used. We don't return to them as such, we may return to them and use them in another way. So that means we won't give up these things but I think we're going to have to compose them in another way. We're going to have to give a meaning in another way. Our structure will be another kind of a structure.

DS: Do you think that there's any implication in this when Clement Greenberg says, for instance, that "sensitivity is a bore?" Would you imply that he means sensitivity to the older ways of looking and feeling, or does that have any particular meaning to you at all?

LN: Well, I don't know Mr. Greenberg. I've heard a lot of things he's said that I don't go along with and I'd really have to know what he means. As a matter of fact, I go along with so little of what he says that I don't know how he would mean this. If I knew what he meant -- what sensitivity is a bore? Do you think he knows what sensitivity is?

DS: That's very nicely put, Louise, and I won't answer it on the tape. But what you were saying, I think, is very fascinating. The forms that are coming into being replacing the older instruction, and so on. The curious and sometimes, I suppose, disquieting thing about this is that one rushes to meet the future and, at the same time, as you say, forging a new link in the chain and the old link, of course, has to be lost. I suppose that's why it is that a great many artists whose work has been rooted in the older perceptions of space and color and light and tone suddenly feel as if there is nowhere to go, you know; that they are now pushed back into the past.

LN: Well, now, we see artists who are using old forms. Let us take, as an example, a man like Hopper. Now Hopper is not truly an innovator; he's not an innovator; he's a man of 82 and he's painting. But in his work there is a quality that's eternal and that is why he is not old-hat and that is why he is valid. So some people might call it soul, or some intangible, some will call it the sum total of a consciousness. Whatever you call it, there is something in an awareness in some creative minds that the tool, no matter what it may be, does not overpower this quality, and this quality is rare and goes on in spite of the technique they use. The technique is there, but it is in spite of the times, I should say, that we live in. I think that goes through the ages. There must be things of integrity in the being and, once they are very solid and they are not in doubt and they are really strong and believed in, I think they jus will go on.

DS: It's really, I suppose, the second and third-rate artists who have always been somewhat hesitant as to who they are. They are the ones who suffer.

LN: Well, I don't know whether they suffer. If they didn't have convictions in the first place, maybe they don't have the great capacity to suffer.

DS: Well, I mean they suffer in something like lack of confidence.

LN: Yes, yes, that's right. I think art is tough and naturally an artist is sensitive and tough all at once. It's like a beautiful instrument that has the fortissimo and the pianissimo. You can't be shouting all the time; you can't be whispering all the time. Man has that range and I think that the more magnificent the range and the bigger the range, the more you get the extreme that there is where great art would lie.

DS: I became so fascinated by what you were saying about the forms that are emerging today that I somewhere got lost in the 50s. So here we are coming to the period of, say, the early 50s. Was there any other important change? I think we did come perhaps to where you began to work with the boxes, the day you found the rug boxes, say. What had you been doing just before that, Louise?

LN: Well, I was using plaster and working right along daily, actually making rather big abstract forms. They were not totally abstract but I had abstracted the universe and the material I was using I'd abstracted. In other words, if I used the human form, so to speak, I abstracted it but I didn't do it coldly; it was done freely. That goes for all the other living objects on earth. And then you can do it by addition and substraction. And you can reduce all these multiple forms, say, into one, or you can multiply it from one into the infinite. That's a personal thing. I never just mechanically do it like a geometric thing that leaves you cold.

DS: I would gather that the plaster forms you were working with were more a matter of reduction and then, once you began working with the boxes, it was more a matter of multiplication, of diversifying and extending. Would that be true? Was it a change of association for you when you began working with the boxes? I mean as far as the kind of things that you had associated with, the forms you were using.

LN: Well, it's a funny thing. I suppose I've lived so much with form that, for example, I might go to bed and all these forms would take on a life of their own and they moved as if you plugged in the electricity; they would all move. And you can do so much with these things in the mind. I don't remember any great revolutions in my consciousness when I worked from one thing to another. It just seemed natural for me -- like a tree; out of the root another branch developed and another branch developed; there was no great mental search in that direction. It happened. But I think what always was wonderful is my eye would affirm it, and would stamp the approval; this was right, right for me; and I didn't question art; I never had that great struggle. Art was here and I felt that it was right, it was living. Art is a living thing. Art is as alive as our breathing, as our own lives, but it's more ordered and it has more order -- it's kind of like the essence of life.

DS: And every piece to some extent to you is as if you had to -- you enjoyed the process of making that whole concept in this simgle thing.

LN: Well, I have felt -- I feel that, in the work, you are coming closer and closer to this great order. Nature, too, has this great order; and humanity has -- well, humanity to me is nature anyway.

DS: You don't distinguish very specifically in some ways, do you?

LN: No.

DS: It wasn't too much of a jump for you to go from the figure and plaster to the box forms . . .

LN: No. No.

DS: . . . which were not figures -- or were they figures?

LN: No. Well, not really. No really, no. No, I think that to me all of creation basically is that you are searching for a more aware order. Now, what is this order? Some people will say order is to clean house you make order. But for me it all meant a great structure that was right, all the parts were right; that it was like a great symphony where there was nothing left out; it was right. Now it could all fall out and still be order but then that would be right; the all-over pattern would be right. I guess it is hard to speak about these things but I worked every day and all my life because there I'd find the livingness intensified and none of the unnecessary things that man lives with most of his life. In other words, most people live from day to day in a certain level of mentality and that's it. Well, in this creativeness there is this great order and it is somehow necessary for my awareness and consciousness. Soem people at one time probably in life need great religion, or someone needs great wealth to fulfill what they were wanting to do. But for me the whole thing had great meaning and has great meaning when I am working toward this great unity. There is no waste there of the awareness of consciousness. There is no waste when you are really becoming more and more aware.

DS: And you can begin in a piece of sculpture -- it doesn't matter where you begin -- because then each one calls for another. You just start with this curving form and then that calls for an intensification and then a contrast. Cna you remember any specific piece that you might trace through? The way the chain of thought developed?

LN: I always depend on my eye. I always come back to the eye. It's like a building, a beautiful thing you might -- well, say some of these wonderful pyramids in Mexico or the wonderful architecture in Greece. You know they stand for that vast. They're right. And that's the way I think what we do should be. These are examples. They stand. They're valid. You know, in Mexico -- I don't know if you've seen the pyramids -- but they have these heavy stones, they never connected them but, just by laying them down, they've been there thousands of years. You knew this?

DS: No, I didn't see them.

LN: Well, these slabs have stayed there thousands and thousands of years and they somehow have the dimensions of gravity and of weight, you know, and they are magnificant, palatial buildings with these great carvings. I mean, anyone who might say, "that's a primitve race," really makes me laugh because they were so highly developed. From what they've left for us to see, you recognize the high development and their high art. And so that is the kind of thing that I would like to be aware of in my being and live with, and that gives me kind of a well-being, the awareness of things. I only gave these examples. There are many. It might be sometimes an inch piece of jade that might have that, or even a piece of wood you'd find on the street. It doesn't matter. But that awareness gives you the order of your life, gives you the structure. Otherwise one would lose their reason. Reason has to be hinged to something in order for our sanity and for our well-being and for our beliefs. Of course, I said I was an optimist. I don't stand on the premise that everything is chaotic and why are we were and all this. There are some things I don't want to answer. All I want to answer is for my life and how I live my life.

DS: That's very interesting and profound. Well, it seems like an anti-climax to add anything else here, but I suppose I still should round out a few more of the events of the 50s. After you began to work on the boxes, were they exhibited after a year?

LN: You see, it's hard for me to really talk about these things because I like to talk but my concept at present of the world in a transitory period, a world, the world. Consequently, it's hard for me to say many things because naturally there was a battle for recognition too. And yet, as my world becomes more fulfilled, the other world is taking on another tone. And so, as I said, it's a little bit transitory. It's no problem to me; but my values, my feelings, naturally are changing about myself, my work, the world and its work. You see? So it isn't quite as static as it appears. Nor did the chain come about as it appears. I have never questioned my ability nor would I about creation. There is no problem there and there is no fight within me because I just lived with it and knew that there it was. I wasn't the one to judge whether it was a b c; my problem was that I recognized it and wanted to be one with it. I am one with it to the best of my ability; and somehow I suppose the sparks begin to fly. How it happened one doesn't know, but i never new it didn't happen. As far as I was concerned, it was always there.

DS: It was always there, yes, I see what you mean. I suppose, as far as the documentation of the particular shows you had or critics that discovered you and so on, that must be in publications.

LN: That's right. And kept in scrapbooks.

DS: So perhaps it's not important to belabor that too much on the tape.

LN: Not only that, but we have them upstairs nad also my gallery has quite a lot of documentary things. I'm sure that whatever you will wish they will be more than happy to cooperate with you. And there's really more than meets the eye because naturally it was building up and building up. In America I always got beautiful reviews and I was recognized and so on and so forth, but it was really the Europeans that began to really feel this creativity and originality. And so America got me by reflection, you see.

DS: Where did they see your work?

LN: Well, for instance, Mathieu and Soulage began coming to America and they began calling me and coming down, and going back to their own country and talking about it. Then, when Americans and museum people began coming to see their work and would see something of mine and would hear these fine artists talk about it, they took notice, you see.

DS: Umhmm. You mentioned once rather a difficult time when Marcel duChamp came down. However, that was not quite the same thing. But . . .

LN: I have never doubted that what I had to do wasn't where it should be. I never doubted it because, somewhere in my inner being, I'm a builder. A builder doesn't necessarily mean to build a house. There is something about the builder -- it has to be right and it seems to be right. I think that would say it better to you.

DS: Think of your last show an example.

LN: Now, you see, when we speak of the three-dimensional world, there is one language, but when we speak of another world there is another language. To give you an example: I was having dinner very recently in the house here and there was a guest and we discussed an old acquaintance of mine of, say, 25 or 30 years ago, and this person having dinner with me said, "Oh, you know so and so, she said you had a grandiose complex thirty years ago," and I looked into her eyes and I said, "And is there anyone on earth that had a reason to have one any more than I did?" Naturally, I had these dreams, if you want to call them dreams, of fulfillment. All of the things that I conceived of are being fulfilled. Now, three-dimensionally you can say "grandiose" but if you have a grandiose concept and if you can work with it, I don't see why not. All the things that you want to travel to see on earth were these things. So why shouldn't we have them? Man is the heir to them. Man should have the courage to have these concepts and make them come true. They are true. But make them visual. And I think we have every reason on earth to conceive of them and fulfill them. Without that I can't conceive of wanting to stay on this earth because I don't know what is meant by this world. I know a world that I contributed to because it's my world; and that's the world I want to see.

DS: There is such a striking continuity -- almost from the time you were a child, it was as if you had found the real experience and meaning, in certain ways, of thinking about work in a kind of visual way. You know, even Dr. Stuart told me about when you were three or four years old, being brought from Russia and you saw these candy sticks. Well, I mean here was a form. Later, of course, it would be too facile to say and now you're working with sticks and boxes and so on. That kind of statement I wouldn't make. But still, here was form that took hold of your imagination in a very striking way even as a child, and you seem to have found your location and security in life in relationship to forms that were strikingly apprehended in some way originally, and grew organically from one stage to another.

LN: Is it saying too much to say that some of us were ready-made when we came here? And we brought our tools to fulfill our needs on earth?

DS: Those are nice words. I like the idea.

LN: If there have been complications in my life, the work was not the complication; the complication was the world and its blindness. And, if I may say so, it's stupidity, not the creative quality in man and not the visions that man has. Naturally, when you're young, you may not have the courage of your convictions and they can be broken down; but somehow nature gives you many chances. You pick yourself up. So you tumble down, you pick yourself up and go on. And I often think that nature has a way of veiling some of us too; it was the fool that found the Holy Grail, it wasn't King Arthur. And I think nature made it that way so you wouldn't be too obvious until you established what you had to say and do.

DS: You had that long gestation period in New York without being crowded by people publicizing you and so on. Do you feel that, for the generation that doesn't have that -- as many of the young artists now do not -- do not have that privacy, will that possibly be destructive, do you think?

LN: No, because I figure that the whole approach is going to be different and I don't think that it's a healthy thing to go too long. You see, for everything in nature, there's a timing, and if it goes too long, it can go sour, or something can happen. I think that the whole approach to art is certainly going to be from a different point of view. They're not going to go back to the other things. Man as a whole has become aware of creation. I don't think there are many young people in schools that aren't interested today in the visual arts, most of the world is aware of it and interested, so our whole approach is going to be entirely from a different point of view.

DS: It would be marvelous if we were on the verge of some kind of a birth into a real individual response and understanding that we never had before.

LN: I mentioned the extra-sensory perception -- regardless of appearances, their world of consciousness is going ahead and it's going ahead at such a pace that it's remarkable that man is living fuller. There's more awareness on any level, on any level. There was an article I read today in the New York Times or the Post, an article on commerce, that everyday people going into the stores are asking for quality, their taste is rising. Well, if you think that that taste is rising, and you parallel that with the consciousness that's creating that, you see they're charging ahead. Now, on the other hand, I don't think that in my life I have met five people I think have real grand taste. I don't think so. Or consistently grand taste. Because to really have that is not jusst style, it is something deeper; it is a structure, a structure of taste, a structure of style, and that can be a world and very few people have it.

DS: And you feel that people will come to have culture?

LN: Yes, I suppose so. They're more aware. There are still people who will go into a home and never see a thing; they never learned to look around or anything. But people are becoming aware more and more and more. And it's important, it isn't only what they're seeing but that the mind is active, that's where reason enters. [END OF SIDE 1] [BEGIN SIDE 2]

LN: That's where satisfaction enters, that's where man becomes more total, more magnificent, that's where greater heritage comes in. And, therefore, you can see that every second can be vital and important. I'm not using words like happiness and gladness and all that; it can be a tragedy too. But why not have a grand tragedy if there's going to be one, or have it in this grand concept?

DS: In the art of the younger people, we've been talking about, like whoever it was that, you know, we were discussing this big apple projecting from the canvas, do you foresee a period in which there will perhaps be fewer masterpieces but many fresh, spontaneous statements of ideas as if, in a way, the audience almost completed the image in themselves rather than having it presented with a complete, finally worked out masterpiece of the grand style?

LN: I conceive of people coming to higher heights, greater heights, and they will always do so-called masterpieces. There will always be some people on the creative level, all levels, that will rise above the norm, and will bring to us these things. I belive there will always be the great discoverers, there will always be the great leaders. No, I think that there will always be that.

DS: Perhaps one reason that unconsciously I phrased it that way was that I recently heard a discussion in which one of our brighter young woman artists said that we may possibly be entering a period when the role of the artist will be not to make something complete but almost like walking around with someone in the audience and saying: "look there." Like walking around with a sort of finder, a frame-like device, and saying, "look here."

LN: Well, you're talking about Ateacha.

DS: She is one of the supposedly very avant-garde younger artists whose work is very much talked about right now, but, from her point of view, the artist's role is less one of producing something finished than it is just sort of making a statement, conveying an attitude in the quickest and most economical way.

LN: That could be quick and economical but I think you have to also do something about it. That wouldn't be enough. No, I think there will always be great leaders. There will always be great gifted people. Now, for instance, take an example: In the present time, there are some people that are born beautiful, some born ugly, they're not all going to be born the same. There are some that are going to be highly gifted, highly intelligent, and there's no such thing as leveling these things, no. And when a great leader comes along, he will lead, and when a great gifted person comes, they are going to express that and give it back to the masses. No, I can't believe that.

DS: Well, possibly one -- I don't know that she said this -- but one of the things that happens to works of art today is that, instead of just someone taking it home and putting it in a great mansion where princes might see it, it's immediately reproduced and circulated and thousands of people see it quickly. In other words, they just look enough to get a kind of impression, of -- well, you know, it's that kind of thing, or this is an attitude, and it isn't a matter of lingering and contemplating and admiring and relishing. It's more a matter of recognizing and thinking, now I know that, now I see why.

LN: Well, I don't think we are going to be too concerned about these things at this moment. Maybe there is something of that that is in our time, and it may be there is in our whole attitude of life that kind of approach, but that too is only present time and something else will have to take its place, because that won't satisfy people. That is the wonder of it -- that people will naturally never be satisfied; and rightly so. So this may be a moment, but I don't think it's going to be satisfying to the total being. I can see that what you're saying and I can understand it and naturally we are throwing off a lot of things even to see. Take, for example, some time ago the romantic way of discussion between an engaged couple or something of that nature, where there was always holding hands, or this and that. Today I never see two people kiss each other like a bride and groom. They fall into some pattern and you never see these things. Maybe it's just as well, I don't know; I'm not setting myself up as a critic of it. That doesn't mean there are less children being born. I mean their attitude looking at these things may be different. Nevertheless, that, as I said a moment ago, is not going to stay that way forever either. Maybe at this moment mankind doesn't need more, but it won't be satisfying forever.

DS: I think what you said is a very good comparison, but then of course it particularly reminded me of something. I have been in contact with young people recently, seeing that same kind of abbreviation of the relationship and maybe it is related to the abbreviation of our appreciation of our art -- it's there but it's in a different form, it's more condensed.

LN: Well, for example, I went to a party where they were dancing, let's say, the twist. This boy and this girl danced beautifully; they didn't speak, they didn't touch each other as they were dancing. And I thought it had more power by negation -- not touch, not talk, than anything I had ever seen because it was like white heat, it was like two beings who practically could eat each other up. And I thought it was fascinating and it seemed so right for the moment in our time.

DS: Beautiful. Louise, I think I'm almost at the end.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

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This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Louise Nevelson, 1964 June-1965 Jan. 14 and undated, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.