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Louise Nevelson and her granddaughter Neith, circa 1965. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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On this date in 1899, Leah Berliawsky – who became a world-recognized sculptor under the name Louise Nevelson – was born in Perislav, Ukraine. In 1905, she moved with her family to the United States. She grew up speaking Yiddish in Rockland, Maine, where her parents helped establish an Orthodox synagogue. Later in her life, Nevelson often spoke of the prejudice she faced in her community as an Eastern European immigrant among Americans and as an Orthodox Jew among less observant Jews.

In 1929, she began studying art at New York’s Art Students League. By that time, she was married to Charles Nevelson, scion of a wealthy Jewish shipping family. But the couple separated in 1931, and Louise went off to Munich to study painting with Hans Hofmann. Two years later, back in New York, she worked as an apprentice to (and had an affair with) Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was then working on his notorious Rockefeller Center mural (which his patrons had destroyed before it was finished because of its radical political content).

Nevelson originally studied drawing and painting, but in the 1940s she came into her own as a sculptor. Her first solo show was in 1941 at New York’s Nierendorf Gallery. She is best known for her large wooden works, which combine elements of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. They consist of boxes filled with collages of found wooden objects she picked up on the streets of Manhattan: picture frames, toilet seats, driftwood, etc. Some of her sculptures were room-size, such as the 1964 “Homage to Six Million I,” a 70-meter long curved installation comprised of dozens of self-contained boxes that may allude to the countless individual lives destroyed in the Holocaust.

Only in the 1970s, when she was in her 70s, did Nevelson begin constructing large outdoor sculptures from metal, seven of which can be seen in Louise Nevelson Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Nevelson died in 1988.