Louise Nevelson was born in 1899 in Kiev, Russia. Her parents, Isaac and Minna Berliawsky, and their children emigrated to America in 1905 and settled in Rockland, Maine, where the young Louise grew up as a bit of an outsider in local society. She decided upon a career in art at an early age and took some drawing classes in high school, before graduating in 1918. Two years later, she married Charles Nevelson, a wealthy businessman, and moved to New York. She proceeded to study painting, drawing, singing, acting, and eventually dancing. In 1922, Nevelson gave birth to a son, Myron (later called Mike). She eventually separated from her husband in the winter of 1932-1933; and they divorced officially in 1941.
Beginning in 1929, Nevelson began to study art full-time at the Art Students League, where she took classes with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Kimon Nicolaides. In 1931, she went to Europe and studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich before traveling to Italy and France. She returned to New York in 1932 and again studied for a time with Hofmann, who was by now a guest instructor at the Art Students League. In 1933, she met Diego Rivera while he was in New York working on his mural for Rockefeller Center and casually worked as his assistant for a short period. Shortly thereafter, she began to work in sculpture and joined a sculpture class taught by Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance. She continued to draw and paint, and even took up etching, lithography, and other techniques at different points in her career, but from this time on, she concentrated on sculpture. Her early sculptures were primarily in plaster, clay, and tattistone.
During the thirties, Nevelson exhibited in a number of group shows (both non-juried and competitive ones), garnering some recognition for her work. In 1935, she taught mural painting at the Flatbush Boys Club in Brooklyn, as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), then went on to work in the fine-arts division as an easel painter and sculptor until 1939. In 1941, Nevelson had her first solo exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery, run by Karl Nierendorf who represented her until his death in 1947. Both this and a one-woman show the following year received favorable reviews. It was around this time that she discovered the decorated shoeshine box of Joe Milone, a local tradesman, and arranged to have it exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, an occasion which received much notice in the press.
In the 1940s, Nevelson produced a great many works in stone, bronze, terra cotta, and wood, most of them being cubist studies of the figure. In 1943, she had a show titled "The Clown as the Center of his World" at the Norlyst Gallery, which featured works on a circus theme constructed from discarded pieces of wood and other material. This new work was not very well received at the time, and it wasn't until the mid-1950s that she began to work with discarded and found objects on a regular basis.
During the early-1950s, Nevelson attempted to exhibit her work as often as possible, eventually receiving various prizes and notices for her work in the press. She continued to struggle financially though and began to teach sculpture classes in the adult education program of the Great Neck, Long Island public schools in order to make ends meet. In 1955, she joined he Grand Central Moderns Gallery, which was run by Colette Roberts, and had several one-woman shows there. These included: "Ancient Games and Ancient Places" in 1955, featuring Bride of the Black Moon, "The Forest" in 1957, featuring First Personage, and "Moon Garden + One" in 1958, featuring her first wall, Sky Cathedral. During this period, she was painting her wood black and putting together entirely black exhibits; she went on to create works in white and gold in the early-1960s. Around this time, she also began to enclose her small sculptures within wooden boxes.
Nevelson joined the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958, where she received a guaranteed income and finally achieved a certain degree of financial security. Her first show at the gallery, "Sky Columns Presence," took place in the fall of 1959. In 1960, she had her first one-woman exhibition in Europe at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris. Later that year, her work, grouped together as "Dawn's Wedding Feast," was included in the group show, "Sixteen Americans," at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, and other younger artists. She made her first museum sale in 1962 when the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased the black wall, Young Shadows. That same year, Nevelson's work was selected for the thirty-first Biennale in Venice.
Over the years, Nevelson took on several assistants, including Teddy Haseltine, Tom Kendall, and Diana Mackown, to help in the studio and with daily affairs. She also participated in various artists' groups, and served as President of the New York Chapter of Artists' Equity from 1957 to 1958, and as President of the national organization from 1962 to 1964. She left the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1962, and after a brief, unhappy stint with the Sidney Janis Gallery, she joined the Pace Gallery, which was run by Arnold Glimcher, in the fall of 1963. She proceeded to have shows of new work there about every two years for the remainder of her career. She had her first museum retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1967, which featured over a hundred of her works from her drawings from the 1930s to her latest constructions. And in 1968, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. By this time, Nevelson had achieved both critical and commercial success as an artist.
Nevelson always experimented with new materials; she continued to construct her black wood walls, but also went on make constructions from aluminium, plastic, and metal. In the fall of 1969, she was commissioned by Princeton University to do a monumental outdoor sculpture in Cor-ten steel (her first), and went on to do commissioned works for the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse, and Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, among others. In 1973, the Walker Art Center organized a major exhibition of Nevelson work which traveled around the country over the next two years. In 1975, she designed the chapel for St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan.
Nevelson was widely honored for her work during her lifetime. Over the years, she received honorary degrees from Rutgers University and Harvard University, among other schools, as well as numerous awards, including the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in Sculpture and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 1971, the gold medal for sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, and the National Medal of the Arts in 1985. By the time of her death on April 17, 1988, Nevelson was considered by and large one of the most important American sculptors of the twentieth century.
Sources consulted for this biographical note include Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life by Laurie Lisle and Louise Nevelson by Arnold Glimcher.