By Eugenia Incer
In the late 1930s, an impoverished but determined Louise Nevelson gathered wood from the streets of New York City for her fireplace.1 In the unrelenting New York winter, she needed to keep warm. Engendered by her need to survive, this habit could have been the starting point for her method of collecting scraps of wood for her sculptures. Found wood eventually became the medium that would make the artist famous; wood constructions based on Cubist ideas defined Nevelson’s early, quintessential style. In his introduction to “Nevelson’s World” (1983), art critic Hilton Kramer described Nevelson’s method as indebted to Cubism “both its general vocabulary of form and to the specific technical innovations of the collage medium and the kind of constructed sculpture that directly derived from method of collage”.2 This method led Nevelson to create some of her most innovative and powerful pieces. Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) boasts in its permanent collection two such wood “collages”: Dream House XLIII, (1973) and Untitled, (circa 1980).
These two works – the subjects of PAMM’s current conservation project – generously funded by Bank of America, and spearheaded by PAMM’s senior registrar, Naomi Patterson, and conservator Stephanie Hornbeck, are perfect examples of the wood constructions that were typical of sculptures produced by the artist during the 1960s through the late ‘70s. When discussing the artist’s methods, it is important to understand that Nevelson did not carve wood – her constructions were derived from found objects that were assembled primarily with nails. The two pieces in the museum’s permanent collection are black rectangular sculptures, with several attached wooden elements. Dream House XLIII is the larger cabinet-like structure, which opens to reveal an attached shelf – circular openings on the outside panels give a sneak-peak kind of feeling, though the jet-black interior reveals little.
Nevelson once claimed, “I took wood from the streets: boxes, old wood with nails, and all sorts of things.”3 All sorts of things indeed, like balusters, crates, scraps of furniture, broken chairs and tables, among other items. She stacked and balanced objects before nailing them, and after carefully assembling them, she painted the works in a uniform color: black, white, or gold. By covering these scraps in a single color, the pieces took on a new meaning and were removed from their past functions, and their old forms became unrecognizable. Both PAMM sculptures are painted matte black. Conserving the black paint means not only conserving the material itself, but also the artist’s meaning and intent (described further in Blog IV of this series). Eventually, the color black became as essential to the artist’s philosophy as it was to her process of creating the work. When describing her insistent use of black, Nevelson once said that the color “seemed the strongest and clearest” for transmitting the “universe” she was trying to express in each of her sculptures.4
Provenance information provided by Nevelson’s long-time gallery, Pace Gallery in New York, reveals that Dream House XLIII came into the gallery in 1973 – the same year as its creation – where it was stored until 1996, when it was purchased by the American Art Foundation and then donated to the Museum that same year. The exact creation date of Untitled is not known, but provenance records show that the work was brought to the gallery much later, in 1992. It was also purchased and donated by the Foundation in 1996. Both works were exhibited in several past exhibitions at the museum. However, due to conservation concerns, they have not been shown to the public since 2004.
According to Jean Lipman, author of “Nevelson’s World”, works like Dream House XLIII are part of a series of 37 Dream Houses, four of which have been identified in our research as belonging to major U.S. museums. Lipman also mentions that these types of sculptures are “precursors” to Mrs. N’s Palace (1946-1977), a work which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection.5 Dream House XLIII and Untitled, once conserved, will be finally exhibited at the museum’s new state-of-the-art facility. As precursors to other important works, they are seminal pieces that reflect the importance of Louise Nevelson’s artistic career, as well as the importance of PAMM’s ever-growing collection as it moves forward into its own dream house at the end of this year.
- Lipman, Jean (1983). “Nevelson’s World.” MA: Hudson and Hills Press
- Seaman, Donna (2008). “The Empress of in-between: A Portrait of Louise Nevelson”, TriQuarterly, No. 132
 Seaman, Donna (2008). “The Empress of in-between: A Portrait of Louise Nevelson.”TriQuarterly, No. 132. Retrieved from http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-193184010/the-empress-of-in-between-a-portrait-of-louise-nevelson
 Lipman, Jean (1983). Introduction by Hilton Kramer. “Nevelson’s World.” MA: Hudson and Hills Press
 Lipman, Jean (1983). “Nevelson’s World.” MA: Hudson and Hills Press
 Ibid, pg. 21
 Ibid, pg. 65
Eugenia Incer is Associate Registrar at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Former Preventive Conservation Technician Lia Kramer contributed early research to this project.
Tune in next Wednesday for a blog about the filming of the Nevelson conservation project by Thom Mozloom, Brian Wagner and Sid Hoeltzell.
For questions or comments regarding this blog, please leave a comment below, or directly contact the editor, Jillian Ambroz, at firstname.lastname@example.org.