Mirror Image I, 1969
Louise Nevelson, American, born Russia, 1899–1988
117 3/4 × 210 1/2 × 21 in. (299.1 × 534.7 × 53.3 cm)
Museum purchase funded by The Brown Foundation, Inc.
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
Mirror Image I (Social Studies)
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Analyze social issues affecting women, minorities
- Analyze the causes and effects of the events and social issues relating to the changing role of women
- Explain how the contributions of people of various gender groups shape American culture
Connecting to the Work of Art
Louise Nevelson (September 23, 1899 – April 17, 1988) was an American sculptor known for her monumental, monochromatic, wooden wall pieces and outdoor sculptures.
In 1957, Louise Nevelson began to take the wooden crates that she had used as pedestals for her sculptures, and turned them into containers. Stacked containers quickly became Nevelson's identifying style. She unified these increasingly large and complex assemblages by painting all the elements the same color: either black, white, or gold. Mirror Image I was created for an exhibition of Nevelson's work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1969. Each element has a "mirror image" repeated elsewhere in the composition.
Born in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine), she emigrated with her family to the United States in the early 20th century. Nevelson learned English at school, as she spoke Yiddish at home.
By the early 1930s she was attending art classes at the Art Students League of New York, and in 1941 she had her first solo exhibition. A student of Hans Hofmann and Chaim Gross, Nevelson experimented with early conceptual art using found objects, and dabbled in painting and printing before dedicating her lifework to sculpture. Usually created out of wood, her sculptures appear puzzle-like, with multiple intricately cut pieces placed into wall sculptures or independently standing pieces, often 3-D. One unique feature of her work is that her figures are often painted in monochromatic black or white. A figure in the international art scene, Nevelson was showcased at the 31st Venice Biennale. Her work is seen in major collections in museums and corporations. Nevelson remains one of the most important figures in 20th-century American sculpture.
Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in 1899 in Perislav, Poltava Governorate, Russian Empire, to Minna Sadie and Isaac Berliawsky, a contractor and lumber merchant. In 1905, Minna and the children emigrated to the United States, where they joined Isaac in Rockland, Maine. Isaac initially struggled to establish himself there, suffering from depression while the family settled into their new home. He worked as a woodcutter before opening a junkyard. His work as a lumberjack made wood a consistent presence in the family household, a material that would figure prominently in Nevelson's work.
She graduated from high school in 1918, and began working as a stenographer at a local law office. There she met Bernard Nevelson, co-owner with his brother Charles of the Nevelson Brothers Company, a shipping business. Bernard introduced her to his brother, and Charles and Louise Nevelson were married in June 1920 in a Jewish wedding at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Having satisfied her parent's hope that she would marry into a wealthy family, she and her new husband moved to New York City, where she began to study painting, drawing, singing, acting and dancing. She also became pregnant, and in 1922 she gave birth to her son Myron (later called Mike), who grew up to be a sculptor. Nevelson studied art, despite the disapproval of her parents-in-law. She commented: "My husband's family was terribly refined. Within that circle you could know Beethoven, but God forbid if you were Beethoven."
In 1924 the family moved to Mount Vernon, New York, a popular Jewish area of Westchester County. Nevelson was upset with the move, which removed her from city life and her artistic environment. During the winter of 1932–1933 she separated from Charles, unwilling to becoming the socialite wife he expected her to be. She never sought financial support from Charles, and in 1941 the couple divorced.
Starting in 1929, Nevelson studied art full-time at the Art Students League. Nevelson credited an exhibition of Noh kimonos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a catalyst for her to study art further. In 1931 she sent her son Mike to live with family and went to Europe, paying for the trip by selling a diamond bracelet that her now ex-husband had given her on the occasion of Mike's birth. In Munich she studied with Hans Hofmann before visiting Italy and France. Returning to New York in 1932 she once again studied under Hofmann, who was serving as a guest instructor at the Art Students League. She met Diego Rivera in 1933 and worked as his assistant on his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Plaza. The two had an affair which caused a rift between Nevelson and Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, an artist Nevelson greatly admired. During the 1930s Nevelson began exhibiting her work in group shows. In 1935, she taught mural painting at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She worked for the WPA in the easel painting and sculpture divisions until 1939. For several years, the impoverished Nevelson and her son walked through the streets gathering wood to burn in their fireplace to keep warm; the firewood she found served as the starting point for the art that made her famous.
In 1941, Nevelson had her first solo exhibition at Nierendorf Gallery. Gallery owner Karl Nierendorf represented her until his death in 1947. During the 1950s, Nevelson exhibited her work as often as possible. Yet despite awards and growing popularity with art critics, she continued to struggle financially. To make ends meet she began teaching sculpture classes in adult education programs in the Great Neck public school system. Her own work began to grow to monumental size, moving beyond the human scale sized works she had been creating during the early 1940s. Nevelson also visited Latin America, and discovered influences for her work in Mayan ruins and the steles of Guatemala. In 1954, Nevelson's street in New York's Kips Bay was among those slated for demolition and redevelopment, and her increasing use of scrap materials in the years ahead drew upon on refuse left on the streets by her evicted neighbors. In 1955 Nevelson joined Colette Roberts' Grand Central Modern Gallery, where she had numerous one-woman shows. There she exhibited some of her most notable mid-century works: Bride of the Black Moon, First Personage, and the exhibit "Moon Garden + One", which showed her first wall piece, Sky Cathedral, in 1958. From 1957 to 1958, she was president of the New York Chapter of Artists' Equity and in 1958 she joined the Martha Jackson Gallery, where she was guaranteed income and became financially secure. That year, she was photographed and featured on the cover of Life. In 1960 she had her first one-woman show in Europe at Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris. Later that year a collection of her work, grouped together as "Dawn's Wedding Feast", was included in the group show, "Sixteen Americans", at the Museum of Modern Art alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1962 she made her first museum sale to the Whitney Museum of American Art, who purchased the black wall, Young Shadows. That same year, her work was selected for the 31st Venice Biennale and she became national president of Artists' Equity, serving until 1964.
In 1967 the Whitney Museum hosted the first retrospective of Nevelson's work, showing over one hundred pieces, including drawings from the 1930s and contemporary sculptures. In 1964 she created two works: Homage to 6,000,000 I and Homage to 6,000,000 II as a tribute to victims of The Holocaust.
Nevelson continued to utilize wood in her sculptures, but also experimented with other materials such as aluminum, plastic and metal. Black Zag X from 1969, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art is an example of the artist's all-black assemblages incorporating the plastic, Formica. In the fall of 1969, she was commissioned by Princeton University to create her first outdoor sculpture. Nevelson also praised new materials like plexiglas and cor-ten steel, which she described as a "blessing". She embraced the idea of her works being able to withstand climate change and the freedom in moving beyond limitations in size. During the last half of her life, Nevelson solidified her fame and her persona, cultivating a personal style for her "petite yet flamboyant" self that contributed to her legacy: dramatic dresses, scarves and large false eyelashes.
When Nevelson was developing her style, many of her artistic colleagues – Alexander Calder, David Smith, Theodore Roszak – were welding metal to create their large-scale sculptures. Nevelson decided to go in the opposite direction, exploring the streets for inspiration and finding it in wood. Nevelson's most notable sculptures are her walls; wooden, wall-like collage driven reliefs consisting of multiple boxes and compartments that hold abstract shapes and found objects from chair legs to balusters. Nevelson described these immersive sculptures as "environments". The wooden pieces were also castoff scraps, pieces found in the streets of New York. While Marcel Duchamp caused uproar with his Fountain, which was not accepted as "art" at the time of its release due to Duchamp's attempt to mask the urinals true form, Nevelson took found objects and by spray painting them she disguised them of their actual use or meaning. Nevelson called herself "the original recycler" owing to her extensive use of discarded objects, and credited Pablo Picasso for "giving us the cube" that served as the groundwork for her cubist-style sculpture. She found strong influence in Picasso and Hofmann's cubist ideals, describing the Cubist movement as "one of the greatest awarenesses that the human mind has ever come to."
As a student of Hans Hofmann she was taught to practice her art with a limited palette, using colors such as black and white, to "discipline" herself. These colors would become part of Nevelson's repertoire. She spray painted her walls black until 1959. Nevelson described black as the "total color" that "means totality. In the 1960s she began incorporating white and gold into her works.
Louise Nevelson has been a fundamental key in the feminist art movement. Credited with triggering the examination of femininity in art, Nevelson challenged the vision of what type of art women would be creating with her dark, monumental, masculine and totem-like artworks. Nevelson believed that art reflected the individual, not "masculine-feminine labels", and chose to take on her role as an artist, not specifically a female artist. Reviews of Nevelson's works in the 1940s wrote her off as just a woman artist. A reviewer of her 1941 exhibition at Nierendorf Gallery stated: "We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns." Another review was similar in its sexism: "Nevelson is a sculptor; she comes from Portland, Maine. You'll deny both these facts and you might even insist Nevelson is a man, when you see her Portraits in Paint, showing this month at the Nierendorf Gallery."
“My total conscious search in life has been for a new seeing, a new image, a new insight. This search not only includes the object, but the in-between place. The dawns and the dusks. The objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and sea...Whatever creation man invents, the image can be found in nature. We cannot see anything that we are not already aware of. The inner, the outer = One.”
[on calling herself The Architect of Shadow] “I gave myself the title. You see shadow and everything else on earth actually is moving. Movement – that’s in color, that’s in form, that’s in almost everything. Shadow is fleeting...and I arrest it and I give it a solid substance.”
“Everytime I put on clothes, I’m creating a picture.”
“When I Iook at the city from my point of view, I see New York City as a great big sculpture.”
“I go to the sculpture, and my eye tells me what is right for me. When I compose, I don’t have anything but the material, myself, and an assistant. I compose right there while the assistant hammers. Sometimes it’s the material that takes over; sometimes it’s me that takes over. I permit them to play, like a seesaw. I use action and counteraction, like in music, all the time. Action and counteraction. It was always a relationship – my speaking to the wood and the wood speaking back to me.”
“But when I fell in love with black, it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all. ….You can be quiet and it contains the whole thing. There is no color that will give you the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement. I have seen things that were transformed into black, that took on just greatness. I don’t know a lesser word.”
“The nature of creation is that you have to go inside and dig out. The very nature of creation is not a performing glory on the outside, it’s a painful, difficult search within.”
“…black creates harmony and doesn’t intrude on the emotions.”
Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking, and be careful about making assumptions.
- Investigate this work of art by moving your eyes from side to side and top to bottom. What do you notice?
- Observe the artist’s choice of lines and shapes. Discuss the similarities and differences that emerge.
- Describe the relationships between the curvilinear and geometric elements. How are these elements visually connected?
- Zoom in on a specific section. Examine the details. How do unity, balance, and rhythm interact? What other visual juxtapositions do you notice? Repeat with another section. Compare and contrast the resulting symmetry, mirror imaging, and other optical effects.
- Consider the use of color. Why might the artist have chosen to create this using a monochromatic palette? How does the use of one color affect your perception of this work of art?
- What do the various hues of black indicate about depth? How does this visual cue of depth help you to determine whether this is 2D or 3D? Explain with evidence from the work of art.
- The artist, Louise Nevelson, stacked wooden containers upon each other to create a sculpture with height, width and depth. Explain how the work changes when viewed three-dimensionally or two-dimensionally. Do you think a reproduction by way of a photograph adequately reflects the sculpture? Why or why not?
- How does the combination of color, shape, and line activate the surface of this relief sculpture? What ideas, thoughts, and feelings do these elements evoke?
- This artist referred to herself as ‘the architect of shadows”. Examine the negative space to discover how shadows play within the compartments. Explain how light and shadow work together to enhance your view of these intricately cut pieces placed in wooden crates. Elaborate, using this quote from Nevelson: “shadow is fleeting…I arrest it and give it substance.”
- Puzzle-like in appearance, this work of art has unique features that interact with each other. Locate and describe common attributes of these features and how they morph, change or echo each other throughout the composition. How does this shed light on the title of the work of art: Mirror Image I?
- If you gave this assemblage sculpture a new title, what would it be? Justify, using evidence from the sculpture.
- Mirror Image I measures 117 ¾ x 210 ½ x 21 in. Where might a sculpture this size be exhibited? In your area? In another city? How might this sculpture complement its surroundings? What message might it convey in this environment? How might the materials be affected if it were placed outdoors?
- Louise Nevelson incorporated crates (previously used as pedestals for her sculptures) and discarded scrap wood from the streets of New York to create this complex assemblage. What conclusions can you draw about this artist? How do you think she would feel about the establishment of Global Recycling Day in 2018?
- If you had created this sculpture, would you choose to paint it using one color or a variety of colors? If so, what color(s) would you incorporate? Where would you place different colors? How would this change your perception of this sculpture?
- What associations do you have with the color black? Regarding her use of black, Nevelson said: “But when I fell in love with black, it contained all color...the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement…black creates harmony and doesn’t intrude on the emotions.” How does this quote influence your interpretation of the sculpture?
- In the late 1960’s, Nevelson challenged the vision of what type of art women should be creating with her dark, monumental, totem-like artworks. What questions might you ask her about Mirror Image I?
- Research and compare this assemblage sculpture with works of art by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (mfah.org):
Connecting to the Classroom
There are many ways to use this object as a piece to foster discussion and challenge students ways of thinking. Through color choice and material choice, students may make assumptions about the gender of the artist that could be challenged in a supporting environment. It would give students a base to talk about gender roles or assumptions that they sometimes make without realizing it and bring these ideas more into their conscious thought so that they can address and adjust their thinking in the future.
The many details in this work of art make it not only visually pleasing to look at but also allow for more students to voice their observations and share their ideas. I think this sculpture would also help some students recognize potential bias in their thinking and assumptions. The unit we are starting in geography is focused on culture and gender roles and expectations are a big piece of this unit. Addressing students’ personal bias is important to helping them recognize how their assumptions might be wrong but also how gender roles have changed over time, especially the roles of women.
Subject Matter Connection
- Observe Mirror Image I at mfah.org, using the expand tool to focus on specific details.
- Predict the gender of the artist. Each student records prediction; the teacher collects tallies predictions.
- Discuss results, using evidence from the work of art to substantiate the conclusions drawn.
- Access Conversation Starters/Connecting to the Work of Art at lta.mfah.org to use questioning strategies in a discussion of Mirror Image I.
- Evaluate some of the challenges in gender bias that Nevelson faced as a female artist. Explore roles of women in history and how they have changed over time.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider