« I saw the first Picassos and it gave me a definition of of structure in the world and every object in the world. Without Picasso giving us the cube I would not have freed myself for my own work. […] So Picasso changed our thinking and he gave us structure. Of course when you realize that, you can vary it. But that is your foundation.”  Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson was a true pioneer of installation art in the 20th century. From primitive cultures to the fundamentals of Cubism and of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready Mades, she drew on a wide range of traditions and artistic practices to lay the foundations of a unique form of art, where her sculptures, comprised of debris integrated into a geometrical frame leaving nothing to chance, combine rigorous austerity and baroque accumulations. 

Born in Kiev, she first came to the United States at the age of six, to Rockland, a small, austere town in Maine. Her interest in sculpture grew at an early age as she entertained herself with the remains of wood left by her father who worked as a lumberjack. After marrying Charles Nevelson – and taking his name – Louise Berliawsky followed him to New York in 1920, where she confirmed her calling studying drama and singing before going on to attend the Art Students League. In 1931, she left New York for a while to attend the classes of famous professor Hans Hofmann in Munich and, once back in the United States in 1932, she worked in the studio of Diego Rivera and began to take part in several group exhibitions. Although her first solo exhibition took place in 1941 at the Nierendorf Gallery, the real turning point came in 1959 when her monochrome wooden sculptures were presented in the exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside such artists as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg or Franck Stella. She was acclaimed by critics and hailed for developing a new sculptural mode. 

It was precisely that year that Nevelson began experimenting with the color gold and produced The Bird Cage. For those unaware of the true meaning of this piece, it may seem that it refers to the song A Bird in a Gilded Cage, composed by Arthur J. Lamb and Harry Von Tilzer, which was very popular when Nevelson was a child. Indeed, marrying wealthy businessman Charles Nevelson may have been a way for her to escape her small town in Maine and it was not, in the end, a happy marriage, with her in-laws rejecting the artist’s lifestyle to which she aspired. The Bird Cage would thus echo the chorus of the song: “ And her beauty was sold for an old man’s gold, She’s a bird in a gilded cage.” Providing a marked contrast to her usual black or white palette, Nevelson acknowledges religious resonance in the color gold, as well as a natural and spiritual connection to the sun. Also employed to represent royalty and prosperity, when using this color, the artist recalled the promise made to her as a child, upon her arrival in America, that the streets “would be paved with gold”, an idea that never left her. Could The Bird Cage be an expression of the artist’s long journey to recognition, culminating in 1959, as she was about to turn 60 ? 

With little know as to its true significance, it nevertheless seems that Nevelson had a particular attachment to this piece, since she kept it in her personal collection for a few years before passing it on to one of her assistants, she who made an art of swathing each piece in mysticism, and who had the audacity to create, as she said, for her own self only.

 

LOT 15. LOUISE NEVELSON (1899-1988), The Bird Cage, 1959 - Painted wood - 55 x 35 x 31 cm  > VIEW LOT