Louise Nevelson: Dawn's Wedding Feast

Ruzan Haruriunyan's picture

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will give Washington's art-going public a rare treat when it presents Louise Nevelson: Dawn's Wedding Feast through May 18, 2008.

This room-sized installation, artist Louise Nevelson's groundbreaking assemblage, is the first in a series of monumental sculptures created by Nevelson (1899-1988) from found wood objects, a conceptual style that thrust the Ukrainian-born artist to the forefront of the American art scene in the second half of the 20th century.

Nevelson created Wedding Feast in 1959 for the now legendary exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After the exhibition, unable to find a single buyer for the sculptural suite, Nevelson reconfigured its components into sixteen stand-alone sculptures which were eventually sold to private collectors and museums.

In 1994, through the generosity of an anonymous donor, NMWA was given one of the columns—a wedding guest—from Dawn's Wedding Feast. An important addition to the museum's collection, this sculpture—like many of the sculpture's components—had existed outside its original context for nearly half a century. Upon learning the The Jewish Museum in New York intended to reconstruct the room-size installation for its Fall 2007 retrospective, Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, NMWA seized the opportunity to bring Dawn's Wedding Feast to audiences in Washington, DC.

In order to mount this ambitious show, Jewish Museum staff were faced with a detective challenge: tracking down the pieces of this extraordinary sculpture, now scattered to collections throughout the country. They succeeded, reconstructing the entire sculpture less a few minor components. The NMWA installation will feature the reconstructed Chapel II.

"We are thrilled to be able to present Dawn's Wedding Feast here in Washington," said Dr. Jordana Pomeroy, NMWA senior curator of art. "It's one of 20th century's seminal pieces of art. You cannot exaggerate its importance and its continuing influence on artists even now, fifty years after its conception and first showing."

The Sixteen Americans exhibition at MoMA in 1959 signaled a seismic shift in the art world by featuring members of a new generation, among them Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and, of course, Nevelson—artists who balked at the orthodoxy of Abstract Expressionism. In 1959, Johns was 29 years old, Kelly was 36, Rauschenberg was 34, and Stella was 23. Nevelson, whose pioneering white installation was her true public debut, was 60 years old. Of her inclusion in Sixteen Americans, she remarked "my whole life's been late."

Late or not, Dawn's Wedding Feast made an immediate impact on the art world. Consisting of four wedding chapels, a cake, chest, mirror, pillow, several attendants (stationary and hanging columns), and a bride and groom, all in white-painted, abstracted wooden forms, Wedding Feast was praised for its innovative symbolism. It launched Nevelson's career.

On a personal level, Dawn's Wedding Feast may have been Nevelson's response to her own failed marriage to a well-to-do businessman. Many have speculated that the sculpture's theme and use of white paint were emblematic of union and of hope, possibility, and new beginnings. Despite this, Nevelson never remarried, preferring her career in art to marriage.

Nevelson's unique contribution to American modernism was to create art from cast-off wood parts, actual street throwaways, and transform them with monochromatic spray paint in wood boxes of asymmetrical sequences. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the 1980s, Nevelson's sculpture developed from tabletop pieces to human-scale columns to room-size walls, and ultimately installation and public art that competed with the monumentality of their architectural surroundings.

Almost overshadowing her accomplishments as an artist—her groundbreaking sculpture, public commissions, and ensuing critical acclaim—was her outsize public persona, characterized by flashy ethnic garb and couture, fanciful headgear including a black velvet riding hat, massive neckwear, and ten layers of mink eyelashes. In the end, though, she forged a distinct visual language that earned her the title "grande dame of contemporary sculpture."

"Her work was so individual that it defies easy labels," said Pomeroy. "It has been linked with movements as diverse as Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, installation art, and feminism."

Accompanying the NMWA showing of Dawn's Wedding Feast will be The Jewish Museum's 256-page catalog The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, is the only museum dedicated solely to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing, and literary arts. Its permanent collection contains works by more than 800 artists. The Museum is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon - 5 p.m.

The presentation of Louise Nevelson: Dawn's Wedding Feast at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is generously sponsored by Lois Lehrman Grass, Mildred and George Weissman, and special friends of NMWA. -- www.nmwa.org

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