The Conviction of Louise

In 1941, Louise Nevelson walked into Karl Nierendorf’s Gallery on East 57th Street.

Mr. Nierendorf and his gallery were known and prestigious. Ms. Nevelson was neither.

She was an artist. And she sculpted with wood. Wood was practically in her blood. Her father had been in the lumber business back in Ukraine where she was born.

Ukraine was a cold country and Ms. Nevelson didn’t care for cold weather. When her father decided he wanted to start a new life for his family, he moved them to the cold coast of Maine and opened another lumber business there.

In school, Ms. Nevelson was cold in every room and every class. Except for one: art. It was not a matter of temperature or weather. It was a matter of fact that when it came to art, Ms. Nevelson – as she would say – generated her own heat.

She sculpted with castoff planks, scraps, splinters, whatever wood she could find. And wood was what she stayed with as she grew up, moved out, went to New York.

The New York sculpture world was one of men and torches and metal. And Ms. Nevelson was a deviation who went unnoticed for 20 years. “I was often depressed and alone,” she said of that time. She had no money, no acclaim. “But I was functioning as my own person and that kept me going.”

After 20 years of being dismissed, Ms. Nevelson had had enough. This heat, this work of hers deserved to be seen. Not just anywhere, but somewhere. And the somewhere she decided on was Karl Nierendorf’s Gallery, the most somewhere of all somewheres.

So, one day in 1941, Ms. Nevelson walked into Karl Nierendorf’s Gallery. She walked in with no reputation, no right to be there. Just the conviction of someone functioning as her own person.

Which was enough. That day, Mr. Nierendorf agreed to see her work that night. That night, Mr. Nierendorf agreed to exhibit her work next month.

And so began Ms. Nevelson’s career – and a heat-filled career, at that – as one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed female artists.

“Humans really are heir to every possibility within themselves,” she once asserted. “And it is only up to us to admit it and accept it.”

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