March 24, 1958: Life magazine’s cover depicts sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) wearing a witch’s hat and crouching behind one of her creations.

The magazine’s cover article reveals to the nation Nevelson’s “Moon Garden + One” exhibition at the Grand Central Moderns gallery in New York, which opened in January that year and elevates Nevelson, who grew up in Rockland, from the ranks of merely successful sculptors to a major innovative force in the art world.

The sculptor’s work consists of 116 boxes and some free-standing platforms supporting wooden collages. Each box contains black-stained wood scraps that Nevelson collected in a variety of locations, including driftwood from the coast of Maine. The exhibition, shown in a darkened space, nearly envelops gallery visitors. Art critics’ reactions vary, but they agree on the universally striking effect it has on those who see it.

The following December, Nevelson’s similarly enveloping “Dawn’s Wedding Feast” appears at the Museum of Modern Art, but it is all white. The change reflects Nevelson’s lifelong habit of continually gravitating toward different styles, approaches and art media.

Born in what is now Kyiv, Ukraine, Nevelson arrived in Rockland at the age of 6. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, she spoke Yiddish at home and felt like an outsider in the community. She graduated from Rockland High School, having flourished in art classes and become convinced of her own talent. A short marriage to a rich New York City ship owner provided her admission ticket to the Big Apple’s art world. Once there, she launched a diverse and attention-grabbing career that culminated with her election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters when she was 80.

She had a penchant for wearing stylishly flamboyant clothes, even before she became successful. In the 1930s and 1940s she became known as “The Hat” because of the many colorful hats she wore. Her biographer, Laurie Wilson, writes about Nevelson that “even when she was broke, she managed to look like a million dollars.”

Her work is exhibited today in many major museums and galleries, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York; and the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.

Visitors to New York also can see some of her sculptures at Louise Nevelson Plaza, a triangular-shaped, skyscraper-enveloped plot in the city’s financial district that she designed and the city named in her honor in 1978.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at:

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