An American Tribute to the British People is an abstract gold sculpture comprised of thirty-five open-faced shallow wooden boxes, assembled in a monumental shape more than four metres long and three metres high. It belongs to Nevelson’s series of ‘wall’ sculptures, and most of the boxes are arranged to form a high, flattened plane like a relief sculpture, which is placed against the gallery wall. On each side, a lower group of boxes protrudes at right angles towards the viewer, creating a shallow, enclosing space. The boxes, whose open fronts face forwards, are filled with intricate, irregular arrangements of diverse and fragmentary wooden objects both rough and smooth. Some components are identifiable as slats, furniture legs or pieces of decorative trim, often with embedded nails or hooks still visible, while others are less readily recognisable. Although each box is unique, Nevelson has assembled them in a symmetrical composition that is rigorously ordered and defined by strong vertical lines. The assemblage is painted a gleaming metallic gold that unifies the constellation of objects.
Nevelson filled her downtown New York City studios with wooden materials, mostly salvaged from the streets around her. From 1958 she used boxes as sculptural units, filling them with bold and complex arrangements before bringing a number of them together within a larger composition (see also Black Wall 1959, Tate T00514). These configurations were often subject to later rearrangement, and Nevelson sometimes reused portions of earlier works when creating new ones. Although An American Tribute to the British People consists of only thirty-five boxes, the invoice for its donation in 1965 specifies forty, which suggests that there may have been a larger version at an earlier stage. Some units are individually dated to 1960, 1961 and 1962, and three can be identified as comprising part of a different sculpture exhibited in London in 1963. Asked to clarify the work’s date, Nevelson’s dealer Arnold B. Glimcher described it as having been ‘in an organic growth state, constantly being recomposed from 1960–1964’ (letter to Ronald Alley, 19 April 1976, Tate Gallery Archive, A21339). By the time of the 1965 donation, the sculpture’s final form had been determined.
Nevelson had been painting her sculptures a single shade since the 1940s, mostly matte black. In the early 1960s, however, she experimented with gold works, several of which were arranged to make an immersive environment for her pavilion representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1962. Nevelson’s interest in the colour gold was twofold: she associated it with natural materials and sunlight but also with prosperity. Nevelson also specified that she did not intend her works to reflect on their own materials, but to elevate and transform them. In 1976 she explained: ‘I think the gold enhanced the forms, enriched them. I loved it’ (quoted in MacKown 1976, p.145).
Reflecting her taste for poetic titles and her enduring fascination with royalty and palaces, many works in Nevelson’s gold series were given titles containing the word ‘royal’, such as Royal Tide I 1960 (private collection). Asked by Tate to comment on her choice of donation, she replied through Glimcher in March 1966:
Mrs Nevelson does, in fact, feel that this particular work is especially appropriate for your monarchial country. Its cathedral-like aspect, which seems to present the viewer with an altar at which to kneel, perhaps to receive some royal blessing, and its gilded splendour (which needs re-doing with ordinary gold spray paint every two years or so) were considered peculiarly appropriate.
(Quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.555.)
An American Tribute to the British People was not exhibited or reproduced prior to acquisition, and the title was evidently chosen as a description of the artist’s gift.
In the late 1950s, Nevelson’s move towards an almost architectural scale brought much-delayed critical and commercial success. The combination of formal originality and monumental abstraction saw her work likened to celebrated contemporary abstract expressionist painting.
Diana MacKown (ed.), Dawns + Dusks: Louise Nevelson, New York 1976.
Louise Nevelson: Atmospheres and Environments, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1980, reproduced pp.134–5, 151, 175.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport (ed.), The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, New Haven and London 2007.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.