Louise Nevelson spent much of her life in New York City, which she saw as ‘a great big sculpture’, and her work embodies the ever-changing clutter of the urban metropolis. She would regularly collect discarded objects or scrap wood from the city’s streets and use them as sculptural materials. In the late 1950s, such household refuse proliferated as many run-down neighbourhoods faced demolition and redevelopment. As Nevelson assembled the intimate boxes for works like Black Wall 1959, she too faced eviction from her home and studio on East 30th Street.
Many of Nevelson’s sculptures were painted black, unifying the disparate components and obscuring decorative details. However, she also produced groups of works painted in white and gold, such as An American Tribute to the British People 1960–4. Reminiscent of an altarpiece, its design chimes with the ceremonial titles that Nevelson often chose for her most ornamented constructions. Several of Nevelson’s large-scale sculptures were first shown in wall-to-wall installations with theatrical lighting. The composition of boxes could be rearranged to suit different contexts, and in some cases, boxes were moved from one work to another. Nevelson’s use of modular units and her concern with the relationship between the artwork and the space in which it is installed anticipate some of the key developments in contemporary sculpture since the 1960s.