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PILGRIMAGE

From Ukraine to Maine: How Louise Nevelson’s roots shaped her into one of the most important artists of the 20th century

Her story illuminates what can happen when doors open, not close.

Sculptor Louise Nevelson photographed in her New York City studio in 1983. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

ROCKLAND, Maine — Main Street in Rockland at the first breath of spring is still a place in hibernation, its posh, mostly closed boutiques and restaurants awaiting the return of the well-heeled summer people from cities to the south. But sloughing off the winter chill brings a reliable promise. Soon enough, Rockland, pinned to the rocky shore of midcoast Maine, will be as lively and urbane as New York’s West Village.

It’s something Louise Nevelson never could have imagined, growing up here more than a century ago. For Nevelson, who went on to become the doyenne of American Modern Art, Rockland was mostly a place she was in a big hurry to leave — a “WASP Yankee town,” as she later recalled, with a grinding ritual of antisemitism and closed-mindedness. Even so, it beat the alternative. Nevelson’s family had abandoned Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century when she was a child, fleeing the pogroms that had claimed untold thousands of Jewish lives. Arriving in Maine in 1905, she would find first refuge, then comfort, and the narrow path to her destiny. Nevelson died in her SoHo studio in New York in 1988, a groundbreaking and revered artist, the epitome of the American Dream.

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By the end, Nevelson and her old hometown had reconciled past differences in a major way. In the 1980s, she gave the Farnsworth Museum of American Art here dozens of works. With nearly 100, only the Whitney in New York has more. The Farnsworth is planning a fresh tribute to her this fall, making a special presentation of the major works in its collection.

Rockland’s Main Street waking up to its annual spring rejuvenation. Louise Nevelson, one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, came to Rockland, Maine, from Ukraine in 1905. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s hard not to think of Nevelson now, while millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, scatter and disperse as the murderous Russian assault on their country redoubles in the east, leaving atrocities just north of Kyiv in its wake for the world to see. Nevelson was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian empire, in a small town south and east of Kyiv called Pereiaslav. It is beyond the direct Russian assault, at least for now. But it’s a safe guess that people have fled Pereiaslav for the country’s western borders; and from there, the unknown. In the midst of a crisis that’s created more than 4 million refugees in just over a month, it’s worth thinking about one family that followed the same path more than a century ago — and the good that can happen when doors open, not close.

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Nevelson’s best-known works — giant sculptures cobbled of wooden fragments like balusters and chair legs, baseboards and crown moulding, painted flat black — are essential for the permanent collection of any serious museum in the country. (Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge has a great one, broad and towering and textured with mysterious forms, like a wall torn from an ancient temple.) But the line between what Nevelson became and what might have been is chillingly thin.

In the 1880s, her father, Isaac Berliawsky, watched his older siblings slip out of Pereiaslav, their lives at stake, as he cared for their parents. In 1902, right after his mother’s death, Isaac left for Maine while his wife, Minna, and their three young children stayed behind, waiting until he could afford to bring them over. Three years later, Minna arrived in Rockland with 6-year-old Louise and her two brothers.

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Louise Nevelson (back row, center) with her basketball teammates, 1913. Photographer unknown. Louise Nevelson papers, circa 1903–1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The Berliawskys arrived bewildered by unfamiliarity and shunned by locals. Jews fleeing Russia had settled in large numbers in big cities; in Rockland, there was no such community. Minna, depressed, built for herself a shield of elaborate dress and heavy makeup, something Louise would carry forward years later.

Before the family arrived, Isaac had worked as a lumberjack and eventually owned a junkyard; while Louise was young, his English was only ever rudimentary, a “handicap,” she said in the 1977 documentary “Nevelson in Process.” “I made up my mind that I would not be handicapped,” she added.

Her childhood helped seed the fundamentals of her work. Some tell of a young Louise combing for scraps on nearby town beaches; the junkyard business was a constant exercise in salvage and reuse. Nevelson’s world was one of chaos and fractures, and her family’s struggle to create order from it. When I look at her towering works, that’s what I see: shattered history and memory, lovingly pieced together into something eerily beautiful and whole.

Louise saw art as a way out. When she was 9, the bronze sculpture of Joan of Arc at the Rockland Public Library set her path. She told the librarian that she wanted to be an artist, and then corrected herself. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to be a sculptor. I don’t want color to help me.’”

Artist Anthony Esteves works in the gymnasium of Louise Nevelson’s former high school in Rockland, Maine. Nevelson was the captain of the basketball team and played on this floor, now studio space for several artists. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

She and her siblings fell into the rhythms of small-town American life. In high school, Louise’s artistic outlet was drawing interior scenes, said her granddaughter Maria Nevelson, who runs the Louise Nevelson Foundation. She was also captain of her high school basketball team, posed in the middle of a 1913 team photo in the gym. (The school is now a nonprofit artists’ studio building; the gym is occupied by woodworking artists, which she’d no doubt enjoy.)

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But in her later years, Nevelson described herself as an outsider. ”She saw the world differently,” Maria told me. “She marched to the beat of her own drum.” She found an escape with Charles Nevelson, a wealthy shipping executive from New York she met in Rockland while working as a stenographer after high school. They married in Boston in 1920 and moved to New York, where her world broke open.

Louise was smitten with the dynamic city suddenly at her feet, taken by the theater and dance and art she saw everywhere. Her enthrallment with the city strained the marriage. In 1922, their son, Mike, was born, and Charles moved the family to suburban Mount Vernon in 1924. Isolated from the city she loved, Louise was grim and resentful. By the early ‘30s, the marriage had all but dissolved. In 1931, at the height of the Depression, she took Mike to her family in Rockland and went to study art in Germany with Hans Hofmann, an influential teacher who would help seed the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s.

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Louise Nevelson, "Maine Meadows, Old County Road, Rockland, Maine," 1931. The painting hangs in the artist's hometown museum, Rockland's Farnsworth Museum of American Art. © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the Farnsworth, there’s a bright and folksy painting by Nevelson from 1931, made just before her trip to Germany. It’s remarkable, in that it betrays nothing of what she would become, with its rolling hills, little cottages, and barns in friendly bunches. But it’s a departure point, a giddy declaration of liberation and joy. She came back from Germany months later with a head full of ideas about abstraction and collage, determined to make it as an artist in New York.

The Depression hampered her efforts. She would spend the next decade struggling to get by, Maria said, living on and off with her husband, or in tenements in lower Manhattan taking money from family in Rockland while hunting for scraps on the street to feed her blossoming art practice.

It would be years before success would come in any real way. As a woman in an art scene dominated by men, Nevelson was often dismissed. A review of her first exhibition at New York’s Nierendorf Gallery in 1941 read: “We learned the artist is a woman in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns.”

But a great figure is exactly what she became. Louise Nevelson Plaza, filled with her public sculpture, is a permanent landmark near Wall Street; she has a legacy of influence for a practice as captivatingly powerful as it is unique. In her work, she built a home. At Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that’s almost the literal truth: “Mrs. N’s Palace,” her magnum opus, sits at the heart of its Modern galleries. It’s an apartment-size piece, black as ash, its surface rippling with the texture of hundreds of objects embedded in its skin. Made over years, from 1964 to 1977, it feels darkly spiritual and totemic, a refuge that would keep her safe by swallowing her whole.

Louise Nevelson, "Mrs. N's Palace," 1964–77, as currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nevelson gave the piece to the museum in 1985. © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photo by Murray Whyte/Globe Staff

But Nevelson, a bright spirit with energy to burn, needed no such protection. With her thick false eyelashes made from real mink and bright drapes of silk that served as head wrap and long flowing robes, she was flamboyant and exotic. New York, bursting with culture, was her natural habitat, a place made for her.

She made the journey back to Rockland one last time. In July 1979, just shy of her 80th birthday, Nevelson accepted an invitation to be honored in her old hometown. The Farnsworth had uninstalled all its landscape paintings and ship models to become a Nevelson tribute museum. She had left almost 60 years before, glad to be gone. She returned a conquering hero. A lovely TV documentary from the day, by “CBS Sunday Morning,” shows Nevelson happily signing books, chatting with townspeople, and excitedly offering ideas for a public artwork that the town invited her to make.

Louise Nevelson, 79, in July 1979, returning to her childhood home of Rockland, Maine, where she was honored by the Farnsworth Museum of American Art. Associated Press/file

“We’ve been so busy building this country, we haven’t gotten to the point that people believe they can rest!” she says in the film, lecturing the town’s planning commission on the value of European plazas as places of respite filled with culture. Eventually, she arrives at the library, where she’d seen Joan of Arc all those years before, and picks the spot for her new artwork-to-be.

The town of Rockland is still waiting for its Louise Nevelson, the library’s front lawn notably bare. Jane Bianco, the acting chief curator at the Farnsworth, told me the commission couldn’t be finalized before Nevelson died.

In this moment of strife, isn’t now the time to consider a permanent public tribute? It would be more than an outward symbol of a small town’s ties to a giant of American art. It would be an enduring reminder for a fractured country of its best self: a beacon of opportunity and hope.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.