Louis Nevelson’s “Dawn Shadows” Cannot Be Contained

Nevelson portrait

“The greatest thing we have is the awareness of the mind. There we can build mansions. There we have all the things that are not given to us on earth.”
Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations With Diana MacKown, by Louise Nevelson

They said only men could make giant-sized art. Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) wasn’t having it. She made art any size she pleased, compulsively and boundlessly, with no regard for the art world’s opinion of what a female artist should or shouldn’t make. Or how a woman should dress. Her fashion sense–gowns, lots of makeup, wacky hairstyles—was just as bold as her approach to making art.

She allegedly made her first sale only after 30 years of art-making. She wasn’t really recognized by the art world until she was in her ‘50s, and didn’t make an actual living from her work until she was in her 60s. Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Dawn Shadows,” at 200 W. Madison in downtown Chicago, is one of Nevelson’s signature large, monochromatic sculptures that you can’t stop examining. In the halcyon days before 9/11, the sculpture was famously visible from the nearby elevated train platform and the arresting sight  made you forget where you were going. It’s huge, it’s complicated, it’s made of wood and paint, but you think it’s metal.

Today, the sculpture is enclosed in a giant glass lobby created to accommodate a post-9/11 security desk. It’s a damn shame, too, because a sculpture this tremendous should not be contained. It deserves to be free, defying the rigid forms of Skidmore Owings Merrill skyscraper behind it just as Nevelson defied the norms of her time.

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