Bringing Art Home: Louise Nevelson Shadow Boxes


It’s funny that Louise Nevelson’s wooden sculptures resemble jigsaw puzzles because as an artist, she doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. She is the rare kind of artist that has been both canonized and minimized by the art world — her works are held in some of the world’s most prestigious art collections, but her name is rarely uttered in art history textbooks and introductory lectures. Part of this might have to do with the art establishment’s unfortunate bias toward male artists, but Nevelson’s greatly underestimated importance seems much more related to her work’s sheer inability to be defined. Though creative forces in their own right, artists like Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol fit more or less securely into the larger narrative of art history, and their work is emblematic of the cultural zeitgeists of their time. Nevelson, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal, with enigmatic three-dimensional works that defy all the standard -isms. While her works certainly nod to predecessors and contemporaries like Picasso and Duchamp, they appear to have no stylistic allegiance. Even when paired with other artists’ works, as happened at MoMA’s recent Abstract Expressionist retrospective, Louise Nevelson’s work stands out, not quite sure where to fit in but utterly captivating.

Above Image: Sky Cathedral, 1958. Wood, painted black. From the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

Born in the Ukraine in 1899 and raised in Maine, Louise Nevelson displayed a zealous interest in art from a very young age. In its 1988 obituary for Nevelson, the New York Times wrote, “A feeling for wood had been bred into her, and by the time she was 6 she was already working with small pieces of wood that she had scavenged from her father’s lumber yard. She told friends in later years that in school she was always cold and only found warmth when she was in art class.”

As a young woman, Nevelson studied art at New York’s Art Students League and the artist Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich. A wildly creative individual, Nevelson entertained various artistic pursuits during her young adult life, ranging from modern dance to painting, but her original predilection toward tactile, three-dimensional work stayed with her throughout her career. In the 1930s, she returned to her first love: sculpture. In the 1940s and 1950s, Nevelson’s work matured into what she is most well known for: large-scale mural-like sculptures composed of wooden boxes filled with all manner of bric-a-brac. Although many of Nevelson’s works are composed from seemingly random scraps of wood and leftover architectural elements, she has skillfully created a unified whole through cohesive, monochromatic color schemes. One of her famous wall pieces might be constructed from bits of old chairs, scrap wood, salvaged railings and rusted gears, but all of these disparate pieces have been abstracted into a unity of form through a coat of paint. In the end, that seems to be what Nevelson’s pieces are about: a celebration of formal beauty and the simple elements that created it.

Above Image: Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–1977. Painted wood, mirror. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although Nevelson blazed the trail with these newfangled assemblages, her work is quite simple at its core: It’s a collection of objects, arranged beautifully and painted a single, unifying color. Because of this, numerous artists, professional and amateur alike, have adopted similar aesthetics. So, too, have countless art teachers. I can still clearly recall when I was taught to make Nevelson-esque miniatures in my elementary school art class. As educational devices, the lessons provided by Louise Nevelson’s work can be quite illuminating. They illustrate the power and simplicity of materials, no matter how humble, to create something beautiful.

To celebrate this wonderful (and oftentimes unappreciated) artist, we decided to put together a wonderfully simple Nevelson-inspired DIY sculpture of our own. Perhaps you, too, will be inspired to make one of your own! For full instructions, continue after the jump! — Max

Above Image: Sky Cathedral, 1982. Painted wood. From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


  • small wooden or cardboard box
  • hot glue gun
  • black spray paint
  • spray primer (if you’re using plastic or glossy items that are more difficult to spray paint)
  • an assortment of objects (Objects should be no larger than the size of your box. We chose a collection of items from our local dollar store, but this is also a wonderful opportunity to recycle old, unused objects or to have some fun dumpster diving!)



1. This really couldn’t be simpler: glue your objects, however you see fit, into your box using your hot glue gun. The more space you use and the more dynamic your composition, the better!

2. Spray paint it! You might need to apply a few coats to get everything covered. If you’re painting over shiny metals, plastics or any other material that doesn’t readily accept spray paint, you might want to coat your piece with a spray primer before applying your final spray paint color. Take your time with the spraying, and be sure to get deep inside all the nooks and crannies of your piece!

3. Pop a string on the back of your box and hang it on the wall! Presto — your own handmade Nevelson art!



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