Renewing a Masterwork - The Story of Nevelson Chapel

December 19, 2020

In the early 20th century, a young girl named Leah Berliawsky and her family fled from Ukraine to America due to raging antisemitism, and years later she became known as Louise Nevelson, one of the most relevant female artists and the pioneering sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

By combining Surrealism and Cubism with her own experience as a woman and a refugee, she formed her trademark vocabulary characterized by wooden assemblages of discarded objects that proved to be seminal for the later development of Conceptual and Feminist art. By the 1950s, Nevelson was an internationally acclaimed artist who was saluted for the innovative approach to sculpture-making and the proclamation of public art. Despite the fact her artistic practice coincided with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, she avoided labeling herself a feminist, and described her connection to the movement by replying "I am feminism."

One of the crucial elements in Nevelson's practice was New York City, a place that inspired her even during its darkest times. She observed the city as a playground and a site of indefinite possibilities where her environments can develop with ease.

The ultimate artwork that represents Nevelson’s relationship with New York and stands as a prime example of her mature phase as an artist is the Nevelson Chapel – the space launched in a decade when the city faced bankruptcy to provide a heaven for anyone requiring piece and silence. 

Nevelson Chapel, Saint Peter’s Church, New York © 2020 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Nevelson Chapel – The Place Of Transcendence

Namely, in 1977 Louise Nevelson was commissioned to design a chapel for Saint Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan. Located at the heart of CitiCorp Center at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue, it functioned as a public sanctuary for residents, commuters, and tourists.

This tranquil, white installation consisting of nine wall-mounted sculptural elements, embalmed with gold leaf and subjected to the interplay of shadow and light coming from a sole window, is a profoundly transformative environment rightfully described by Nevelson as "an oasis of silence" from the New York hustle.

The Nevelson Chapel is the only remaining sculptural environment by the artist. Over the past two years, it has been going through a renovation process aimed to revitalize and maintain this astonishing structure for future generations.

Renewing a Masterwork: Arne Glimcher on Nevelson Chapel

The Pace Gallery Fundraiser

The fundraising campaign titled Renewing a Masterwork was launched to support the renovation. Pace Gallery, who have been representing Nevelson since 1963, joined in with the current online charity exhibition Louise Nevelson: Three Collages to support the initiative.

These three collages were made between 1977 and 1979, and they can be perceived as perfect examples of the artist’s continual interest in assembling different found materials in intense pictorial constellations.

In relation to the exhibition, it is important to note that currently, the Nevelson Chapel is collecting donations from individual contributors to reach their $5.75 million goal not only to restore the installation but also to spread awareness of this significant New York gem. For that reason, 60% of the entire proceeds from the online exhibition sales will go to the Chapel’s restoration. David Diamond, Chair of the Nevelson Legacy Council briefly underlined the significance of the initiative:

Nevelson Chapel is both a critical work in the development of modern sculpture and a gateway to further innovations in site-specific immersive environments. The Chapel provides a vibrant link between the history of modern sculpture and the development of conceptual art. 

Left: Louise Nevelson - Untitled, 1977. Cardboard, foil, and paper on board, 36" x 23-3/4" (91.4 cm x 60.3 cm) / Center: Louise Nevelson - Untitled, 1979. Cardboard and wood collage on board, 22" × 18" × 1" (55.9 cm × 45.7 cm × 2.5 cm) 22-3/4" × 18-13/16" × 2" (57.8 cm × 47.8 cm × 5.1 cm), frame / Right: Louise Nevelson - Untitled, 1977. Cardboard, foil, newsprint, paint, paper, sandpaper and wood collage on board, 37" x 25" (94 cm x 63.5 cm). Courtesy Pace

Preserving The Nevelson Chapel

Needless to say, the Nevelson Chapel is an extremely valuable example of this 20th-century art form that indicates the artist’s contribution to the conception and introduction of the form not only in terms of art history but moreover in terms of the articulation of communal spiritual engagement.

Although the chapel is a result of Nevelson's interpretation of her Jewish roots of the artist and the themes and images of Christian traditions, it goes beyond singular interpretation in its sacred expression. In 1977 at the Chapel's dedication, the historian, theologian and Union Seminary Professor, John Dillenberger, wrote of Nevelson’s installation:

Louise Nevelson has created many walls, and her sculptures grace many spaces. This meditation chapel, however, is the only work in which she has had the opportunity to form the total environmental ambiance. One is surrounded by her arresting, symbolic creations, true to the inheritance of the theological tradition, but freed of the iconographic literalness. It was her genius to take the perceptions of her own spirit, nourished out of, but not identical with, her Jewish inheritance, and relate them sensitively to the symbolic import of the chapel which is essentially Christian. 

Alongside a couple of other 20th century chapels by other Modernist masters, Nevelson Chapel stands shoulder to shoulder with Henri Matisse’s Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence and Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston, Texas.

Therefore, the renovation of the same is much needed in a broader context of the cultural heritage and the fact the chapel was conceived by one of the most influential 20th-century artists who incorporated the energy of New York into her oeuvre. Another aspect concerning the relevance of the renovation is related to the general loss of the cities’ human-scale spaces and the supremacy of commercial urbanism.

Featured image: Nevelson Chapel, Saint Peter's Church, New York, photography by Thomas Magno © 2020 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Louise Nevelson, photography by Diana Mackowan © 2020 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Follow These Artists

Follow These Galleries

Pace Gallery New York

New York City, United States of America