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More Space For Sailing The Nevelson Legend

June 21, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Staff Writer

Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1899, Nevelson moved to the United States as a child. Though her parents accepted her early resolve to be an artist, she had a turbulent youth and early adulthood--marrying, giving birth to a son, separating, going to Munich to study and struggling with her art and suicidal notions.

As the prolific maker of room-size constructions--often built of boxes, artfully filled with wooden carpentry scraps--she is a pioneer of environment art and a giant among sculptors of both sexes. She has designed a "Sky Cathedral" for the Museum of Modern Art and an entire chapel for a Lutheran church in Manhattan's Citicorp Center.

Her reputation is so secure now and she is so swathed in honors (including a 1985 honorary doctorate from Harvard University), people tend to forget that she was 40 before she had her first solo exhibition and that her work wasn't widely appreciated until she was in her 60s.

"When I was young, I thought I would just have a ball. I was tall and everything was in the right place, but it didn't turn out that way," she said. "One doesn't like labor pains, but in my case it worked out. I'm more pleased to have lived this life than any other life.

"We come here pretty ready made," she continued. "We dye our hair a little bit, we cap our teeth a little bit, but it never dawned on me that I could do anything else. I was born to do this, but success is a little frightening. The demands. You're not free any longer.

"In the '70s, I looked back on my life and decided to give myself an emblem. You know how America has the eagle and every country has an emblem? Well, what do you think I chose for mine? The question mark. And you know, it cured me. It gave me a kind of peace."

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