Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959. Painted wood, installation view of work as re-created for “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson.” © David Heald / © Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Nevelson’s Dawn’s Wedding Feast: Re-Finding the Found Object

“The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend” (on view at The Jewish Museum in New York through September 16, 2007 and traveling to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, October 27, 2007–January 13, 2008) presents 66 works including sculpture, drawings, and two room-size masterworks by the towering 20th-century sculptor. This first major American museum survey of Nevelson’s work since 1980 provided the occasion to re-assemble her major installation from 1959, Dawn’s Wedding Feast. With some detective work, the majority of the far-flung objects in the installation were located, and the found objects re-found, something Nevelson would have appreciated.

In 1959, Nevelson (1899-1988) was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to participate in “Sixteen Americans,” part of its series of exhibitions featuring new American art. Until that time, Nevelson’s sculpture had largely consisted of found wood objects painted black. She took this opportunity to explore a different monochromatic color, and her response to MoMA curator Dorothy C. Miller was: “Dear, we’ll make a white show.” The curator recalled that Nevelson made the momentous change from all-black to all-white sculpture “just like that.”

Nevelson had exhibited discrete sculptures in museum exhibitions before. She made her museum debut in a 1935 show of young sculptors at the Brooklyn Museum, and beginning in 1946, she was a regular participant in Whitney Museum Annuals. But in 1959, she created a spellbinding room-size installation just for “Sixteen Americans.” She was in good company—Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella were all in the show. They were young men in their 20s and 30s; Nevelson was 60 years old. Of this overdue debut, she remarked, “My whole life’s been late.”

She may have been late, but age did not stop Nevelson from constructing powerhouse projects. Dawn’s Wedding Feast was a breakout work that put her in the public eye and helped bring about her recognition as a great American artist. Although Nevelson did not regard this work as a literal wedding, the abstract white wood pieces made of found objects evoked a bride and groom, wedding chapels, and attendants. There was a wedding mirror, a wedding chest, and a wedding pillow.

In 1959, the project commanded a 14-x-24-x-22-foot space. At The Jewish Museum, it takes on similar dimensions. In 1959, it was Nevelson’s wish that the entire installation remain intact and be purchased by one collector or one museum. To her regret, the parts were separated, either dispersed to various collections or returned to the studio and used in other works. In 2007, for “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend,” those extant fragments have been located and are on loan to The Jewish Museum.

Twelve different public and private collections have lent sections of Dawn’s Wedding Feast to re-create the work. The difficult feat of tracing and re-uniting the parts recalls the steps taken by curators of ancient art to locate dispersed fragments from a tomb or temple in order to display the past. Here, a 20th-century artwork dispersed almost 50 years ago has now been re-created much as Nevelson intended.

Each object has a story behind it. For example, MoMA curator Dorothy C, Miller (1904-2003) personally acquired two of the hanging columns from Dawn’s Wedding Feast directly from the artist. Those two works, now in a private collection, were found through Miller’s biographer, who knew the late curator’s holdings intimately. The Museum of Modern Art purchased two other hanging columns in 1960. In 1962, Nevelson incorporated the installation’s Bride and Groom into America-Dawn, a large white work in the Art Institute of Chicago collection. In 2005, the Bride and Groom were located when a team from the Art Institute and The Jewish Museum identified them in an off-site storage facility. In the 1970s and 1980s, portions of Dawn’s Wedding Feast were accessioned into the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Menil Collection, the Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art collections. A large part of Dawn’s Wedding Feast was re-assembled for “Atmospheres and Environments,” a 1980 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.