Mark Liebenrood

Versions of Louise Nevelson

Interviews with artists are often used as source material by art historians. But how reliable are those interviews? The provenance of them can be more complicated than it might appear at first. David Sylvester interviewed many artists, including Louise Nevelson. His interview with her in November 1963 was broadcast on the BBC, and a recording of that interview is held in the British Library’s archive.

The interview is most easily accessible in Sylvester’s book Interviews with American Artists, but the text printed there differs considerably from the broadcast interview. Not only was much of the broadcast cut from the printed version, but when working on a placement at Tate’s research department, I found that the available typed transcript of the original audio differed from the broadcast. Phrases in that transcript were not in the recording and had presumably been edited out for broadcast.

Altogether there would appear to be at least four versions of the interview:

* The edited transcript in Interviews with American Artists 1

* The recording of the BBC broadcast (available in the British Library)
and my transcript of a section of it used here. You can listen to that section of it using the player below.


* The transcript of what was presumably the recording of the original interview (below)

View this document on Scribd

* The original recording (unavailable)


The closest we can probably get to the original interview is a digital copy of the typed transcript. Below is the short section corresponding to the piece of broadcast audio I transcribed. All typos etc. are in the original.

The wall mentioned by Nevelson is catalogued on Tate’s website.

SYLVESTER: How long does it take you to do one of the bit walls, say 10ft. by 9ft., that sort of thing?

NEVELSON: Well it depends, you see there’s a lot of preparation. First you er- let’s assume that you prepare your boxes. At this point I do, whereas befiee picking them up, they were different sizes. Now the wall, here at the Tate was the first wall ever sold, and they’re different sizes, and they were never made, they were picked up – they were fruit boxes, litter boxes, all sorts of things. Now first you en— ensemble them and you take care of them. Then you get your wood, and then somehow in your subconscious, when you get enough of this, and enough of that, then you paint them, and you sort of nurse yourself with them, and then putting them together is not as difficult. Really the preparation is probably takes more time than putting them together.

SYLVESTER: You work on one at a time. (THE BOXES) Yes.

NEVELSON: Yes.

SYLVESTER: I mean one of the walls at a time (YES) Mm. And what will it be, a month’s work, two months work?

NEVELSON: Well yes, and sometimes more and sometimes yes. It depends on the wood you have, it depends on the size of the boxes and it is like everything else, sometimes it grows like a lot, and sometimes it doesn’t and you- you kind of stop in mid-stream and candidly with all of my experience I have quite— I have never quite finished a wall or anything, without kind of sagging a little in the middle. It is funny, it’s something like an energy gives way and then you pick up again, but it’s gettting better actually.

SYLVESTER: Do you find sometimes that you’re brought to a stop when working on a wall, because the- the sort of pieces that you want aren’t there in the house, and that you have to wait until-? (INTERRUPTION)

NEVELSON: That happens too (I DOES?) Yes, that happens too, because say for instance, a certain size of er- a certain size … belong to a certain size box and if you don’t have them, then you just can’t do anything about it, because?if you use smaller … it isn’t quite right. No, no, that happens too yes. But on the other hand you see, there are a lot of leeways, baoause I’ve used boxes within boxes. I reversed the box to get a certain texture, or I put— there are so many ways and when you’re acquainted with these things, that you can use them not necessarily in one way (NM) or you might break up a form, or break up a box to get a certain texture, or a rugged edge or a, – it’s like drawing too, you see, if you take a box, say, and you break it up, you have a lot of interesting shapes right there and you never can really superimpose, because the woods are never quite the same, they’re seasoned differently. Sometimes you find boxes -I have found this on the streets, that they’re already half—circles – it’s unbelievable, but it’s true. Through weathering or something, they have taken on the form, what would you say there .. (STUDIO CHAT) yes, and that is maybe through weathering, well but they can be very exciting.


This my transcription of the extract from the broadcast recording:

SYLVESTER: How long does it take you to do one of the big walls, say 10 foot by 9 foot, that sort of thing?

NEVELSON: Well it depends, you see there’s a lot of preparation. Let’s assume that you prepare your boxes, at this point I do, whereas before picking them up they were different sizes. Now the wall here at the Tate was the first wall ever sold and they’re different sizes and they were never made, they were picked up. They were fruit boxes, liquor boxes, all sorts of things. Now, first you ensemble them and you take care of them, then you get your woods and then somehow in your subconscious, when you get enough of this and enough of that, then you paint them and you sort of nurse yourself with them. Then putting them together is not as difficult, it really is the preparation takes more time than putting them together.

SYLVESTER: Do you work on one of the walls at a time?

NEVELSON: Yes.

SYLVESTER: And what would it be, a month’s work, two months work?

NEVELSON: Well yes, and sometimes more and sometimes less. It depends on the wood you have, it depends on the size of the boxes, and it is like everything else, sometimes it goes like a lock [or ‘lot’? word unclear] and sometimes it doesn’t and you kind of stop in mid-stream and candidly, with all of my experience, I have never quite finished a wall or anything without kind of sagging a little in the middle. It is funny, it’s something like an energy gives way and then you pick up again, but it’s getting better actually.

SYLVESTER: Do you find sometimes that you’re brought to a stop when working on a wall because the sort of pieces that you want aren’t there in the house and that you have to wait until you find more?

NEVELSON: (interrupting) That happens too, because say for instance certain size forms belong to a certain size box, and if you don’t have them – well you just can’t do anything about it because if you use smaller forms it isn’t quite right. On the other hand you see there are a lot of leeways because I’ve used boxes within boxes. There’s so many ways, when you’re acquainted with these things. If you take a box say, and you break it up, you have a lot of interesting shapes right there and you never can really superimpose because the woods are never quite the same, they’re seasoned differently. Sometimes you find boxes – I have found this on the street – where they’re already half circles, it’s unbelievable but it’s true. Through weathering or something, they have taken on the form but they can be very exciting.


Let’s compare the transcript of the original audio with my transcription of the broadcast. Text is of the original audio, typos and mistranscriptions corrected [in bold]. Bold also shows words added which were audible but not transcribed originally. Deletions show what appears to have been removed from the original recording.

SYLVESTER: How long does it take you to do one of the big walls, say 10ft. by 9ft., that sort of thing?

NEVELSON: Well it depends, you see there’s a lot of preparation. First you er- let’s assume that you prepare your boxes. At this point I do, whereas before picking them up, they were different sizes. Now the wall, here at the Tate was the first wall ever sold, and they’re different sizes, and they were never made, they were picked up. They were fruit boxes, liquor boxes, all sorts of things. Now first you en— ensemble them and you take care of them. Then you get your woods, and then somehow in your subconscious, when you get enough of this, and enough of that, then you paint them, and you sort of nurse yourself with them, and then putting them together is not as difficult. It really is the preparation probably takes more time than putting them together.

SYLVESTER: Do you work on one at a time. (THE BOXES) Yes.?

NEVELSON: Yes.

SYLVESTER: I mean one of the walls at a time? (YES) No. And what will it be, a month’s work, two months work?

NEVELSON: Well yes, and sometimes more and sometimes less. It depends on the wood you have, it depends on the size of the boxes and it is like everything else, sometimes it goes like a lock, and sometimes it doesn’t and you- you kind of stop in mid-stream and candidly with all of my experience I have quite— I have never quite finished a wall or anything, without kind of sagging a little in the middle. It is funny, it’s something like an energy gives way and then you pick up again, but it’s getting better actually.

SYLVESTER: Do you find sometimes that you’re brought to a stop when working on a wall, because the- the sort of pieces that you want aren’t there in the house, and that you have to wait until – you find more ? (INTERRUPTION)?

NEVELSON: That happens too (I DOES?) Yes, That happens too, because say for instance, a certain size of er- a certain size forms belong to a certain size box and if you don’t have them, then you just can’t do anything about it, because if you use smaller forms it isn’t quite right. No, no, that happens too yes. But On the other hand you see, there are a lot of leeways, because I’ve used boxes within boxes. I reversed the box to get a certain texture, or I put— There are so many ways and when you’re acquainted with these things. that you can use them not necessarily in one way (NM) or you might break up a form, or break up a box to get a certain texture, or a rugged edge or a, – it’s like drawing too, you see, If you take a box, say, and you break it up, you have a lot of interesting shapes right there and you never can really superimpose, because the woods are never quite the same, they’re seasoned differently. Sometimes you find boxes -I have found this on the streets, where they’re already half—circles – it’s unbelievable, but it’s true. Through weathering or something, they have taken on the form, what would you say there .. (STUDIO CHAT) yes, and that is maybe through weathering, well but they can be very exciting.

Most of the changes here are not significant, but two statements that Nevelson makes about her process are omitted from the broadcast: first that she sometimes reverses boxes or breaks them up to get a different texture, and secondly her comparison of assemblage of the boxes with drawing.


In the printed interview in Interviews with American Artists, much of this part of the interview is omitted. Below is the only section from it that occurs in the book.

Do you find sometimes that you’re brought to a stop when working on a wall, because the sort of pieces that you want aren’t there in the house, and that you have to wait until you find them?

Yes, that happens too, because, say, for instance, pieces of a certain size belong to a certain size box. And, if you don’t have them, then you just can’t do anything about it, because if you use smaller pieces it isn’t quite right. But on the other hand, you see, there are a lot of leeways, because I’ve used boxes within boxes. There are so many ways, and when you’re acquainted with these things, you can use them not necessarily in one way. You might break up a form or break up a box to get a certain texture or a rugged edge.


Compare Interviews with American Artists with my transcript of the broadcast audio:

Text is from the comparison above. Deletions are text missing from the printed version; bold text has been added or rearranged in the printed version.

SYLVESTER: Do you find sometimes that you’re brought to a stop when working on a wall, because the- the sort of pieces that you want aren’t there in the house, and that you have to wait until – you find more them? (INTERRUPTION) ?

NEVELSON: That happens too (I DOES?) Yes, that happens too, because, say, for instance, a certain size of er- a certain size … forms pieces of a certain size belong to a certain size box. And if you don’t have them, then you just can’t do anything about it, because if you use smaller forms pieces it isn’t quite right. No, no, that happens too yes. But on the other hand you see, there are a lot of leeways, because I’ve used boxes within boxes. I reversed the box to get a certain texture, or I put— There are so many ways and when you’re acquainted with these things, that you can use them not necessarily in one way. (NM) or You might break up a form, or break up a box to get a certain texture, or a rugged edge. or a, – it’s like drawing too, you see, If you take a box, say, and you break it up, you have a lot of interesting shapes right there and you never can really superimpose, because the woods are never quite the same, they’re seasoned differently. Sometimes you find boxes – I have found this on the streets, where they’re already half—circles – it’s unbelievable, but it’s true. Through weathering or something, they have taken on the form, what would you say there .. (STUDIO CHAT) yes, and that is maybe through weathering, well but they can be very exciting.

It seems clear from this that Sylvester relied on the transcript, because the errors in it (pieces for forms is the main example) are reproduced in his edited text. As in the broadcast, Nevelson’s description of her process – reversing boxes, breaking them up – is omitted. Also omitted is her description of the subtleties and qualities of materials that she seems to delight in and the comparison she makes of her process with drawing. Why Sylvester chose to remove these revealing parts of the interview remains a mystery.

 


  1. Interviews with American Artists, David Sylvester, London 2002.
    PP. 16-23. 

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