In 1957, Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) installed one of her first “Sky Cathedral” sculptures in the lobby of her brother’s hotel, the historic Thorndike Hotel in Rockland, Maine. It hung there for ten years until it was acquired by the pioneering collectors of American sculpture Jean and Howard Lipman. The Lipmans displayed the massive wooden assemblage of black painted boxes in Howard Lipman’s Manhattan business office. Sky Cathedral (1957) became a central piece in the family’s collection when in the 1970s they moved to Arizona and built a new house to accommodate its monumental scale. Their son Peter, along with his wife, Beverly, generously donated the sculpture to the San Jose Museum of Art in 2010.

Louise Nevelson: The Fourth Dimension brings this important work in SJMA’s permanent collection together with personal objects and ephemera from the Peter and Beverly Lipman Collection. Notes from the artist, rare books, and a single black box sculpture made for Jean and Howard Lipman reveal the intimate relationship between the artist and the collectors. The exhibition considers the influence of Sky Cathedral on works Nevelson made in the following decades, including lesser-known wall reliefs and a collage recently acquired by SJMA and on view for the first time.

One of the earliest wall-box sculptures in Nevelson’s highly esteemed series, Sky Cathedral marks a pivotal moment in her career when she began working with architectural space—mounting sculptures to walls and ceilings to create what she termed “worldscapes.” Sky Cathedral embodies Nevelson’s enigmatic and capricious understanding of a fourth dimension. A student of metaphysics, she believed that the spiritual quality of her wall arrangements brings “the fourth dimension or elsewhere, into the here and now of the third dimension,” suggesting a spatial continuum between the viewer, the object, and the universe. Relying not only on the physicality of her objects, the self-described “architect of shadow” used light and shadow as substance, lending additional illusionary depth to her three-dimensional walls of sculpture. Using a monochromatic palette, Nevelson created the sense of incomprehensible dimensionality—like that of a black hole—imbuing her work with an aura of mystery.