Sky Totem

Media - 1986.6.67 - SAAM-1986.6.67_1 - 9493
Copied Louise Nevelson, Sky Totem, 1956, painted wood, 70 349 125 12 in. (179.724.014.0 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, 1986.6.67

Artwork Details

Sky Totem
Not on view
70 349 125 12 in. (179.724.014.0 cm.)
Credit Line
Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation
Mediums Description
painted wood
  • Abstract — geometric
Object Number

Artwork Description

Louise Nevelson aimed at something that she called order, rightness, or spiritual essence. Early in her career, when materials and money were scarce, she roamed lower Manhattan looking for cast-off objects to use in her work, and during a 1950 trip to Mexico, she became intrigued with the spiritual symbolism of pre-Columbian sculpture. Sky Totem is a flattened tower made from pieces of molding and scrap wood. The monochromatic black surface echoes the awe-inspiring totemic forms of ancient Mayan, African, and Northwest Coast cultures.

Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection, 2014
Luce Center Label

Louise Nevelson began making assemblages from cast-off wooden debris during the 1940s, stacking objects and boxes to create imposing walls and installations. She often painted her assemblages black, claiming that black was “the most aristocratic color of all” because it contained all other colors and could never be the same twice. In Sky Totem, Nevelson transformed pieces of old plywood and a small wheel into a dramatic tower of dark shapes. The black paint unifies the different elements within the construction and sets up sharp contrasts between light and dark.

Luce Object Quote

“I began to see things, almost anything on the street, as art . . . that’s why I pick up old wood that had a life, that cars have gone over and the nails have been crushed . . . All [my] objects are retranslated---that’s the magic.” Louise Nevelson, The Washington Post, April 1988