Why you should care
This is what happens when a badass sculptor builds a chapel. And it gets revitalized.
Louise Nevelson claimed a permanent place in the sculptors’ pantheon with bold reimaginings of discarded, everyday objects. Her mid-20th century sculptures — often on a grand scale (70 to 90 feet high) — were designed to make you look, and look again. To see something new, even as you recognize something familiar, something a lesser artist might pass over or throw away. A clothespin, a spindle, a broken cabinet door, transformed into shapes and contours, unlikely partnerships and surreal conversations — so like life.
In 1977, Nevelson, a Jewish refugee who had re-created herself as an American icon, was approached to create a chapel in Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. This construction of “a place for people to find peace” in the heart of the city was a logical extension of the artist’s decades-long work of everyday transformation, according to Light and Shadow, Nevelson’s biography written by Laurie Wilson.
Scroll around on the video below to explore the chapel in 360 degrees.
First conceived as an almost defiant act of reclaiming the dying neighborhood that was 1970s Midtown East, the chapel remains Nevelson’s only intact, comprehensive, sculptural environment open to the public — a tranquil place amid the frantic pace of urban life that has grown up around it.
But 40 years of use and some well-meaning but misguided “restoration” attempts have taken their toll on this masterwork. In 2013, Saint Peter’s embarked on an extensive art conservation effort to resurrect the artist’s original intentions and preserve the chapel as the oasis amid busy urban life that Nevelson intended.
Conservator Sarah Nunberg and her all-female team have been researching, documenting and cleaning the work, in efforts to return it to as near its original condition as possible — down to Nevelson’s paint drips and brush strokes as applied by the artist herself in situ. Guests are welcome to watch these efforts when possible. Their work itself lends something of a meditative quality that Nevelson would likely approve. They are currently in phase 3 of the project, which will mean a fully renewed, intact chapel. Fundraising efforts are underway for phase 4, which will include opportunities for artists, visitors and the community to interact with the chapel in new and inventive ways. The project is set for completion in 2019.
Enter this environment of nine white and gilt sculptural elements, with its muted skylights creating plays of light and shadow, so central to Nevelson’s work, and you will leave transformed. It is utterly unique. It is quintessential New York. It is what happens when a total badass builds a chapel and leaves it as, what Wilson calls a “gift to the universe.”
Nevelson Chapel is open to the public 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Donations and quiet appreciated)
Thia Reggio is the pastor at Astoria First Presbyterian Church and a senior consultant with the Vandersall Collective.