Meet the Women Preserving the Legacies of Their Artist-Relatives

Louise Nevelson on the cover of the May 1979 issue of ArtNews with an annotated note to her granddaughter (image courtesy the Louise Nevelson Foundation)

There are more artists whose legacies are worth preserving than bandwidth for art professionals to undertake that preservation. Consequently, it often falls to the artist’s family to take up this work. As women so often assume family caretaking duties and administrative tasks (whether happily or begrudgingly), I was not surprised to find many women running the estates of their artist-relatives. 

I spoke with three such women about what it takes to build or maintain an artist’s relevance in the eyes of the public: Marisa de Lempicka, who runs her great-grandmother Tamara de Lempicka’s estate; Maria Nevelson, in charge of the foundation of her grandmother Louise Nevelson; and Rosina Rubin, who founded Atelier Anna Walinska, which preserves the life and legacy of her aunt. 

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We take it for granted that once an artist has a place in art history, they will remain there. In reality, that place in the pantheon is fragile, and even more precarious for women artists. While both Nevelson and Lempicka were famous in their time, the public’s gaze has wandered without the strength of their personalities to maintain their status. Their descendants are working to bring it back. 

Installation view of Louise Nevelson, “Ancient Secrets” (1964) (image courtesy the Louise Nevelson Foundation)
Diana MacKown’s 1985 photograph of Louise and Maria Nevelson (image courtesy the Louise Nevelson Foundation)

Louise Nevelson made highly identifiable monochrome wooden assemblages and wielded a larger-than-life personality, meaning the younger Nevelson’s task is not only to preserve the work, but to preserve a persona. “I wake up in the morning and ask, ‘what can I give today?’” Nevelson explains. It’s this type of thinking that helps her undertake the gargantuan tasks of assembling a catalogue raisonné of her grandmother’s oeuvre on the one hand and creating a living memory of her on the other. In addition to the postcards, magnets, and other items Nevelson licenses through an LLC, “I’d love to do a line of eyelashes to be sold in museum stores,” she says, referring to her grandmother’s iconic false lashes. 

“Why would I do that?” she asks rhetorically, “Because it’s legacy-building.” The younger Nevelson’s sights are set not just on the present but in the future: the five-year-old who buys a magnet of Nevelson’s work and grows up looking at it, or the young woman who dresses as Nevelson for Halloween (as I did a few years ago!). “I’m thinking 50 years from now,” she says. “What am I leaving behind?” 

Marisa and Tamara de Lempicka in Cuernavaca in 1975 (© 2024 Tamara de Lempicka Estate, image courtesy the Tamara de Lempicka Estate)

Her task is not much different from Marisa de Lempicka’s, whose great-grandmother Tamara de Lempicka also understood the importance of crafting a recognizable self-image. Not only did she make sure to be photographed by the famed Parisian portraitists of the 1920s and ‘30s, but she also knew the importance of branding, becoming known as the “baroness with the brush.” (Her second husband, with whom she fled to the United States, was an Austro-Hungarian baron.) 

Lempicka’s star is already rising, in no small part due to the licensing agreements the younger Lempicka helped negotiate via the estate she helms. The information she shares about the artist when consulting with museums and speaking to the press also help publicize the painter’s forward-thinking understanding of female identity and liberal attitude toward romance: Despite 20th-century social constraints, the artist was bisexual and had affairs with both men and women. Over the past five years, the artist’s great-granddaughter assembled high-quality, color-accurate images of her works, some of which were reproduced as the centerpiece of the musical Lempicka (2018), on Broadway this year, as well as featured in Madonna’s recent world tour. Lempicka will also soon be the subject of a documentary — not to mention that she has become a national hero in her native Poland, where her exhibitions have smashed museum attendance records

Rosina Rubin faces a different challenge: How do you preserve the legacy of a family member who isn’t a household name? When her aunt Anna Walinska died in 1997, it fell to Rubin to clear out her Upper West Side apartment, where she found “multiple levels of metal racks with canvases crammed into them,” she says. “Under the dining room table there were folios, another bedroom had become her studio” — her whole house, essentially, was filled with work.

“The conventional wisdom today is that it’s very difficult to reemerge an artist who has passed and who is not exhibiting at the time of their death,” Rubin added. She recalls meeting a gentleman who amended that phrase to her: “It’s very difficult to reemerge an artist,” he told her, “especially if that artist was a woman.”

Rubin took that sleight as inspiration. On advice from a friend who pointed out that documenting Walinska’s extant work would make it easier to sell, Rubin began the seemingly impossible task of doing so. It was during that 10-month research process that she discovered the extent of her aunt’s place in art history — she broke bread with Picasso’s circle in Paris, and gave Arshile Gorky his first exhibition in New York. 

Anna Walinska (center) with Rosina Rubin and another unidentified person (1962) (image courtesy Atelier Walinska)

Rubin has made some key strides in establishing Walinska’s place in art history. With museums finally waking up to the need to diversify their collections, she has placed her aunt’s work in permanent collections around the country, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Hudson River Museum. She has staged exhibitions at New York galleries the Master Gallery and Graham Shay 1857, and managed to resurface a lost Gorky portrait of her aunt with the help of a journalist.

While not all projects of this kind are taken up by family members, kinship creates a tangible benefit. Lempicka, for instance, met with the cast of the musical about her great-grandmother, which was helpful both to the actors — Eden Espinosa was nominated for a Tony for the title role — and herself: “It was really touching,” she said. 

Regarding her own path to becoming the manager of her aunt’s estate, Rubin says: “I had this love of the adventure I was embarking on — which I think I got from her.” A passage in Walinska’s diary narrating her time in India deepened that connection. She had traveled through what was then Burma to India in order to paint Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. Nehru was away when she arrived, and she refused to await his return, as “she wanted to be home by a certain date because her younger sister was about to give birth to her first child,” Rubin smiles. “That [baby] was me. There was just something very right about the idea that I would be the one to carry the legacy.” 

Anna Walinska painting Burmese Prime Minister U Nu (1955) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

As with so much in art history, we owe these stories to those behind the scenes working to preserve them. The work can be arduous, and often thankless, but certainly offers plenty to the women who do it. “I’ve learned from her,” Lempicka says of her great-grandmother. The greatest lesson? “To stand in your power.” 

For Maria Nevelson, ultimately, it was her grandmother’s words that led her to the work she does in Louise’s name: “Claim your heritage,” the sculptor would often tell her granddaughter. 

“I’m proud to be a Nevelson,” Maria tells me. 

I can’t think of a better person for the job. 

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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