NYC-ARTS visits the Nevelson Chapel at St. Peter’s Church, a sculptural environment created by Louise Nevelson, one of New York City’s most celebrated artists. With a career spanning nearly five decades, Nevelson became famous for her technique of collecting discarded furniture and other random objects from the streets of New York and reassembling them into often large-scale art installations.

View Transcript

PdM: Next on our program, we'll visit the Nevelson Chapel at St. Peter's Church, a sculptural environment created by Louise Nevelson, one of New York City's most celebrated artists.

With a career spanning nearly five decades, Nevelson became especially well known for her technique of collecting discarded furniture and other random objects from the streets of New York, and then reassembling them into often large-scale art installations.

Nevelson's artwork for the Chapel of the Good Shepard at St. Peter's Church is the artist's only remaining environment always open to the general public.

It is a gem hidden in plain sight within the Citigroup Center in mid-town Manhattan.

The entire complex including the church was designed by Hugh Stubbins and Easley Hamner with interiors by Lella and Massimo Vignelli.

After 40 years Nevelson's masterwork is undergoing a critical restoration and rediscovery as 'an oasis of peace.'

Jared Stahler: Nevelson considered this environment her oasis of silence.

It's a place that people come day in and day out to find in the middle of this incredibly busy city some element of peace and silence.

Laurie Wilson: Once you're inside you're surrounded by Nevelson.

She was the grandmother of environmental art in America.

She really believed the importance of surrounding people with art.

Brooke Kamin Rappaport: Nevelson was one of the few women artists in the 1970s who realized public art with great success.

Laurie Wilson: The Nevelson Chapel is the only intact environment that she ever made.

Brooke Kamin Rappaport: Louise Nevelson was born in Ukraine in 1899.

Her family immigrated when Louise Nelson was a little girl.

Nevelson's father was a woodcutter in the old country.

And once they came to Maine, he had a junkyard.

Of course that inspired much of Nevelson's work.

She would use toilet seats and bed stands and chair rails and everything that she would find on the streets of New York City to make collage, these reliefs.

And that was her signature.

And that's how she's best known.

She had her first breakthrough project, her first public breakthrough project in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Louise Nevelson was 60 years old.

It took her that long to achieve public recognition.

Laurie Wilson: St. Peters was a Neo-Gothic Lutheran Church that had been here a long time, and the congregation had dwindled down to 65 or 70.

So it was not doing very well.

Jared Stahler: In the 1970's, St. Peters and Citibank came together to start planning and then ultimately build what was called Citigroup Center and at the heart of that complex is Nevelson chapel.

Laurie Wilson: The pastor at that time was Ralph Peterson.

At the point where they decided that they wanted a decorated chapel, an interfaith chapel, Easley Hamner was approached by Pace Gallery, and Pace Gallery said look there's 1 percent for the arts, which means there's quite a lot of money available for the arts.

And Hamner knew Nevelson's work and reputation and wanted her to do it.

And Peterson knew her work also and really liked it.

Laurie Wilson: The works in the chapel are not the kind of found object, whether it was furniture or something she found on the street, they were shapes made-to-order for her.

Brooke Kamin Rappaport: Nevelson was Jewish by birth.

This isn't a specifically Christian feeling space.

It's a very spiritual space.

Laurie Wilson: I want to read you some quotes from her, because they say something about how she saw her spirituality.' Abstraction allows me to transcend Christian imagery to the essential point where all religions meet.

Each element forms a whole in itself, a deliberate expression of joy, of human warmth.

For me, for my work, this chapel is a state of purity and truth.'

Laurie Wilson: I think the fact that they are doing a restoration would be something that Nevelson would 100 percent approve of.

She always wanted her work to look as fresh as possible.

Jared Stahler: There are two major elements of the restoration for Nevelson Chapel.

The first is to deal with problems with the environment.

So we're introducing a dedicated HVAC system that will ensure that this environment is properly regulated for long term care of the wood and the paint.

The second element of the restoration is cleaning almost 35 years of restoration overpaint.

But in the end, all these sculptures will be Nevelson's original paint.

Brooke Kamin Rappaport: Nevelson's significant contribution to modernism was that she forged a unique visual language.

It was part surrealism, part constructivism, part collage, had resonance of minimalism, but it was really all Nevelson.

Laurie Wilson: The chapel is not as well known as it should be.

Hopefully with the restoration going on many more people will know about it.

Jared Stahler: I want to ensure that 40, 50, 60 years from now people will find this in not a pristine condition, it's a living environment, but what people will see is that we have honored it and we're passing on to them as best we can what has been handed down to us.