When doing nothing is best for the future: Analysis and conservation of Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Image, Night

Kaela Nurmi and Fiona Beckett


Dawn’s Image, Night is a large-scale sculpture created in 1969 by American sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). The 24 by 8 foot wall-relief was commissioned by SUNY Buffalo State College and has remained on display in various buildings at the college since. Dawn’s Image, Night is an assemblage made of unprimed wood and painted overall in the artist’s signature matte black. Nevelson was incredibly particular about the matte, uniform surface achieved in her monochrome assemblages, but the materials she used to achieve her desired effect are quite susceptible to damage and irregularities. Unfortunately, Dawn’s Image, Night is no exception. A heavy layer of dust, greasy fingerprints, and unoriginal white paint splatters disrupted the uniform surface. Shortly after the original installation, protruding nails were deliberately cut and removed from the sculpture, as they were considered a safety risk. Extensive scientific analysis, imaging, and archival research were utilized to design an appropriate treatment and long-term preservation plan. Methods of analysis and imaging techniques include: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, microchemical testing, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and x-radiography. Initially, the removal of the greasy fingerprints and handling marks from the matte black surface was a high priority. As a result of research and analysis, the focus of the project was adjusted in response to a better understanding of the materials used by Nevelson and the inherent qualities of Dawn’s Image, Night. Ethical considerations surrounding the removal and replacement of the nail components, as well as the overall repainting of the sculpture are discussed. Additionally, the inherent obstacles of treating a large uncoated, matte monochrome sculpture in-situ are addressed. Finally, the sculpture was not repainted as some of Nevelson’s other works have previously been but rather, a minimally interventive approach was carried out. The conversation around the various treatment approaches lays the groundwork for any future treatment determined to be necessary. Ultimately, doing very little now is the best course of action for the continued preventative care and future of Dawn’s Image, Night.

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29