At A Glance
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Consists of 29 intricately patterned wooden columns and 4 pieces affixed to the ceiling
Inspired by primitive art—particularly, the ruins of pre-Columbian cultures in Central America
The sculpture was dedicated in January 1976, at the dawn of the bicentennial year
The overall composition brings to mind a growing process, perhaps of stalks shooting up from the earth.
Commissioned under the Art in Architecture Program of the federal government’s General Services Administration, Louise Nevelson’s Bicentennial Dawn consists of 29 intricately patterned wooden columns, painted entirely white, mounted in the building’s main entrance foyer on three separate bases framed by terra-cotta pavers. In addition to the columns, the central group has four pieces affixed to the ceiling.
Nevelson extended the idea of a sculptural environment that she had developed in earlier works such as Atmosphere and Environment XII. Like many other artists who came of age in the early twentieth century, Nevelson was inspired by primitive art – particularly, in her case, the ruins of pre-Columbian cultures in Central America – and this influence can be seen in the mysterious, totemic forms of the columns.
Although at first glance the work may be characterized as abstract, Nevelson’s descriptive statement mentions “the secret images that can be found in nature.” The overall composition brings to mind a growing process, perhaps of stalks shooting up from the earth. There are numerous circular and semicircular forms that resemble suns. The interiors of the many-layered columns contrast with the white surfaces, hinting at the theme of dawn as a time “between night and day.” The sculpture was dedicated during an elaborate reception in January 1976, at the dawn of the bicentennial year, and art critic Emily Genauer wrote in the New York Post, “I know of no single public sculpture anywhere in the country more beautiful than this newest Nevelson.”
Adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).