05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Her entrances were flawless. Cloaked in robes, Louise Nevelson swept into galleries and museums like the empress of modern art. A critic once labeled her a cross between Catherine the Great and a bag lady. But behind the dramatic raiment was a determined and brilliant artist. When Nevelson died last week at age 88 in her Manhattan home, she left a legacy of stunning environmental art. Her wooden wall sculptures—made of shallow, cubistlike boxes and filled with dark dreams and private passions—stand out as idiosyncratic icons of 20th-century art. "She was the great sorceress of American sculpture," says art historian Robert Rosenblum. "With her magic wand she transformed junkyards of secular carpentry into almost sacred altarpieces where light and shadow reign."
Born in Kiev as Louise Berliawsky, she emigrated with her family from Russia to the U.S. in 1905. (She took her professional name from an 11-year marriage to cargo-ship owner Charles Nevelson. They separated in 1931.) Scraps of wood—the same material she would later use as an artist—were a part of her childhood, gleaned from her father's lumberyard in Rockland, Maine. "From earliest childhood I knew I was going to be an artist," she once said. "You feel it—just like you feel you're a singer if you have a voice."
Today her name is known to a vast and admiring public. But Nevelson was nearly 60 before her work was accepted by the world that now mourns her passing, and during part of that time she struggled with severe bouts of depression. Perhaps those psychic battles prepared her for the end. "I have never feared not living, never, not even in youth," she once told an interviewer. "I feel that when I am finished—it's as if you make a vase. Well, you make it, and that's finished, and there's room for someone else to come and do something else."