New York

Louise Nevelson

Pace Gallery

Louise Nevelson has returned to the black wooden conglomerate constructions which are her hallmark. She exhibited similar black sculptures at the age of 59 in her 1958 “Moon Garden Plus One” exhibition. This was her first “environmental” exhibition of the work of her mature style, which coalesced in the (and in her) mid-’50s. The current show, entitled “Houses,” but not confined to that configuration alone, includes dollhouses, armoires, columns, plaques, a table, and two large wall-size reliefs. All the work is cluttered; every cavity is filled and each surface is articulated with wooden trim, knobs, molding, furniture parts, spools, and scraps chosen from an apparently inexhaustible inventory. Her obsession to add and fill amounts to a horror vacui. The works look like jigsaw puzzles of some Surreal cityscape lining the gallery walls and occupying much of the floor space.

Nevelson’s best work has a Surrealist flavor. It is close to the paintings of Yves Tanguy and those of his wife, Kay Sage (like Hyphen of 1954, for example). Aside from early Giacometti, Surrealism apparently didn’t produce any major sculptors. There are only occasional objects and some larger works that are slightly Surrealistic by a number of Surrealist artists. One thinks of Joseph Cornell, of course, but he, like Nevelson, comes later. She shares a pictorial approach to her medium with Cornell. All Nevelson’s work (with the possible exception of some early pieces) is frontal. Her position is really that of a relief-maker working with shallow depth. When she attempts to work in metal or Plexiglas or to make unadorned, Minimal pieces she is at a disadvantage. She can’t compete with sculptors who have clear notions of how unitary shapes read in three dimensions so that her work in this vein has a lifeless rigidity.

Nevelson’s approach is additive and anticompositional. She modulates, accents, and rhythmically stresses, but she can’t compose outside of stacking and repeating variable units. She unifies the work with paint rather than structurally. Black paint eradicates all traces of the natural characteristics of wood as well as does the white or gold paint she sometimes uses instead, but it produces deeper shadows and a more pictorial sense of mystery. Nevelson’s work has a lot in common with Schwitters’ including the fact that they share a Cubist-collage approach. Her current exhibition includes some collages for the first time. Like Schwitters, Nevelson seems to have a loving, sensual attitude toward the collage element—the bit of lace or doily, the silver seal, the colored scrap of paper. It is surprising that she never worked before in the medium, though she does nothing to expand its limits.

A monograph on Nevelson by her dealer, Arnold Glimcher, was published by Praeger at the time of her show. It contains (to its discredit) numerous references to the business end of things, and promotes her inferior work. I question the ultimate wisdom of an unscholarly treatment of an artist of Nevelson’s stature and would have preferred a professional’s objective overview.

––April Kingsley