New York

Louise Nevelson

Pace Wildenstein Gallery

In the “Mirror-Shadow Series,” 1985, Louise Nevelson continues to work with materials and matrices unmistakably her own. But possession can become a curse, or a trademark. In this new series Nevelson faces both the constrictions and the security of a set vocabulary, yet her ordered and intricate world of overlapping grids, rectangular containers, secret boxes, and textural contrasts is now subject to new forces. The gridlike frame that she has often used to organize and contain her dense, introverted compositions has become the foil for a robust, random impulse suggesting motion rather than monumental stillness, the momentary instead of the timeless.

Much of Nevelson’s earlier work sought a stasis, an absolute suspension of activity. Her sculptures and environments seemed to create pauses in a day—sacred moments pulled away from the profane, exempt from their surroundings. The physicality and history of the found and shaped wood elements contributed warmth and sensuality to the work’s medieval opacity. Any sensation of motion was more like a heartbeat than a gesture. Now, in the nine mat-black wooden wall reliefs of the “Mirror-Shadow Series,” compression and containment give way to a tornadolike animation which pushes elements out of alignment and lifts them off the surface of the armatures. Light moves through the pieces, creating highlights and shadows and pulling the gallery’s white wall into the composition of shifted, splayed components. Nevelson has even opened some of the secret containers to reveal their craggy contents. Big, heaving forms contrast with the intricacies of construction. The genesis of the forces is unclear; have small particles and fragments within the pieces triggered movement, or have occurrences beyond the work activated change?

One relief, Mirror-Shadow VI, is composed of a large rectangular grid. Superimposed over this and pulled to one side is a lighter, diagonal trellis. On these overlapping frames are arranged boxlike elements, leaving voids which make the wall visible and instrumental in the composition. The piece has a stretched, horizontal tension, as if the rectangular and diagonal armatures were sliding apart, pulling the dense collage with them.

In the “Reflections” series of aquatints and etchings, 1983–84, shown on the floor above, large, brilliantly colored, irregular planes are interrupted by murky monochromatic areas textured by gauze and lace. The light in these compositions has an absorbent but shimmering feeling; the flat areas push forward and stretch across the surface while the textured ones recede. The pieces have water’s quality of implying both surface and depth. The “Reflections” series is less taciturn than many of Nevelson’s earlier collages (some of which were in the exhibition), and is a strong reference for the “Mirror-Shadow” reliefs. It indicates that the artist is willing to confound her own construction premises and clichés. Rather than reaching for slick perfectionism in a risk-free context, she has slightly shifted the rules and forced a personal notational system into new and less predictable circumstances.

The “Mirror-Shadow Series” incorporates both domestic fragments (pieces of furniture and woodwork) and industrial forms; the works emanate both powerful exuberance and pessimism. And yet the mat-black surfaces and modulated textures make these pieces picturesque rather than predictably sublime. Nevelson usually segregates black from white; here she allows them to coexist, creating both deep shadows and surface reflections. In 1985, at age 85, Nevelson has taken a precise and familiar vocabulary and made it turn from a sure course and tried formula. Nothing is unshakable; a grande dame can also be a gypsy.

Patricia C. Phillips