New York

Louise Nevelson

PaceWildenstein 22

“I always thought, bluntly, that I was a glamorous, goddam exciting woman. I wanted to have a ball on earth.” Tall, turbaned, draped in a caftan, swathed in smoke, her eyes shaded by mink eyelashes, Louise Nevelson—a pioneer American abstractionist whose important work dates back to the 1930s and ’40s—was ever up for the grand entrance and the telegraphed witticism. “I wouldn’t marry God if he asked me!” Such principles are less marked by our institutional critique than by the School of Margo Channing. Nevelson’s theatrical mode underscores a body of work of Diva-like exaggeration, a manner magnificently captured in this exhibition that heralded, without expressly saying so, the fiftieth year that the gallery has represented the artist and, since her death in 1988, her estate.

“Dawns and Dusks” surveyed the sculptor’s assemblages of crated detritus vast and small: the bins of architectural elements, deracinated balusters and banisters, carpentry remnants of all kind that were once the tossed-away refuse of our city streets—especially in the old Soho of small factories, a neighborhood that the artist pioneered as living and working space, hard by, happenstantially, where Donald Judd lived and worked. There are some rare Nevelsons of later-’60s vintage—not included here—that may be compared to the production of that stern doctrinarian, works Nevelson had fabricated outside the studio. Unusual for her, those constructions are of crisp metal or transparent plastic, “techie” materials that she was unlikely to chance upon in her trolling promenades and was incapable of binding together by the hands-on hammer-and-saw methods she preferred.

Prior to this exhibition, I tended to regard Nevelson’s boxed assemblages and columned towers as easy wins by virtue of the fact that all discrepant or discordant surfaces (that is, the original colors and textures of the wooden elements she selected) were unified by being painted over in a signature dusty matte black or in white. Gold, as might be expected of an artist drawn to gorgeous effect, was also an occasional option. A person of noted taste and grand gesture, Nevelson did not necessarily place her black boxes—to speak only of her best-known type of work—against the white wall of the gallery; she frequently positioned them against or within enveloping walls or architectural embrasures painted the same matte black as the boxes themselves. Such environmental installations considerably intensify the dramatic impression made by the artist’s elegant accumulations—a swallowing whole of the work by its location that, when realized perfectly (as many are in this show), transforms it into something far more prepossessing than would have seemed possible considering the forthrightness of its relatively simple manufacture and the modesty of its material components.

In addition to the estimable “Dawns and Dusks,” a body of far more aggressive and directly realized assemblages was included, the “Unknown Nevelson,” so to speak—arrangements of a near-flagrant materiality. Here, among the unapologetic and unpainted elements of furniture parts, headboards, and chair backs, was (in one remarkable instance) a large pressed-tin dustpan. Had Nevelson created that work, say, in the Russia of 1915—she was born in Kiev in 1899—such Ivan Puni–like pugnacity would have assured her a place in the pantheon of early Constructivism. Many of these fearless works date to the mid-1980s, when the sculptor was in her mid-eighties. Generous artistic courage in old age is the province of but few artists to whom we accord the highest esteem. The striking “Mrs. Nevelson”—an appellation she liked hearing, though today it carries the odor of satiric condescension—must now be counted among them.

Robert Pincus-Witten