New York

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1956, cardboard, foil, paint, and wood on board, 46 × 36".

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1956, cardboard, foil, paint, and wood on board, 46 × 36".

Louise Nevelson

Pace | 537 West 24th Street

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1956, cardboard, foil, paint, and wood on board, 46 × 36".

On some basic level, every exhibition is about work. But this commanding display of collages and assemblages by Louise Nevelson (1899–1988), encompassing three decades, made work—as in production and profession, and also difficulty—its backbone. For those, like me, who never witnessed Nevelson’s earliest gallery outings in the mid-twentieth century, and who know her art through the monumental, monochrome wall sculptures (primarily painted black) that are a staple of American museum collections, this show was a revelation.

Central to Nevelson’s untitled collages and assemblages is a working through and recursion of form over time. Despite their scale and relative obscurity, these are not, I would argue, studies for her larger, better-known sculptures. One of the best aspects of the Pace show was its inclusion of two such pieces for comparison, each measuring over eleven feet long: Spring Street, 1984, like an inverted skyline of calligraphic symbols, and Mirror-Shadow VII, 1985, in which gears and banisters seem to burst forth from a grid. The elegant, even austere coherence achieved by the uniform matte black and geometric lines brings about an unequivocal totality. Something very different was at work in the collages (measuring just under four feet by three feet) and assemblages (sometimes as wide as seven feet) that hung nearby. Even when they incorporate wood that has been painted black, the material’s proximity to unprimed wood, and its jagged edges, suggests charred specimens rather than totems. Texture and variation abound: There are mirrors and shiny foil wrappers; balsa with feathered, torn edges; corrugated sandpaper and back-page listings of dog-show winners; nails protruding like arthritic fingers from lumber; paper ripped in diagonals to reveal pulpy guts. More delicate items—a lace doily, a velvet-lined plank, a brown-paper lunch bag—remain unique matter, each working hard to hold its own.

Along the way, Nevelson acknowledges work that has informed her approach, but she does not stop for pleasantries. There’s Picasso, but the Picasso that made a bull from a bicycle, not the clever prestidigitator of papier collé. Her placement, if deliberate, keeps things as things. In its insistence on compositional balance by way of gravity and abutment, Nevelson’s collage channels a Dada lineage: Kurt Schwitters’s celebrated accretion of detritus, Marcel Duchamp’s activation of ordinary objects into talismans, Max Ernst’s surreal landscape textures, Daniel Spoerri’s literal strangeness and inverted supports. An all-wood collage from 1980 felt like a graceful hat tip to Jean Arp.

Several assemblages included huge metal rolling pins that appear to be uncoupled from a nineteenth-century machine. These markers of New York’s passing industry excited Nevelson as much as any art-historical lineage: “The columns in the subways are black iron,” she once said in an interview. “And for me personally they certainly had as much meaning and inform as well as many of the things that are in museums.” Her assemblages point to production’s weighty dross: what’s left when work is done. With their crushed metal, bent tin ceilings, and fractured headboards, the pieces can feel a little apocalyptic. Sometimes cast-off leisure—a croquet ball, for instance—is hidden in plain view, too.

Nevelson found much of her assemblage material on the street. Her collages are more intimate, composed predominantly of what might be called studio swarf: cardboard, test strips, plywood scraps, all of which form the kind of image ground that Leo Steinberg once described in Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines as “bedrock as hard and tolerant as a workbench.” The persistent trace of Nevelson’s own labor and its continual adjustments became the most potent iteration of work. In a late collage from 1981, the ground is paper that Nevelson had previously used as a sort of drop cloth when spray-painting something, probably wood; the black, smudgy apparition of an object’s hard-edged outline lingers. The item itself is now elsewhere, a small joint in some sweeping construction. Nevelson’s work gives it many lives.

Prudence Peiffer