Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) was as well known for her theatrical, oracular self-presentation—bedecked in designer scarves and chunky jewelry, with eye makeup worthy of a silent-film vamp—as for her powerful sculptural assemblages, her so-called ‘empire.’ Sixteen of these works were featured, along with seven collages, at Pace Palo Alto, following a similar show at Pace in Chelsea earlier this year.
Nevelson, who dubbed herself “the original recycler,” used cast-off broken furniture as her material because of the “life experiences” embedded in the wood. Her work, while abstract, and never literal or autobiographical, was similarly shaped by her life and career. Born Leah Berliawsky, daughter of Ukrainian emigrants resettled to rural Maine, she decided at an early age to be an artist, and, despite an unhappy early marriage, pursued her vocation, undeterred by convention. She studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich and Provincetown; worked with Diego Rivera in New York on the infamous Rockefeller Plaza mural (having an affair with him that spoiled her friendship with Frida Kahlo); studied Picassian cubism in Paris (although she was too shy to meet the artist); and absorbed the arts of Asia, Africa and pre-Columbian America, as well as the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Morandi. Success finally came with the sculptural assemblages of the late 1950s, scavenged pieces of wooden furniture and moldings exquisitely arranged within arrays of boxes or crates. These ‘framed’ images were usually spray-painted matte black, “the total color… the most aristocratic color.” The ensembles, sometimes wall-sized, are visually hypnotic, suggesting hieroglyphic texts; they also suggest letterpress drawers for some “metaphysical alphabet,” to use de Chirico’s term: indecipherable, but charged with secret meaning and mystical life.
The two large assemblage walls, Untitled (Sky Cathedral) (1964), and Cascade VII (1979), installed on opposite sides of a gray stub wall, dominate the gallery and anchor the show. Surrounding them are wall reliefs like Moon-Star Zag XII (1981), the totemic Colonne II (1959), and three maquettes, probably intended for monumental public works to be fabricated in steel (like Sky Tree in San Francisco’s Rockefeller-built Embarcadero Center). Notable also is an atypical unpainted relief, Untitled (1985), featuring furniture pieces of various types, seemingly steamrollered flat: purified and perfected. Nevelson’s persona is so powerful that it overshadows her hard-won oeuvre; that work, despite its austerity and toughness, merits the respect of feminist artists no less than works more in tune with prevailing gender stereotypes and expectations.