Pace Gallery inaugurated its new downtown Palo Alto space with the light and color-filled work of contemporary artist James Turrell. For its second offering, the gallery has reached back into the past, exhibiting the work of sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). The exhibition is an opportunity to see the many facets of Nevelson's work, from small maquettes to the large-scale wall pieces that won her acclaim back in the 1960s.
"We really wanted to do a Nevelson show because she is such an iconic figure and has been represented by Pace for so many years," explained gallery director Liz Sullivan. In fact, Nevelson has been affiliated with Pace since 1960, when owner Arne Glimcher saw her groundbreaking installation "Dawn's Wedding Feast" at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"Arne has a wonderful eye," said Sullivan, "but for him it is all about the artist and his relationship with artists." The two would have a close friendship throughout her life.
Nevelson was, no doubt, a risky choice for any gallery. As a woman artist working in large-scale and found materials, she was years ahead of her time. But being a nonconformist was a way of life for Nevelson. She was born in Kiev and emigrated to Rockland, Maine in 1905. As a child, her memories were of not fitting into suburban America but also of knowing from an early age that she wanted to be a sculptor. She studied with Hans Hoffman in Germany and witnessed the influence of Cubism in France. Nevelson eventually found her niche in New York City, which she proclaimed was "one big sculpture." She began to collect pieces of wood and cast-off materials that she found around her home. Not wanting to compete with artists who were casting and forging with bronze, Nevelson found her expression in simple materials joined together in a unique style that became her trademark.
Entering the Palo Alto exhibit, the viewer is confronted by a very large wall piece, "Untitled, 1964." It's a fabulous introduction to Nevelson's work in black (Sullivan explained that the artist's white pieces are not represented because they are very rare). Like much of Nevelson's work, the piece consists of hundreds of different shapes of wood painted black. The eye travels in and out of the stacked boxes, which hold bits and pieces of recognizable objects that have been transformed by their juxtaposition with one another. There are pieces of bric a brac, ends of dowels, bits of decorative molding, and rungs and legs of chairs.
Just behind "Untitled" is another full wall piece, "Cascade, 1979." In this bas relief, myriad pieces of wood are arranged in small, stacked boxes that are both flush with the wall and project outwards and hinged.
Nevelson is credited with uniting the disparate artistic styles of her time: She had the mammoth scale and bold composition of the Abstract Expressionists and the single color focus of the Minimalists. Her love for Cubism and collage can be seen in a series of framed works executed in cardboard. In "Untitled, 1970," pieces of cardboard incised with semi-circles offset a remnant of antique quilt, further embellished with two tiny mirrors. Sullivan said she wanted to include the cardboard pieces to show the artist's ability to work with color. They provide a warm contrast to the predominately black pieces in the first two rooms.
Two pieces from the artist's "Northern Shore" (1966) series show that she was also capable of working in small scale with exacting precision. In these pieces, Nevelson has cut intricate shapes from flat pieces of wood painted black and placed them in pleasing, almost decorative arrangements. They could be flowers, they could be abstract design, they could be anything the viewer ascribes.
"Colonne 1959" is a tall, totemic piece with three distinct sides. It demands to be seen in the round, so that the viewer can take in each and every piece of wood scrap, arranged to create a structure that forces the eye upward, like a skyscraper of the most humble material.
Nevelson eventually began to accept commissions for monumental outdoor sculptures, and the bronze "Maquette for Dawn Shadows 1976-83" displays her ability to compete with her male counterparts in Cor-ten steel and grand scale.
At Pace, all of the individual pieces are beautifully installed and lit (not an easy task with such layered work), with enough space to enjoy each one and yet see the arc of the artist's work. Note the dates of the pieces and be impressed with Louise Nevelson's innovative style. It would lay the groundwork for countless women artists working in sculpture, installation and assemblage in the years to come.
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Louise Nevelson exhibit at Pace Gallery
Where: 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 11, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Go to Pace Gallery