Why the gallery is featuring Nevelson again was explained by Elizabeth Sullivan, president of Pace Palo Alto. "Exhibition scheduling is a collaborative effort between the global headquarters in New York and our team in Palo Alto. This is the first solo exhibition of her work in the area since 2016 and, before that, her most recent solo show was in 2007 at the de Young Museum, so it's great to be able to spotlight her work."
The works shown in "Mirage" date from the 1950s through the 1980s. Nevelson died in 1988.
The show opens with two untitled collages composed of cardboard, paper and sandpaper. As with her large sculptures, Nevelson used the most prosaic of materials, many of which she found in or near her studio. While these may have been study pieces, done mainly for her own explorations, they present as very deliberate and carefully executed. The dates range from 1956 to 1985, so clearly the artist found the collage media to be valuable and worth pursuing. Some of the cardboard is carefully cut, some of it is torn but all the pieces are applied with care and thought. Depth is achieved through the layering of the materials and the placement of the cardboard forces the eye to look in and around the composition.
Nevelson loved black (she once said it is the only "aristocratic" color) and here she uses it with flair and drama. It serves as a dominant color in many of the collages, along with the brown of the wood board, so that when she does insert a fragment of silver paper or a bit of paint, the effect is like a fun surprise.
Untitled (1971) is a wood collage on board and is a delightful meeting of cubism, minimalism and Nevelson's own love of materials. Small pieces of wood, in the form of triangles and rectangles, have been joined together much like a tangram puzzle. Everything is the right size, shape and fit, and the result is an aesthetically pleasing assemblage. By adding the small blue blocks to the right side of the form, there is an added sense of balance and symmetry. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque may have initiated the practice of combining disparate objects on a two-dimensional canvas, but Nevelson added her own unique spin.
Nevelson's large-scale sculptures were known for including objects that the artist found on the street near her New York studio. She salvaged materials like architectural moldings, spindles and balusters from old buildings that were then joined to create her wonderful "sky cathedrals." Although her choice of materials was mainly due to economic necessity, she seemed to be saying that even the humblest object can become art.
The collages here reinforce her magpie tendencies, with everything from fabric, leather, foil, cardboard, paper and wood collected and arranged to create a new entity. In some cases, we can see the former life of the material, as with the cardboard box fragment with a postage stamp still visible (Untitled 1956), or the staircase baluster, painted black, that juts into the foreground in Untitled (1980). Nevelson reveled in elevating these quotidian materials to the stature of fine art, and she did it without leaving home. As she was quoted in the Whitney Museum catalog, "I have the world, right here, in my own backyard. And I truly don't need anything else. There is so much to be done that I can move an inch and circle the world."
Interspersed with the collages are three large-scale sculptural wall reliefs. These pieces, which definitely have a close affinity with her columns, are dark, dramatic and have to be seen in person. Like the well-known cathedrals, they are matte black — the blackest of black — and consist of painted pieces of wood on board. Gold Music II (1985) has pride of place on the gallery's entry wall and rightly so. This piece jumps out at the viewer and demands close inspection to reveal how discarded bits of wood, fashioned in geometric shapes, were joined together to create this amazing form that is at once abstract and incredibly organic. Nevelson even added a twist, with two of the elements hinged so that, when opened, they reveal yet more recycled objects inside.
Northern Shores I and III (1966) again reflect the artist's ability to take simple elements but somehow arrange them so artfully. There is a delightful play of geometry, size and form here that creates a sense of movement and energy. The title might lead us toward a sense of recognition — yes, she must be trying to depict the currents and waves in the ocean — but finding something recognizable in the masterfully placed triangles, circles and squares is really not necessary. This amalgamation of elements is pleasing and thought-provoking as is.
This installation is elegant and spare, with each piece given enough space to be appreciated, yet arranged with other works so as to reflect the arc of the artist's thinking. Just getting these artworks from New York to California is no small feat, especially given the pandemic. "We have worked on giving all our teams more time to put exhibitions together and schedule transportation of works," noted Sullivan. This show has still more travel ahead, as it will appear in the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the prestigious international contemporary art event that is set to open its 59th edition later this year.
While showing an established artist like Nevelson may be a safe choice for a gallery, Pace has, over the years, also introduced many cutting-edge, contemporary artists like teamLab, Damian Loeb and Kohei Nawa. This approach has been successful, with Sullivan saying that, after the mega-gallery's New York space, the gallery here is one of the most profitable in the franchise. "Pace Palo Alto has had strong sales over the last six years," she said, "and we appreciate those in our community who have helped support our location directly, both by bringing awareness to our gallery and through sales."
What may have started as an experiment for the East Coast art conglomerate — a small outpost in the middle of Silicon Valley — has proven to have true staying power.
"Louise Nevelson: Mirage' is on view through April 9 at Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave.,
Palo Alto. For more information, visit pacegallery.com.
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