Louise Nevelson used to say that she found her vocation as a sculptor when, at age five, she made a carving out of soap. And indeed, her early sculptural work, done when she was in her 30s, has a smooth, rounded, soaplike surface. These Table-top-size figures (shown recently at Washbum)—for the most part reclining, featureless, and without gender—are constructed of plaster that is painted glossy black to look and feel like stone. While reminiscent of Eskimo soap stone carving, their blocky geometry also recalls the Art Deco and Cubist movements. They were accompanied by line drawings of voluptuous female nudes that show clearly the influence of Matisse, Moore, and Lachaise. While quite accomplished, neither the drawings nor the sculptures give any indication of the intense individualism Nevelson was yet to display.
Nevelson began making the powerful painted wooden constructions for which she is best known when she was in her 50s, and the examples shown at PaceWildenstein, dating from 1957 to 1987, were some of her best. They included her densely packed grids as well as later work in which, as with de Kooning, age seems to have engendered an airy, almost lyrical relaxation of form. In Mirror Shadow VIII (1985), the grid has become an open, lattice-like support that allows both for a dramatic play of shadow and for the white of the wall to interact with the relief's black surfaces. Rectangular accumulations of painted black material—Nevelson's familiar wooden letters, chair legs, and other decorative furniture parts—are interspersed with four wooden rings, the largest of which veers precipitously forward.
In her more typical works, where stacked boxes enclose myriad tightly packed wooden objects, the grid serves to compress the cacophony of images, creating a tension that seems on the brink of explosion. These constructions, with their potent mysticism and deft juxtaposition of regular and irregular elements, appear even more meaningful in the near decade since Nevelson's death; perhaps the work was slightly overshadowed by her flamboyant public persona, and the passage of time allows us better to gauge her accomplishments.