Processing Space

Keith Sonnier at Ace Gallery
Richard Serra at Gagosian Gallery

Entering the austere, monumental main corridor of the Ace Gallery in Tribeca, one immediately hears bursts of static, snatches of tinny, garbled voices, and high-frequency whines. The noises roll and stutter down the hall, punctuated by silences, like one of John Cage and David Tudor’s wonderfully erratic live performances. Keith Sonnier’s "Scanners" (1975), an earlier incarnation of which was purchased by Andy Warhol and installed in the entrance to The Factory, consists of six radio scanners tuned to various frequencies. They register, in a crackling, largely unintelligible form, cell phone conversations, car service communiqués, and police and ship broadcasts. Though the technology may be crude by twenty-first century standards, "Scanners" is a reminder of the way the airy, negative spaces of modern life are congested with signals, haunted by barely decipherable signals and a ubiquity of noise at a moment when the ratio of signal to noise is desperately low. "Scanners" is not, I think, primarily a piece about surveillance or lack of privacy. What "Scanners" does is make those criss-crossing signals, that flickering static, a palpable feature of space, and for that reason "Scanners" should be regarded as a sculptural work.

Keith Sonnier emerged in the 1960s as part of a generation of sculptors that included Dan Flavin, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and James Turrell, among others. Though working in three dimensions in various materials, and often outside the traditional boundaries of the gallery, most of these artists owe a profounder debt to abstract painting than to modernist sculpture as it evolved from Auguste Rodin through Constantin Brancusi and David Smith. Heizer’s pigment drop pieces in the Nevada desert, Serra’s lead spatter works, Smithson’s flows, Flavin’s hovering white neon shapes, Turrell’s great pulsating fields of color, all work in the shadow of abstract expressionism. Liberated from classical notions of objecthood and a prescriptive sense of material and genre, these artists were less interested in pictorial form than in the dynamics of space and time. The installation of major works by Flavin, Heizer, Smithson, and Serra at Dia:Beacon, as well as the recent survey of Robert Whitman’s work at Dia:Chelsea, has increased interest in this singular generation of artists. The current historical review of Keith Sonnier’s work of the late 1960s and early 1970s is an excellent and useful addition to this trend.

If "Scanners" uses random snatches of sound to activate the space of an empty hallway, Sonnier’s neon works turn color into an array of particulate events in space, unsupported by either the walls or the floor. In the series entitled "Neon Wrapping Incandescent" (1968), neon tubes loop and squiggle around silver-coated incandescent bulbs affixed to the wall. In one, the opaque bulbs, their light reflecting back onto the wall, trace a rising curve, interlaced orange and yellow tubes wrapping around them in a quick, upward arc; in another, the bulbs are arranged horizontally, the orange and green strands of neon loosely knotted. Whereas "Neon Wrapping Incandescent" inevitably evokes the signs outside old dive bars and strip clubs, "Neon Wrapping Neon" (1969) is a more rigorously formal work. Spanning the length of one of Ace’s larger galleries, it consists of surprisingly rickety perspectival geometric constructions extending out from the wall and down to the floor. The geometry in Dan Flavin’s early neon work remains emblematic, and the pieces in blurry white neon he made near the end of his life, such as the sublime "Untitled (To Hans Coper, Master Potter)" (1990) on view at the uptown Gagosian Gallery, are spiritually transcendent. "Neon Wrapping Neon," by contrast, is physically concrete, the hot pink bars separating out from the almost haphazard, contingent forms. The title of the "Ba-O-Ba Series" (1968-1974) is taken from the Haitian Creole word meaning "light bath" or "to be bathed in moonlight." It is made up of alternating sheets of square and circular glass propped against the wall, variously sectioned and connected by straight neon tubes in violet, blue, green, yellow, and pink. Structurally, the "Ba-O-Ba Series" computes permutations of classical geometry surrounding Pythagoras’s golden section, however its core is not geometric shape, but light and color as a charged, gaseous substance in space. The lines created by the neon tubes drift free of their supports, buzz and hover, and are mirrored and relayed in the glass.

The exhibit’s real triumph, however, is Sonnier’s visionary "Fluorescent Room" (1970). Set in Ace’s immense central gallery, "Fluorescent Room" consists of standardized blocks of foam arranged into mirroring fragments of monuments, dusted, spattered, and smeared with vast quantities of dry orange and green fluorescent pigment. The piece is lit from above by black lights, suffusing the entire room in a powdery fog of phosphorescent light and color. Entering "Fluorescent Room," tracking the pigment across the smooth granite floor, one seems to be entering the eerie, slowed time of a dream. It is a gorgeous, inviting dream, but like the jungle ruins discovered in Borges’ great fiction "The Circular Ruin," it is also melancholy. The blocks are like fragments of a ruined temple, and the pushed and spattered pigment evoke the traces of some ritual or tragedy one cannot decipher. "Fluorescent Room" is perhaps the most obvious instance in which Sonnier experimented with techniques related to Pollock’s drip paintings. But unlike Smithson’s flows, or Serra’s splatters, or for that matter Barry Le Va’s floor scatters, the pigment is dumped and hurled about the room with both abandon and indifference: Sonnier’s piece is less about gesture or material than about the materiality of space experienced through light and color. "Fluorescent Room" is an environment one occupies, a psychedelic hallucination that is neither inner nor outer.

Since his landmark exhibition of "Torqued Ellipses" at Dia in 1997, Richard Serra has, like Sonnier, explored the phenomenology of space in his unprecedented, and one might even say relentless, run of exhibits of both massive rolled steel sculptures and black paintstick drawings, all in Gagosian’s hangar-like space in Chelsea. There was "Switch" in 2000, "Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres" in 2001, "Line Drawings" in 2002, and now "Wake Blindspot Catwalk Vice-Versa" (2003).

Serra’s work from the 1970s on has involved an interplay between mass, gravity, the epic made quality of the material, and what one might call nuances of measure— I am thinking here of the monumental blocks and rounds as well as the prop pieces. These works are, I think, anti-architectural. They do not articulate or sculpt space directly, but create dense anomalies inside it, which their surroundings— whether a monastery in Italy or a landscape in Iceland or the corner of a gallery— circulate around. This significantly changed with the more poetic works beginning in the 1980s involving curved forms, such as "Olson" (1986) (aptly named after the influential poet and essayist Charles Olson), "My Curves Are Not Mad" (1987), and later "Running Arc (for John Cage)" (1992). Despite their stupefying size and weight, one experiences these pieces not as anchored things. but as continuous, unstable trajectories of motion. Serra’s ability to find the fragile instant of equilibrium— modeled from Giacometti’s walking men and their reenactment in Bruce Nauman’s falling performance videos of the early 1970s— to give heavy materials a fleeting weightlessness and almost gestural quality, was already evident in the prop pieces. Compare those works with the hulking obviousness of the sculptures Joel Shapiro recently showed at Pace Wildenstein, or the Mark di Suvero contraptions at Paula Cooper. What remains astonishing about Serra’s "Torqued Ellipses" is the extent to which their whorling motion is withdrawn from the external world, and is then turned inward.

The concept of "torque" is active, alluding to the stress of speed, gravity, and friction on a tensile material. The sculptures in "Torqued Ellipses" are so tightly wound they appear to be in the process of being fashioned and ready to spring back. One can almost feel an invisible force deforming the sheets of steel. But the "Torqued Ellipses" are best viewed, not from outside, but from the standpoint of someone moving through their narrow, warping corridors, whose steel boundaries seem to be slicing space open. Like Sonnier’s "Neon Wrapping Neon" and "Ba-O-Ba" series, the "Torqued Ellipses" are not so much about geometry or form as about the phenomenology of the space the viewer is propelled through. With the long, subtly curving plates of "Switch" (1999), this effect was opened up and slowed down, so that one moved along them at a dream-like pace, the pitching walls taking on a strange lightness. And in "Betwixt The Torus and The Sphere" (2001), one glided deeper and deeper into its interior (it seemed to take hours) as though into a labyrinth. All of this work, as it was installed at Dia and Gagosian Gallery, was extremely disorienting. It was often difficult to know where in the gallery one was, where in the sculpture one was, whether one had passed through a particular corridor or not. These are immense works, but their scale is ambiguous in large part because they are not looked at or contemplated but moved through. And while their weight in steel is staggering, and the forces at work in them are mythic, they can at moments have a strange weightlessness and lyricism. Like light and color in Sonnier’s pieces, the spaces channeling through Serra’s works are at once physical, inward, and temporal. Perhaps that is the source of the affinity the work both artists have for architecture: from the steps Michaelangelo designed for the Medici Library in Florence to Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin to Frank Gehry’s recent work, great architecture builds both an physical and an interior structure.

The sculptures Serra recently exhibited at Gagosian Gallery are all impressive in and of themselves, but they lack the precision, subtlety, and power of the previous three shows. One senses that Serra has come to a creative impasse. "Wake" (2003) consists of five closed volumes made from two toruses, the fourteen foot high snaking shapes travelling off like ships in slightly different directions. Unlike "Running Arc (For John Cage)," "Wake" reads as shape and lacks the dynamism of carved space; the bowed forms are indeed beautiful, but their sum effect relies heavily on sheer size. The curving flare in "Vice Versa" (2003) is a kind of elegant chamber piece, the motion delicate and upward. The two sheets of steel seem to be magnetically repelling and deforming one another, projecting opposing arcs; here at least one can feel the play of invisible forces. The show’s most elaborate and ambitious piece, however, is "Blindspot" (2003), a curving labyrinth created by nesting three toruses and three spheres. Like "Betwixt The Torus and The Sphere," it is experienced, not as a series of shapes, but as a seamless skein, without horizon carving space, leading eventually to a dead end. "Blindspot" is a claustrophobic piece. Walking through its length alone, one feels oppressed and filled with dread. The complex architectonic, and aggressive and perhaps even fatalistic dead-endedness, work against it. While in "Torqued Ellipses," "Switch," and "Betwixt The Torus and The Sphere" one is conscious of the movement of charged space, in "Blindspot" one is mostly aware of the crushing weight of the walls themselves. Serra’s work is as illusionistic as Sonnier’s, and in "Blindspot" the illusion all too readily collapses.

Part of the enduring allure of Richard Serra’s work is its stupendous size and weight, and the way it gives rise to fantasies about a type of heavy industry and work that has largely vanished, at least in the United States. Every Serra catalog includes photographs of workers guiding massive plates of curved steel from equally massive machines. The story of Serra’s first exhibit at Gagosian, in which the opening was delayed because the gallery’s entire western wall had to be removed just to roll the sculptures inside, is an art world legend, and even now the spectacle of the towering cranes lifting segments of the sculptures from flatbeds on 11th Avenue is mesmerizing. This is misleading and dangerous, for size and weight are not necessarily commensurate with the scale of experience. The experience of Serra’s greatest works is private, intimate, fleeting. Another way of putting the problem with "Blindspot" is that it is overwhelmed by its own size.


Daniel Baird