On ViewGagosian, West 21st Street
September 17 – February 2, 2020
Sculptors have always had it tough. Any unique instance of exploratory form in three-dimensions ultimately can’t compete with the diverse world of objects and the inexorable gravity that pressurizes it all into our consciousness. Historical ways to outwit this “outside” pressure have ranged from twisting an animated mimesis from the human figure out of stone-made-tractable (as in the Hellenistic period in Greece, The Laocoön being a typical example) to the almost complete dematerialization of “heavy” presence, in conceptual site-specificity, with the semantic tacking of Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer. Robert Smithson enlisted entropy to do end-run battle with the problem of sculpture’s puny claim against a world already laden with necessary objects—as if energy’s run down could, once and for all, indict the earnest sweat of sculptors past as a vain Sisyphean task. Christo and Jean Claude have “clothed” the brash and unholy environment of things in various veils (as if it were naked to Grace to begin with). Sarah Sze has fabricated and encompassed macro-universes via accumulations of the micro-quotidian. The awful—or reassuring—inevitability of our own mortality, our own necessary limit, is behind all of these sculptural inventions.
Insert here: the life project of Richard Serra. Perhaps more than any sculptor of his generation he has stared base materiality in the face, thereby forcing it to conditionally reveal its stock-still visage back. It’s a game of truth or dare that, in Serra’s case, he usually concedes with a poetic deference towards an unblinking counterpart: the secret to Serra’s work is not his intent to overcome gravity’s mortal indifference to the sculptor’s will, but to frankly acknowledge it. Pundits of his public persona have often cast Serra as a kind of Vulcan administrator: an ubermensch of facture, overseeing the hell-bending of heated steel into curvilinear sheets and obdurate masses of monumental proportion and then shipping them across oceans to the four corners of the (otherwise indifferent, object-populated) earth. This spectacle of Promethean proportion can eclipse the much subtler articulations of the artist’s “lighter” surface touch. He has said “Weight is a value for me, not that it is any more compelling than lightness, but I simply know more about weight than lightness”1 The literal tonnage of Serra’s work does contain the necessary monumental inertia that sets his work in imaginary motion and apart from the abstract fixity (in our imagination) of the world’s multitudinous (and impossible to completely know) bumps and hollows. Yet it is the surfaces of his work, its own bumps and hollows, that can just as well reveal an intimate, tactile poetry just beyond the public blind spot of Serra’s tour de force monumentalism.
At Gagosian’s 24th Street space are featured different arrays of Serra’s 50-ton “Rounds.” These squat works (within a range of heights approximately six to nine feet) are less monumental than they are uncannily geared toward addressing the human body, as the similarly- equivocal stature of Tony Smith’s Die (1962) at 6×6x6 feet over and underwhelms the viewer’s bodily sense of gestalt simultaneously. With the arrangement of Nine (2019) Serra flirts with the type of “relational composition” famously eschewed by Donald Judd. The “Rounds” are much more imposing in scale than either Smith or Judd’s works yet it’s impossible for anybody to really “know” the scale of 50-tons. Their palpable surfaces describe a genesis from molten to annealed steel. In their regularized shapes and animated surface articulation they take on an associative identity with the prima materia of alchemical reduction. Contained within the surfaces of the “Rounds” are a vast array of sculptural gestures that evoke alluvial drumlins, the cracked mud of parched oceans, and the scarified landscapes of a glacial grinding. Here too one can discern technical artifacts of the industrial method by which these are made such as pick–up cleats and the tracks of roto-cutting blades. When these elements are stacked as in the Inverted (2019) piece, their sense of compressive weight is mitigated by exactly how the two rounds do (or don’t) make contact. Their irregular forged surfaces don’t meet with a clean butt-joint but actually hover on their respective points of bumpy tops and bottoms. The precariousness of their incapacity to “sit flush” reinforces the granular, articulated effect of their variegated surfaces. The dynamism of the industrial forging process by which these sculptures are produced, its pounding and reconstituting, shaping and forcing together is indelibly embedded in these rounds so that in walking around and amongst them one counts a sense of vast malleability and the deep time of almost geological proportion. This is the sense of scale too often overlooked in Serra’s works. It’s hard to know how to describe it. One writer has referred to it as the “industrial sublime”2 but it could just as well be called the industrial picturesque, seeing how it indelibly memorializes, within its varied surfaces, the machinic processes by which the work is made. Ultimately, both the mass and surfaces of his “Rounds” are poetically sincere to the whole scope of sculptural history, from the lost wax technique of Greece and Benin to the additive clay figurations of Rodin and Giacometti (and beyond). One can see traces of Brâncusi in the tangential “kissing” of certain arrangements of the rounds. By embodying the base process of shaping prima materia, Serra subsumes all of these prior influences as precedents derived from his own mettle. It is this particular capacity of his, to more than adequately address and reshape the history of sculpture, and not, paradoxically, the unknowable history of form-in-itself, that should constitute his lasting reputation.
At Gagosian’s 21st Street space the artist exhibits the one large swoop (actually from two different sections) of Reverse Curve (2019). At 99 feet the sculpture blithely transects the entire space of the gallery in a gentle “Hogarth Curve.”3 Unlike the “Rounds” this work feels almost weightless in its flowing grace. One can even see daylight beneath large stretches of the bottom perimeter of the sculpture enhancing its buoyant jouissance. As in Serra’s previous works such as Torqued Ellipsis (1998) and Inside Out (2013) one is curiously compelled to navigate around the wall-like structure. Yet unlike these former works, Reverse Curve, in its more linear structure, doesn’t imply the inner and outer space of a labyrinth and all of the psychological and physiological feelings that well up with such implications. With its characteristic iron oxide patina (in this case pouring down in Morris Louis-like veils across its steel expanse) Reverse Curve looms serenely over the viewer as one can experience the red mud cliffs of the rugged maritime environs around Inverness, Nova Scotia, where the artist has spent his summers. The geological freeze-frame of such looming incident, and the imminent mortal danger that it implies, is translated by Serra into an eagle’s wing of evasion: an opportunity to ride the thermals coming off such cliffs. Most likely the artist would recoil at such anecdotal allusions, as he has been consistently insistent over his career that his work is about its own formal presence. But then immediate presence, like memory and beauty, is still most deeply felt and retained in the eye and body of the beholder. Perhaps Serra’s greatest gift is in fiercely withholding his own allusions in order to grant his audience a more intimate sculptural experience.
Besides Gagosian’s two downtown venues, a selection of Serra’s works on paper occupies the Madison Avenue location of the gallery. Made of black oil stick, etching ink, and silica, these works in two dimensions echo the artist’s graphic and painterly sensibility so evident in the surfaces of his steel works downtown. The virtual, pictorial distribution of their rectangular, tightly circumscribed, expressionist gestures make clear that the actual weight of things is only one significant aspect of Serra’s prodigious aesthetic capacities.
- Richard Serra, in Forged Steel, David Zwirner Books, 2016, p 22.
- Patrick McCaughey, The Industrial Sublime, Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 2016
- William Hogarth, in his 1753 aesthetic treatise “The Analysis of Beauty”, describes the gentle recursion of the “S” form, or serpentine line, as the ideal of lively composition.