New YorkGagosian, West 24st Street
September 17 – December 7, 2019
Gagosian’s Chelsea galleries are currently occupied by two new installations from Richard Serra: a single monumental work, titled Reverse Curve (2019), is at 21st Street, while the 24th Street space houses four sculptural suites, each composed of forged 50-ton rounds. Forging, which Serra has employed extensively since the late 1970s, is best used to produce self-contained forms like the cylinders displayed here. Despite their compact structure, however, Serra deploys his rounds to create effects that operate on just as environmental a scale as the more expansive Reverse Curve. However, both shows largely eschew the raw and overbearing aggression that Serra is best known for. Instead, they are finely judged installations that manipulate the relationship between a sculptural object, a display space, and a mobile viewer with great sophistication. The overall effect is thoughtful and, at times, even seductive.
The installation of the rounds on 24th Street functions as a meditation on the body’s passage through space, with each of the four works on view creating distinct perceptual and bodily effects. The first work a visitor will likely encounter, Channel (2019), is also the smallest and most precisely structured. Here, two identical cylinders—four feet in height, eight-and-a-half in diameter—are crowded into a small gallery. Each sculpture touches one of the walls, so that the only way to navigate the room is through the narrow passage between them. Following this path leads you directly into the next space, a much larger gallery containing Nine (2019), the largest and most open-ended of the works on offer. As the title suggests, this piece consists of nine rounds in a loose cluster, no two the same size. The varied dimensions of Serra’s forged cylinders provide a wide range of unpredictable views and combinations of form. Rounds partially vanish or come into view as a visitor moves freely between and around them. Navigating the gallery, I imagined physically entering one of Fernand Léger’s early abstractions—it would be a similar visual experience.
Combined and Separated (2019) splits the difference between the rigid Channel and free-form Nine. Here, two groups of three rounds confront one another. Each trio includes cylinders of the same dimensions: one stands four feet tall, one six, and the tallest looms at six feet six inches. The only thing distinguishing the two groups is that one is tightly bunched, while the other leaves enough space for a viewer to move among the rounds. Like the individual cylinders of Channel, the two groups composing Combined and Separated define a narrow passage in the center of the gallery, but the relaxed clustering of the looser trio also invites you into and through the work itself. In a telling gesture, the gallery’s exit is located just beyond this sculptural group: the freedom of movement it suggests guides you into the exhibition’s final room.
Unlike the other works on display at 24th street, Inverted occupies a small room with only a single door. This forces you, ultimately, to retrace your steps, and, in its closure and claustrophobic effect, it serves as a decisive punctuation mark that signals the show’s end. Inverted, two imposing columns made of two rounds each, fills its space almost completely, and it is staged to reinforce the impression of finality. Each column includes a slightly larger and slightly smaller round, but their positions are reversed. For one column the smaller round sits on the bottom, while for the other it takes the top position. This structural tautology suggests a closed logical loop, a metaphorical mirror for the closure of the gallery space itself.
Just three blocks south on 21st Street, we might imagine a similar logic at work in Serra’s large-scale Reverse Curve. Over 30 meters in length, this monumental steel ribbon similarly fills its allotted space. The diagonal axis of the gallery is barely long enough to contain it, leaving only narrow channels for circulation around the edges. Moreover, like Inverted, the form of this work suggests reversibility and recursion: Reverse Curve takes the rough form of an elongated “S” along its length. The surface of the ribbon is curved as well, emphasizing the sculpture’s overall form. When it appears convex, it is doubly so, and where it is concave, it feels cavernous. As it retreats from you, the ribbon changes from a rich, burnished orange to both darker and more variegated colors. The overhanging concave sections are mottled with vertical striations of light and shadow that suggest flickering flames—an effect that approaches the pictorial. Where the imposing crags of Serra’s installations once felt threatening, here there is an alluring sensuousness. Like the Forged Rounds on 24th street, Reverse Curve engaged me in a dialogue that, despite its superhuman scale, felt surprisingly subtle and intimate.