On ViewDavid Zwirner
May 4 – July 15, 2022
On ViewDavid Zwirner
May 4 – June 18, 2022
The now rain-streaked poster for this dual show, still visible on 10th Avenue, is a photograph of a man watching as a huge claw lifts Serra's new work: a red hot, 10-foot-high solid steel cylinder. The cylinder, now cool in all senses, stands dead center on the ground floor of David Zwirner’s 20th Street gallery. The space, all white, is square, illuminated from above by four rectangular bays arranged in two groups of two, east to west. The cylinder rests exactly between the two central bays, just under a roof support. Every detail is premeditated, every effect considered—the quintessence of Richard Serra’s artistic sensibility.
Forget ideas about “late style,” Richard Serra (b. 1938) simply goes on doing what he does best: confronting viewers with awe-inspiring mass, then teasing their intellect with geometrically-structured angles of perception. Nothing new here, you may say, but Serra is always new, always fascinating. His forged steel cylinder is 120 inches high and 77 inches in diameter. To approach it is to feel something analogous to the effect Stanley Kubrick creates in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when the camera dollies up to the black monolith on the moon. We don’t know exactly what to make of it, but we know we are in the presence of some immense power, and we know that it must mean something.
But what? There is no overt allegory here, no ironic commentary on the depredations of time or Heideggerian lucubration around the human condition. Serra confronts us with a geometric fact and invites us to speculate.
And a cylinder—a circle raised to three-dimensional solidity—in a square space does indeed invoke a particular tradition of symbology. Jungians would be tempted to see the relationship between perfection (the circle) and imperfection (the square) or between limitlessness (the circle) and limitation (the square). These wildly different symbolic values may or may not be relevant to Serra, whose intellectual concerns range far and wide, but the fact is that the composite, the cylinder within the square, creates a dynamic totality, a tension between geometric forms themselves fraught with meaning.
That the cylinder functions here as a circle metamorphosed into a geometric solid is confirmed by Serra’s first drawing, Circle (1975/2011). This is a black circle, paintstick on Belgian linen, that is itself a species of sculpture: the circle is not drawn on a surface but stands alone, fixed to the gallery’s white wall. This makes it unique among Serra’s drawings because all the others are literally works on paper. That the circle is 79 inches in diameter takes us back to the steel cylinder, 77 inches in diameter. The relationship is only approximate and may be accidental but the fact remains that it is difficult not to imagine we are seeing the cylinder from above, truly a circle inscribed within a square.
The circle drawing is on the gallery’s ground floor, inseparable from the cylinder. The actual drawing show is on the second floor and clearly a different kettle of fish. Here the main issues would seem to be gradation and metamorphosis. Each of the three spaces on the second floor imparts a different set of meanings. In the southeast room, there are seven drawings, Drawing in 7 Parts (2021), arranged in a progression. At first, a black, four-sided figure, cut obliquely from left to right, dominates the white paper. By the time we get to seven, the black shape, now a wedge, is subordinated to the white. Ebb and flow, victory and defeat.
The northeast room, occupied by eleven drawings, presents permutations of a curve, perhaps fragments of some larger geometric shape. The issue here is not progression but variation. We find the same concept at work in the large, rectangular west viewing room, which contains eight diptych drawings. These large-scale pieces, the largest 41 by 96 inches, are all named for movies starring Humphrey Bogart, ranging from Up the River (1930) to Beat the Devil (1953). Perhaps Serra is casting a self-reflective eye over Bogart’s long career. The diptychs inevitably invite speculation about how the two sides might be opposing forces, but what they actually appear to be are simply juxtaposed shapes, landscapes of the mind. The most fascinating are the colliding and fusing vector-rectangles of They Drive by Night , Chain Lightning , and High Sierra (all 2021): all of Serra’s explosive energy caught in an instant of stasis.
Enigmatic, arresting, audacious: Richard Serra now and forever.