The Weight of History: Richard Serra’s Sculpture and Drawings
Richard Serra told us that he came to a place in his work where he didn’t want people to be simply looking at a single object; he wanted them to experience the work by going through it. “Yes, the walk into, through and around,” he said, so on November 5, 2017, on the morning after the opening of his exhibition “Richard Serra Sculpture and Drawings” at David Zwirner in New York, we sat in the centre space created by Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017, forged steel, each weighing 82 tons, the tallest measuring 120.5 inches, the least tall measuring 45.75 inches. Ten feet, to less than four.
Richard Serra, his wife and colleague Clara Weyergraf-Serra, Robert Enright and me. We were through and in and the work was around us. It was Sunday, the gallery was closed. Two gallery staff were engaged elsewhere. This was the day of the New York City Marathon; the streets were largely empty of traffic. In Chelsea, on a Sunday, just a block from the Hudson River, there’s little traffic anyway. Where we were, the city was quiet, and with the low and clouded sky, the light was muted and soft, and we were inside.
The conversation started with language, that non-material stuff, literature being Richard Serra’s undergraduate degree, which he received from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance from 1841, with its emphasis on independence and nonconformity, was an early guide to which he has adhered since his student days. For the viewer in the presence of Serra’s work, words nevertheless fail. We are inclined to think metaphorically, to elaborate the event for ourselves, to use it as a means of communicating our experience to others, which of course can’t really be done. And here it is exactly. Without being prescriptive we would be better, here, to reside outside language and experience the work differently. As Richard Serra says in the interview that follows, “You’re caught between your sensory experience and an attempt to reconstruct it in language, which always fails. It is a conundrum. Explanations always fall short of sensations.” How not, if you think of it? No matter how accomplished the articulation, how poetic and precise, language is a transcription, not the event itself, and now we’re into shadows and reflections.