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.
The thing is not to feel oppressed by the extraordinary mass and heaviness and gleam of it all. Unforgettable is the kerfuffel a while back over the site-specific curve which could neither stay in front of the Federal bulidings (although I loved attempting to have a sandwich atop it) or be moved, given its placement. Interesting that this issue should arise when the movement to take down various statues in New York and elsewhere is heavy in our minds. The Serra is not there any longer, of course, but the flavor hangs around wherever you see Serra pieces: at the Gehry museum in Bilbao, and so on, and now here. Impressive is the flavor of it all, inescapable is the presence of the thing(s).
You walk around, you compare the weight of the sculptures with the density of the black in his drawings, the way the curves fit into one another, the way it has an impact on your mind, and physical state. How different is this black (how does it not feel tragic?) from the small black stroke of a Matisse sketch, from the ponderous thereness of a Motherwell Elegy. Something about depth more than about sinking in. But a Serra piece, drawn or sculpted, staging itself, takes over whatever place you put it in. This gallery, any museum, any street or road or crossroads of traffic.
The most remarkable artwork in Richard Serra’s recent exhibition, which included dense paint stick drawings and sculpture, is Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure (2017). The work consists of four extremely massive solid cylinders of forged steel. Each Round weighs 82.3 tons. One is about waist high; one shoulder high; and the other two are taller but thinner. The experience of walking around or between the components of Four Rounds in the aircraft-hanger scale, visually neutral ground floor Zwirner gallery is easy to describe. What’s harder to explain is why this is a distinctively aesthetic experience—why, that is, that Four Rounds is an artwork. Partly the problem is that it’s hard to cite artistic precedents. Unlike a great deal of contemporary sculpture, this radically abstract Serra has no iconography. And it isn’t about our consumer economy. Once sculpture was taken off the pedestal, it was possible that artworks be confused with mere banal physical things in the world. But Four Rounds isn’t like anything you find in the streets—it is a very singular object. Nor, I should add, does it have any real connection with contemporary architecture.
Let us proceed, then, by briefly considering Serra’s recent personal development. His Torqued Ellipses made about twenty years ago invited you to enter menacing constructions, walking through, going between high narrow curving walls of steel tilting inward or outward. The proportions of these inner corridors varied in seemingly unpredictable ways. Now, making sculpture offering the converse of that experience, Serra creates walk-around artworks. The Torqued Ellipses constrain the viewer who enters, pressing one to follow the designed path. Four Rounds leaves the viewer free to choose how to move and look, between or also outside of the four component cylinders. Most old master and modernist sculpture requires that you contemplate from outside. Serra allows you to enter his works, putting you within the implied space generated by the very massive artwork. A very contemporary experience of physical immediacy! To understand Serra’s art, you need to grasp the ways that it engages your physical presence. While the Torqued Ellipses were highly complex spatial constructions (the product of highly sophisticated computer guided construction techniques), Four Rounds uses simple cylindrical forms to create complex visual experiences.
Four years ago David Zwirner presented Serra’s early work (made between 1966 – 1970), which was similarly constructed from steel, amongst other materials. That exhibition made evident that Serra was already thinking about how to radically rework the very nature of sculpture. Surely One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969), in that show, clearly anticipates some of his present concerns. “The problem with a lot of work today,” Serra has said, “is its predictability.” He certainly doesn’t have that problem! No living sculptor has shown a more radical ongoing capacity to rethink fundamentals. Serra is a great artist because he remains wonderfully innovative into old age.
The works that make up Richard Serra’s current show at David Zwirner reveal an approachability that’s surprising for a figure commonly associated with aggressive, even overwhelming, effects. The sculptures and drawings on display, all produced in the last two years, work according to a human sense of scale, and propose immediate relationships between the visitor and the exhibition space. Although they don’t dominate their environment the way many of Serra’s projects do, these recent offerings sacrifice little of the artist’s usual intensity. Instead, they condense and distill it.
The first floor of Zwirner’s exhibition is given over entirely to two works in forged steel. The process of forging metal—as opposed to casting or rolling it, both techniques Serra has used regularly—involves exerting intense pressure from all sides, and is best used to produce solid, compact forms. Appropriately, since he adopted this method in the late 1970s, Serra’s work in forged steel has focused on elementary geometric volumes like the cylinders and cubes that make up Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure (2017) in Zwirner’s main gallery, and Into and Across (2017) down the hall. Unlike the expansively curved sheets of steel that Serra has used for various immersive site-specific installations, the simple forms of his forged sculptures can be comfortably circumambulated or visually understood at a glance.
Richard Serra and Michael Craig-Martin’s 50-year conversation about art
The two artists – who trained together in the early 60s – discuss understanding the world through mass, weight and gravity
Michael Craig-Martin: I saw the current show at Gagosian in New York, the double gallery show. And to be honest, Richard, I’ve seen an amazing number of your shows. I’ve probably seen more of your shows than anybody else. I saw the show in the Castelli Warehouse in New York. It was with the lead pieces.
Richard Serra: You saw that?
MCM: I saw that show in 1969.
RS: Those are the beginnings.
MCM: Well, the only way I know how to do this, Richard, is by asking you things that genuinely interest me. And one of them is when we first knew each other. We’ve known each other for a very long time.
RS: Probably 35, 40 years.
MCM: More, since 1961. We had both arrived as students at the Yale School of Art. You were starting your postgraduate MFA course, while I was a very green and naive undergraduate. Because there were less than half a dozen undergraduates, they had no course for us, so we were simply thrown in among you graduate students to sink or swim. So we shared the same studios, the same courses and the same teachers, and that’s how we got to know each other. And, of course, your commitment was so total and so passionate. I’d never experienced anything like that with anybody.
RS: Yale was a very competitive place. It wasn’t until I left that I realised what an extraordinary time it had been and what extraordinary people had been there. If you think about it, Brice Marden, Chuck Close and myself all ended up having shows at the Museum of Modern Art, and that’s out of one class.
Speaking of his early practice, Richard Serra makes a succinct claim: “This is this. This is not that.”1 His works from the mid to late 1960s were intended to express the actions of “process.” In so doing, they demonstrate the deployment of basic procedures that activate the primary qualities of media derived from construction and industrial fabrication, such as fiberglass and vulcanized rubber. Produced from molten lead, the works known as “splashings” or “castings” (or sometimes both) are chief examples of this category of work. Indeed, in their case, the role of process is deepened by the passage of the lead medium—during the on-site production of a given work—from liquid to solid, a material transformation. A splash/cast piece is self-evident, an exposed manifestation of matter plus process—Serra’s nonsymbolic this. Process, in turn, implicates change, a temporal register. Given these conditions of medium and change, can we further say that a work’s material and conceptual terms bear meaningful relevance to its eventual fate? One fact is salient, if generally ignored: Serra’s early works from molten lead no longer exist.
To address the splash/cast pieces as a discrete group is to engage the specificity of their circumstances and means. Serra produced the first six such works in fairly rapid succession in 1968 and 1969. Four were made for group shows in which he was invited to participate. (The molten-lead splashes were one of several types of work he ultimately exhibited.) The initial one was made in 1968 for “9 at Leo Castelli,” organized by Robert Morris at Castelli Warehouse in New York. The others were produced in 1969: for the exhibition “Op Losse Schroeven” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (using an exterior wall of the museum); for “When Attitudes Become Form—Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland; and for “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Each of these shows was devoted to the state of contemporary post-Minimal and Conceptual art practices. A fifth work was made for Serra’s solo exhibition at Castelli Warehouse in 1969. Later that year, the artist executed his final early work from molten lead—in Jasper Johns’s studio, a former bank building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
East-West/West-East is a new sculpture by Richard Serra commissioned by Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani of Qatar; it is located in the Brouq Nature Reserve in the western portion of this tiny state in the Gulf enriched by its holdings of gas and oil. To arrive at the desert site, you drive west from Doha for forty miles (almost the width of the country), passing one construction site after another on a vast freeway, and then, suddenly, the landscape becomes almost lunar in its vacancy. Exiting via Camel Underpass No. 7, you travel seven or eight more miles on a makeshift road until the sculpture appears in the distance. Depending on the time of day and year, you are likely to be alone.
East-West/West-East consists of four steel plates arrayed vertically at irregular intervals in a straight line about a half mile in length along the compass points of the title. Anchored by supports of steel and concrete set below the level of the hard sand (it is actually a gritty gypsum), all the plates are thirteen feet wide, but the two outer ones are fifty-five feet high while the two inner are forty-eight feet. These height differences adjust for terrain changes, as the tops of the slabs are calibrated to be exactly even with one another and roughly level with the low plateaus that, formed long ago by the sea, frame the piece to the north and the south. As you walk from east to west and back again (rendering literal the first meaning of the title), you register the line of the plates and sense the evenness of the tops. You also perceive that the middle interval, between the second and third slabs, is greater than the others (the middle section is 450 yards, while the first is 173 and the third 301); this is so because the plates are positioned not with an eye toward even spacing, but at precisely those points in the landscape that allow the tops to be level.
Is the bracing clarity of Richard Serra’s early work capable of speaking to—if not against—the slippery ambiguity of today? More than usual, the relationship between the work and site of this exhibition set up a then-versus-now situation that it never resolved, leaving me split, but not in the material way that Serra so emphatically had in mind back in the day. Part of this is the result of the slightly awkward entrances to each of the two rooms of the show (both made me feel as if I entered from the wings, requiring me to quickly yet carefully find another spot to orient myself to the work), and the upmarket vibe of Zwirner’s new space, which in my opinion didn’t quite click with the Dan Flavins and Donald Judds in the inaugural show, despite the prices. Based upon the photographic documentation, it’s obvious that the first room of this exhibition was an attempt to recapture the look and, I assume, feel of Serra’s studio circa 1968, even if a couple of works are from 1969, including the pivotal sculpture of his initial development.
At first glance “Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure” (1969) fits Serra’s loose-sounding term “anti-form” very well, as the uncertainty of its selection of materials and their final placements submits to the logic of a procedure: here’s an arrangement of stuff, some of which had been stacked, that has been transformed into a reasonably symmetrical and sufficiently disconnected presentation by way of a couple of unforgiving cuts down the length of each side of its original set up. This, of course, is where the mental splitting also begins: despite Serra’s formidable efforts to banish associations, this work reads as a bilateral body, splayed yet maintaining its composure, and arranged to make a statement that is much, much harder to contain today.
Richard Serra has a story he likes to tell—as he did recently to a group gathered for a preview of this magisterial, museum-quality survey of his works made between 1966 to 1971 mounted at David Zwirner’s imposingly soign. new digs on West Twentieth Street—about a formative moment in his life as an artist when, traveling around Europe while on a Fulbright, he encountered Las Meninas for the first time. His experience at the Prado was a revelation, he said, because he felt Vel.zquez had somehow managed to make him feel “implicated in the space of the painting,” something the fledgling painter simply could not imagine accomplishing with his own wall-based work. Serra was obviously not the first viewer to be wowed and confounded by Velázquez’s masterpiece—by the “subtle system of feints,” as Foucault described it, that produces the work’s “pure reciprocity”—but for the young Californian, it was a true watershed moment: When he got back to Florence, he chucked the contents of his studio into the Arno and decided to become a sculptor.
One hardly need argue for Serra’s centrality to the trajectory of postwar art—or the importance in that trajectory of the brand of psychospatial implication he and his post-Minimalist contemporaries tracked in their diverse practices. But this show does provide an instructive elaboration of his evolution from overmatched grad-school pictorialist to august pronouncer of the colossally architectonic diktats for which he was to become famous.
On a recent morning in Chelsea, Richard Serra was surveying the origin story of an artist who rewards revisitation: himself. Revered for the rapture and disorientation that attends his monumental rusted-steel sculptures—most notably those in his celebrated series of "Torqued Ellipses"—Mr. Serra, now 73, has long brought an artistic sense to architecture and an architectural sense to art, wresting animated states from inanimate matter. Starting Friday, formative examples of that mission will be on display in "Early Work," an exhibition at the new outpost of the David Zwirner gallery on West 20th Street.
Focusing on work between 1966 and 1971, the exhibit shows Mr. Serra playing with mixed materials in his early years in New York, when he worked closely with the musician Philip Glass and illustrious others in the downtown arts scene. Among the works are "To Lift," a piece of vulcanized rubber made to twist and stand on its own; "One Ton Prop (House of Cards)," an arrangement of lead plates standing together against gravity; and "Strike," a monolithic rusted-steel sculpture suggestive of later work to come.
Walking through the exhibit before crowds had a chance to assemble, Mr. Serra spoke with The Wall Street Journal about downtown resourcefulness, thinking through sculptural moves with Mr. Glass and learning to look at materials as malleable forms.