In this blog, we have seen Richard Serra’s small ‘drawings’ at the Courtauld Gallery as a faux in his career. He was actually taking a break because at Gagorian New York, he came back with a vengeance. The gallery’s West 21st Street location presents him in fine form, with a single massive work. Curling ribbons of steel, set on edge and towering to ceiling height, nestle together to create Serra’s signature bowing and curving of space. They swallow viewers up in a phenomenological ecstasy one usually associates with, say, walking along a narrow canyon. The metal’s russet color only adds to the sensation of experiencing something more natural than man-made.
Serra’s project throughout his life was to counterbalance the void left by minimalism in sculpture. In response Serra stressed, beyond the point of minimalism, the very terms that were suppressed in both dominant models of modernism and Gestalt readings of art, terms like materiality, corporeality, and temporality. First, in lieu of a logic of medium specificity, he substituted a logic of materials, of specific materials submitted to specific procedures. His distinctive line of investigation were enunciated as ‘prime objects’ (this was a term coined by art historian George Kubler meaning that his sculptures ‘present each problem in its greatest simplicity’) around which two new terms coalesced: ‘the body of the viewer’ and ‘the time of bodily movement’. Upon entrance at Gagosian, one feels our bodily presence that increases as we delve in this iron-maze-like construction. This show is Serra at its best.
The tone, if not the scale, of the work shifts on West 24th Street, with a group of sculptures and nary a bend in sight. Hard-edged steel plates, patinated a carceral gray, get in your way like barricades around a government building. A set of enormous blocks serves as a memorial to the recently deceased sculptor Walter De Maria, a friend of Serra’s. The use of Serra’s mega sculpture as a memorial is breath taking because it reverts the attention towards the visitor who can only thank God for being alive. While Marina Abamovic’s desperate narcissism was all about HER presence, Serra reverts the process to enhance our presence. Far from narcissism, that is humanism of sorts. Just a thought.
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