Once in a blue moon a show arrives that excuses the inexcusable — delivering actual aesthetic dividends from the tentacular global reach, bottomless capital and self-aggrandizing, macho scale endemic to the top tiers of the art game. Despite my expectations, that show turns out to be Richard Serra’s extravaganza now filling both of Gagosian’s Chelsea hangars.
What I expected from Serra, who has just turned 74 and has been reworking configurations of plate metal for decades, was more of the same, and in effect that’s what we have — but with a few crucial differences, especially at the West 24th Street location. There, he has come up with variations of the standing metal walls he showed at Gagosian in the exhibition Rolled And Forged (May 6–September 23, 2006). Both the earlier works and the current ones are made of weatherproof steel, but the multiple slabs in the 2006 piece, “Elevations, Repetitions,” were mottled with rust, drawing the eye to the lush, painterly splotches and spills across the individual surfaces.
A new sculpture, “Intervals” (2013), takes up the second largest room in the gallery. Its steel slabs — ranging from four to six feet tall — stand in parallel rows with about six feet of space between them. The gunmetal gray surfaces are relatively smooth, without a trace of rust, which transfers much of the visual interest to the play of light around the edges.
If you stand on the ensemble’s perimeter, facing it straight on, the work reads almost linearly in the way that light darts across the tops and sides of the components. But as you walk around “Intervals,” the feeling is distinctly architectural, which comes in large degree from the relationship of the parts to the whole, but also from the formidable thickness of each slab — nine inches as opposed to six in “Elevations, Repetitions” — another small but crucial difference that accentuates the walls’ vertical strength and rootedness to the floor.
Moving slowly among the sculpture’s interior spaces, I became aware of a palpable stillness that I don’t recall feeling among the busier surfaces of “Elevations, Repetitions,” a sensation that brought to mind descriptions I’ve read of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005), in which ambient noise diminishes the farther one descends the sloping paths dividing the monument’s tomblike, concrete stelae.
The contemplative quality of “Intervals” is discarded in “7 Plates, 6 Angles” (2013), the largest sculpture on 24th Street and, in my experience of Serra’s work, the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Here the same weatherproof steel and rust-free surfaces that are used so evocatively in “Intervals” are deployed in an assertion of raw power.
The work’s seven plates are eight feet high, forty feet long and eight inches thick. They are arrayed in a zigzag pattern across the gallery floor, their adjoining edges aligned with extraordinary precision. The resulting vectors, which alternately compress and expand the space between the walls, thrust the plates forward with uncompromising force. You feel not so much dwarfed as shoved aside.
The implications of this piece are markedly different from the equally colossal installation at West 21st Street, “Inside Out” (2013), a single work with 13’ 2” walls and exterior dimensions of 80’ 9” x 40’ 2”. “Inside Out” is one of Serra’s signature torques, a series that also plays with compression and expansion but as an enclosed, participatory experience. The changes in space manipulate our perceptions as we walk through the sculpture’s pathways, with the claustrophobic tension of the narrow passages giving way to visceral release in the wider alcoves. It is a sensation intrinsic to all the torqued works but, like a rollercoaster ride, we never seem to tire of it.
Despite “Inside Out’s” almost absurd proportions, its brawn is diminished by the tilted curves of the walls. The outside view of the work resembles an overly large, warmly rusted bunker, banal in its self-protective crouch. “7 Plates, 6 Angles,” in contrast, is all exterior, pushing outward and shaping the space of the entire room.
Serra, of course, is the original gargantuan, making vastly outsized sculptures before they were de rigueur. Unlike the most recent crop of blue-chip artist-CEOs, for whom bigness equals importance simply because it’s big, with Serra scale actually means something. “7 Plates, 6 Angles” is one of his most compelling expressions of the will to power. It exists solely to overwhelm — there is nothing subtle or layered about it — and for that reason it is both shocking and frightening.
This does not imply that “7 Plates, 6 Angles” is a critique of the will to power any more than Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) is a critique of that artist’s misogyny. It is rather an unmediated manifestation of a dangerous human behavior in all of its brutish single-mindedness. Looking at its array of thick steel plates — the material distillation of unremitting aggression — offers not so much an epiphany as a chilly confirmation of the way the world works.
For all of their formalist/materialist trappings and technical precision, Serra’s best sculptures operate on the same gut level as his big, black oilstick drawings. The overpowering, even oppressive scale can be viewed in terms of the artist’s well-known reputation as a Minimalist terribilità, an interpretation that places him inside the work rather than outside of it.
Unlike art that engages in institutional critique, which sets the artist at a distance from the subject, a sculpture like “7 Plates, 6 Angles” embodies the artist’s flaws, which are our flaws. Its imperative for dominance and subjugation is a stark, unwelcome reminder of just who we are.
Richard Serra: New Sculpture continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street and 555 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 25.