In a small, über-blue chip stretch of 21st Street in Chelsea, three adjacent galleries are concurrently running exhibitions that feature a series of monumental art pieces that move between refined, processed, man-made materiality to earthen structures, and plant life that grows from the soil. It’s as if the three institutions, Gagosian, Gladstone, and Paula Cooper, had a moment of psychic convergence. The works they display is configured around instilling awe and wonder in the viewer, and going from one to the other, in the order I’ve indicated, one has the unique experience of moving from the industrial to the pastoral, at the same time seeing how one artist’s work lays bare the strategies of the other.
If you do as I did and start with Gagosian’s show of Richard Serra, you enter a space that’s immense, a paean to the power of the Gagosian brand. Inside you see an also immense steel structure (NJ-1) with walls that are 24-feet high with the patina of rust all around. There seems to be an entrance in the middle, and at the end of the path is a guard who tells me I can go either right or left to walk through the object. So it’s a maze. I go exploring and come out the other side impressed that I had no idea the structure would allow me to do that. The work is clearly about Serra’s somewhat dated brand of macho artmaking, but also about giving the viewer a sense of the immensity of the reality we occupy. One of the ways to get there is to be made to feel small. In observing two separate groups of visitors, one a group of college-aged students and another, a group of older ladies who lunch interact with the work, I was reminded that concerns about our mortality affects us at any age.
Next door, at Gladstone, I was confronted by Anish Kapoor’s “She Wolf.” Kapoor also loves to build monuments to the artistic ego, while pretending he is wrestling with the great themes of humanism, like religious belief, notions of the afterlife, etc. Kapoor, like the other artists discussed here, has had a storied career, at one point filling the Tate Modern’s turbine hall with a gargantuan object, “Marsyas,” that was both overwhelming and lyrical. He does a similar thing here, presenting you with an archway, an overhanging chunk of earth that weighs (I’m told) about three tons, bookended by a rectangle of marble that weights 25 tons and another enormous chunk of earth. I dare you to stand under that arch for a minute. Even standing, as I did, under it for a few seconds is frightening. It’s too big. You know that if it managed somehow to fall on you, there will only be recrimination and blame all around, and a closed-casket funeral. The earthen structure looks like the belly of a pregnant four-legged creature, distended teats that are destined for the just born, so Kapoor’s imaginative sense of staging is shown to be more agile and nuanced than Serra’s. We now have moved from cold steel to beckoning, anthropomorphized earth that is still nevertheless about making the visitor submit.
Then, if you walk into Paula Cooper, you are met with a different kind of commemoration. Meg Webster still signifies the power of the gallery and her position in the art ecosystem, but also moves her ego out of the way just enough so we see her pointing to the sumptuousness of the natural world’s flora. Her “Volume for Lying Flat” (2016) is a kind of bed of peat and green moss that has fascinating texture and looks like something that would indeed give a good night’s sleep. There is also “Stick Structure” (2016), that seems like the kind of wreath a Greek champion would have won at one of the first Olympiads, but proportioned for a giant. The best part of the show for me was the room of four wooden planters containing flowers, herbs, and grass beneath grow lights, within a room with walls covered by reflective mylar. It’s deeply beautiful, this room. You want to stay there and soak up enough goodness to equip you to go out and face the city of New York. It’s still monumental, raising the life of plants to the level of greatness. But it is also lovely and slow and full of the detail of the various plant names, and the presence of other life, insect life, that reminds us that we are mortal yes, but bigger and more powerful than other creatures we share space with, and perhaps that means a measure of responsibility.
Anish Kapoor’s Today You Will Be In Paradise continues at Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 11. Meg Webster continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 24. Richard Serra’s NJ-1 continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 29.