Richard Serra’s current exhibition at Gagosian falls into three parts. The uptown branch, on Madison Avenue, presents 20 large diptychs and triptychs made with black paintstick, etching ink, and silica on paper. Downtown in Cheslea, at West 21st Street, “Reverse Curve” (2005/19) — 99 feet long, 13 feet high — divides the long gallery space in two. Originally commissioned for an Italian public project, this graceful, thick, steel construction curves and twists, like a gigantic hair ribbon.
And in the gallery on West 24th Street, there are four of his Forged Rounds series (2019). In one room, a group of them, each 50 tons in weight, are placed so close together that they almost touch. In another room, however, they are set far enough apart that you can walk between them. The rounds, which have flat tops, are of varied widths and heights; some are shorter than most adults, while others are taller than almost anyone.
Back when Serra would suspend steel plates from the ceiling, or balance large, leaning plates against the wall, or lure you inside his torqued ellipses, there was always some sense of menace. You were beneath or between extremely weighty and seemingly unstable forms. These new works, however, feel (and surely are) absolutely immobile, which is to say that you’re now completely safe.
To understand a Michelangelo or Bernini sculpture it helps to know something about their subjects. And the same is true of most of the sculpted work of Serra’s most notorious contemporary rival, Jeff Koons. By contrast, here there is no symbolism and so nothing ‘to get.’ It’s hard to cite artistic precedents for the experience of the forged rounds — art that is immediate and completely visually accessible. You need only walk around them to see that nothing is hidden.
We art critics need to be determinedly open to novel experiences. You’d have to be a very jaded person indeed not to find Serra’s new sculptures extremely persuasive — I mean, hundreds of tons of steel set in an otherwise empty gallery is nothing if not impressive. And it’s relatively easy to describe the spatial effects you experience walking around the reverse curve or through the forged rounds. These sculptures are amazing — bold and daring, unlike any art made by anyone else.
But if you are a philosopher, inevitably you will also wonder: what is the artistic or, if you will, the aesthetic significance of these sculptures? And if you are interested in art’s role in the marketplace, then it’s natural to ask about the political significance of such gigantic works.
The photograph on the handout provided by Gagosian depicts a working steel mill. It includes a statement by Serra: “Weight is a value for me.” And he goes on to describe the qualities of weight, in relation to his procedures for making sculptures.
Inspired by this account, let’s imagine a thought-experiment. Unable to afford the expensive logistical support system needed to move 50-ton sculptures, some ingenious provocateur, a follower of Mike Bidlo, say, makes exact replicas of these works, but using balsa wood covered with light fabric instead of steel. “At my show,” she says, “you will have the same visual experience as at Serra’s. Indeed, since at Gagosian you are asked not to touch the works, you cannot tell just by looking them what the difference is between his works and mine. But a single person can move my sculptures! And so middle-class people can install them in their gardens.”
Serra’s new works are the ultimate billionaire’s art, for only a megadealer could afford to show them, and only a very rich collector or a very well endowed museum could afford to install them. Three decades ago, Serra’s most fervent critical champions were leftists. Now, surely, that situation has changed.
Many luxury goods are posh because they are rare or made of precious materials. Serra’s sculptures, made of ordinary steel, are luxuries because of their unwieldy weight. For this reason, as much as I admire the critical intelligence of my imaginary Serra-imitator, still I would hesitate to predict a brilliant career for her. It seems to me essential that these new Serras are not just works that occupy space in a certain way, but that they actually are extremely heavy.
This imaginary example demonstrates that sculpture occupies a special position in the contemporary art world. When you are a student, you can aspire to paint like Jasper Johns in an ordinary studio. But without vast resources you cannot hope to sculpt like Serra.
Great sculpture is often defined, I think, by overcoming the difficulty inherent in the working of its materials. In different ways, Michelangelo and Bernini were both virtuoso marble carvers. Depicting Moses or Apollo and Daphne in stone is not easy. Using his very different material, cast steel, Serra is also highly gifted at working his medium. And where Michelangelo and, especially Bernini, had studio assistants to help them realize their sculptures, Serra needs the steel mill workers, shippers, and workmen who moved these works into Gagosian’s galleries.
Contemporary sculpture thus calls for an elaborate support system. “His tremendous virtuosity as a craftsman made him delight in difficulties which up to then had seemed beyond the reach of sculpture”: this much of Rudolf Wittkower’s praise for Bernini also applies, word for word, to Serra. And when Wittkower adds: “Bernini made the beholder an emotional participant” in the Catholic spectacle, consider how in our very different materialist culture, Serra’s resolutely secular sculptures also demand our emotional — if not visceral — participation in his dense occupation of space.
Note: My thought-experiment is inspired by Arthur Danto’s aesthetic theory; my quotation comes from Rudolf WIttkower, Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (1955).
Richard Serra: Triptychs and Diptychs continues at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 2. Richard Serra: Forged Rounds continues at Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 7. Richard Serra: Reverse Curve continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 1, 2020