Tread Carefully

John Haber
in New York City

Richard Serra: Early Work and Drawings

Faced with nearly three hundred square feet of lead, wood, stone, and steel laid to waste on the floor, one could always ask: why is that art? One could, that is, the next day or in reproduction.

With Richard Serra, surely any sane person in the gallery would be more concerned for treading carefully. Faced with Prop, twenty-five square feet of lead held to the wall by nothing more than the eight-foot lead pipe leaning up against it, one should at least take a deep breath and a step back. And that has everything to do with why this is art. Richard Serra's Cutting Device: Base Plate (photo by Fred R. Conrad/New York Times, MoMA PS1, 1969)

Serra's early work in Chelsea comes with tape on the floor and warnings not to touch. I doubt that anyone beyond the gallery's insurers will need them. At his 2007 retrospective, a guard even had to encourage people to walk on one piece, although the Museum of Modern Art placed others behind glass, like an ever so proper museum display. Yet a personal encounter with their weight, their materials, and their status as art is very much a part of the work, to the point that one noted critic dismissed Minimalism as theater. Verb List—a handwritten four-column set of directions beginning to roll, to crease, and to fold—might even sound like a script. If so, it is an open-ended one, ending in the words to continue, for that fateful encounter with the viewer.

Work like this does not just enter the eye, and the mind may never grasp it as a whole. It depends on cues like texture and mass as much as shape, color, and light. So does a museum retrospective of Serra drawings. Largely in paint stick, they combine drawing, painting, geometry, spatter, and a healthy sense of confrontation. They pick up the dark tones of his early rubber, lead, and fiberglass. They also ask people what they are really doing in a museum.

"To continue"

Richard Serra was clearly building on Minimalism, in floor pieces as with Carl Andre, repetition as with Donald Judd or Charles Gaines, limp felt as with Robert Morris (as opposed to limp lead for Susana Solano), refuse as with Walter de Maria, and even a few neon twists as with Keith Sonnier. At the same time, he was starting only in 1966 and 1967, the year of that infamous assault on Minimalism by Michael Fried, and he already suggests a response. He truly is dealing with Fried's ideal of "objecthood," and the script is an object's process of making and unmaking. Look at Three Lead Coils, and one knows exactly what one is getting. Look at the tightly wrapped cylinder of Thirty-Five Feet of Lead Rolled Up, Slow Roll: For Philip Glass, or Double Roll, and one can imagine it coming into being. One can also see Serra's art as theme and variations, as traditional as guitar players or portraits of his wife for Paul Cézanne.

Not everything, though, is quite so clear, starting with the sheer difficulty of taking it in. That huge floor piece came about from arranging the pieces and then cutting through them—much as the verb list has in succession to scatter and to arrange. Titled Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure (and on view two years back in "1969" at MoMA PS1), it in fact sounds like manufacturing standards, except that one cannot take their measure. A cowl of vulcanized rubber could pass for steel, except that as steel it would be difficult to shape and as rubber it hardly seems able to stand. The rippling steel of Folded, Unfolded borrows in turn from the texture of fabric or rubber. Other chunks of rubber and fiberglass seem simply torn apart or cast aside.

Serra started with the rough edges and castoffs, extending to video in 1968 of his hands catching lead and scraping. That same year, he discovered lead, and in 1971 he turned more and more to hot-rolled steel. Both led him to larger, taller, and cleaner structures, with more of the danger displaced into their structures. A second large room has those prop pieces, with pipes straddling metal sheets and perhaps a corner, held up by only their own weight and one another. The four sheets of One Ton Prop (House of Cards) live up to their promise—while, as Hal Foster notes, bursting the ideal geometry of a cube. Serra's sculpture is literally and figuratively gaining weight, which makes it more successful as art.

His evolution is also a process of stripping away, as both a return to Minimalism's roots and their outgrowing. MoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim must have seen that from the start, which is why the simplest prop pieces are in museum collections. The simplest and largest of all, Strike: To Roberta and Rudy, is just a twenty-four foot wall coming out of and sustained by a corner. It must seem barer still in the white halls of Zwirner's massive new galleries. (A photo originally in Newsweek shows Serra in his studio at the time, like an airplane hanger not quite stripped bare.) And still it obliges one to take a step back, to stop in one's tracks, and to walk carefully around.

Foster's terrific catalog essay explains why so much care falls on you or me. In Minimalism's theater, Morris and others have one looking in all directions for the stage, whereas Serra uses sculpture to "focus our gaze." In this "drama of primordial structuring," art shares the lead with the viewer: "we cannot help but correlate its precarious status with our own tentative free-standing." At the same time, Foster sees not an empty threat but a healthy dependency, the antithesis for Sigmund Freud (the anaclitic) of narcissism in love. Maybe so, but the challenge still comes first and foremost from the artist, and it takes one way out of the comfort zone.

New York has not felt a shortage of Richard Serra, including a survey of his drawings in 2011. With the still more mammoth Torqued Ellipse, Rolled and Forged, or Switch, he has become downright welcoming. One enters as with a maze, on the way to a certain exit, with much the same enigma, sensuality, and awe. Even the prop pieces can become second nature after years in a museum. A block away, Zwirner recovers a bit of history for Gordon Matta-Clark beneath Paris and New York, with the delight of hardly knowing when he was discovering their depths or tunneling through. Serra, too, may have become something of a delight, but for once can get back to that moment of impact, when one still treads carefully, before one has a chance to ask why this is art.

Stick to drawing

Another kind of retrospective selects barely fifty drawings from (in more ways than one) a weighty career, without so much as his most famous drawing, on the subject of Abu Ghraib. Expect revelations, private encounters, warm rooms, and soft lights? Expect the first thoughts on paper behind the artist's formidable rusted steel? Of course not—and even if one did not know Serra, one would know that something is else is in store from the moment one approached. Rather than continue into the modern wing, one turns instead to the right, into an exhibition space more often devoted to entire civilizations. And there one sees mostly bright lights, white walls, and a glimpse of the gift shop.

Count on few compromises beyond that glimpse of an ending. But then Serra, who dismantled Tilted Arc in Lower Manhattan rather than relocate it, is not known for compromise. The very first works, from 1971, are modest in scale, playing firm concentric circles against charcoal shading into paper. They really do suggest the process that took him from scattered rubber to steel walls, and they get one thinking in shades of black. From that moment on, however, every drawing from the 1970s but one occupies its own site or its own room. The sole exception, sheets of more or less random wiggles, amount to a catalog of the vertical, and anyway it all plays out on the entry wall.

Richard Serra's out-of-round X (photo by Rob McKeever, Richard Serra/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999)Just to pass that point is like walking into a Torqued Ellipse—and do not even ask if, when, and where one will exit. Serra adopts thick, oily paint stick on paper or linen, affixed directly to the wall. One can almost smell it or, more to the point, feel it. Large black rectangles may occupy both sides of a corner or face one another across the room. They float like the darkness of late Rothko, but with the visual field as smeared mass rather than transcendence. The smallest, a good-size circle, hovers overhead as if waiting to fall.

The first work in paint stick, a hard-edge triangle, may still see geometry as the drawing in space of Ellsworth Kelly—but that much more a part of the wall. By the end of the decade, a single sheet reaches from floor to ceiling. It begs one to approach it, exactly like his rolled and forged steel, and it thrusts one back. It leaves visible the staples that hold it up, much like the that Robert Ryman made a part of his white rectangles. Paper alone sets its limits, as in the unfolding white constructions of Dorothea Rockburne. It could be the black counterpart to Rockburne's white angel.

The sense of mass becomes even clearer in the 1980s, with one rectangle tilted slightly to lean against another. One might mistake the descending spike of white between them as a "zip" out of Barnett Newman, but with no patience for the sublime. One could mistake it, too, for the falling lead that Serra catches repeatedly in a 1968 video—an art of endurance almost out of Chris Burden. The 1990s add spatter, with expanding circles in paint stick like Kenneth Noland reduced to ashes. His latest drawing again wraps the wall, with maybe, just maybe, room to breath. It still defines one's motion as a map of the gallery and an entire gallery as a dead end.

Serra wears confrontation on his sleeve (or maybe on Belgian linen), and it may help at times to glower right back. I sure did when I came to the titles like the 1989 The United States Government Destroys Art, meaning his art. On the way out, one gets to see sketches after all, including ones after Paul Cézanne and Machu Picchu. Then again, that means looking for the essential while looking at mass, and it comes entirely in thirty sketchbooks. All the same, there is no avoiding the confrontation—and a powerful one. An early video shows Serra's hands tied, and this artist wants even his impulse organized and bound.

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Richard Serra's early work ran at David Zwirner through June 15, 2013, late Gordon Matta-Clark through May 4. Serra's drawings ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 28, 2011. Related articles look at his recent gallery work and a Serra retrospective.


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