Before I saw the Richard Serra show at Gagosian, I saw people photographing it. A man just out of the rain near the gallery’s entrance whipped out his camera, and I noticed several others taking furtive cell phone shots while the guards weren’t looking. (Gagosian doesn’t allow photography.)
For those unaware of Serra’s oeuvre, he’s made a name for himself by creating building-sized metal sculptures that often make you feel a little unbalanced when you’re next to them. He makes Art with a capital A, and most of us art folk are taught in our earliest art-school days that his sculptures evoke awe. When we photograph them, we’re not just trying to capture the sculptures but also pay the proper reverence we’re told such art is owed. Sometimes that reverence is paid in critical study, but it’s just as often paid in Instagram shares.
All that reverence and awe can get a little tedious, though, and that’s particularly true with Serra, who has been making the same work for almost 30 years. After having spent 15 years “being moved” by it—and I say that earnestly—you stop believing that the pious goals of high art have any tangible effect on the real world. Add to this that the show at Gagosian’s W. 24th Street location (through March 15) is made up of some smaller, less effective work, and you start to wonder why we still care about Serra at all. In one room there’s a long zigzag of thick metal sheets you can walk between; the pieces don’t lean, nor are they particularly overwhelming in size, so they don’t do much to activate the space. In another room, all we’re presented with is a labyrinth of short steel slabs. I still don’t know what I was supposed to take away from that.
Overall, it was the utter dearth of humanity that stood out the most. Slabs of steel are just slabs of steel, and even when they’re large and consuming, as is the case with 13-foot-tall curling sculpture at the W. 21st street location (whose Serra exhibit is up through February 8). From the 81 feet that that sculpture spans, you don’t ever get the sense of a human presence.
I suppose that’s its own kind of virtuosity, as it’s nearly impossible to remove the human presence from anything these days thanks to social media, but within the context of the Gagosian gallery it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to know that somebody was behind the 12-mega-gallery machine that hosted a bevy of blue chip artists, who often seemed just as mechanical in their output.
That’s why, back at the W. 24th Street gallery, it was a relief to see a blue bucket in the center of the gallery catching water that was pouring from the ceiling, which had sprung a leak. It wasn’t exactly a release of the awe I was diligently supposed to unleash upon the work, but it was at least a sign of humanity.