Almost Human: Richard Serra

01/29/2014 4:00 AM |

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.


4 Comment

  • “… been making the same work for almost 30 years …” You could get into the wall vs. fence thing, but that’s chewed gum too. The problem is most of nyc art is this way. The same academic abstractions over and over. The tradition of NYC is now L’Ecole Des Beaux Artes of the 19th C.

  • I suppose this is the problem with a lifetime of artistic praise; you just don’t know when to retire. Serra is a great example. Had he bowed out of the art scene 10 years ago it would have been a graceful exit, as not only would he have cut out near prime, but would have stopped vacuuming up Guggenheim grants and gallery money. Instead its sculptural megalomania to the end, living under the delusion that he still has something to say, that not been said by a hundred steel plates on edge.

  • One way to think of this is that Richard Serra’s consistently awe-evoking, maximalist sculpture and your response to it is a kind of microcosm of the critique leveled against cold, agonistic, divorced-from-political-realities modernism and modernism’s eventual usurpation by post-modern work that quite intentionally confronts the viewer with the detritus and traces of human life (and with the artifice of making work for cultural consumption).

    In other words, your response, clear and convincing, is part of a larger discursive and historical shift away from awe, respect for “mastery”, and corollary attitudes towards, I would suggest, an appreciation for story, for objects that provoke relations that carry on after the experience, for an indication of a human pulse and a desire for a recognition of our own presence as viewers.