Alerts & Newsletters

By providing your information, you agree to our Terms of Use and our Privacy Policy. We use vendors that may also process your information to help provide our services.

Richard Serra

There was a period, beginning with the removal of Tilted Arc, 1981, from Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1989, during which critics routinely castigated Richard Serra’s sculptures for being megalomaniacal. Weighing many tons and dominating human bodies with brutal solids of cast or hot-rolled steel, the work seemed to many to be interested only in its own enormity—and, implicitly, in the money, will, and firepower that allowed it to be forged, transported, and installed.

But over the past five years or so, the worm has turned. In 2005, Serra unveiled a permanent installation of eight sculptures, collectively titled The Matter of Time, in a huge gallery at the Guggenheim Bilbao. The project has garnered wide acclaim as an essay in perceptual intervals—that is, as an environment that responds to rather than disciplines individual, real-time locomotion. The Guggenheim installation centers on the “Torqued Ellipses,” 1996–2004, a group of works employing new engineering software (also used by Frank Gehry on the building) to arrive at sweeping curves.

Serra’s recent show at Gagosian Gallery, titled “Rolled and Forged,” returned to more basic geometries. Long-standing investments in mass, weight, and mathematical logic remain, while complex, man-made forms subside in favor of simple slabs and blocks familiar from the early part of the artist’s career. Added to the obsession with monumental quiddity, however, is a sense of speed and even lightness akin to that articulated by the “Torqued Ellipses.” Fascinated as he is with fleeting sightlines, subtle perspectival shifts, and delicate oxidations, Serra here could be called a born-again sensualist—though presumably he would hate this description.

The lichenlike blooms of orange rust, the gouges and flame-blue streaks of mill scale on the skin of Serra’s colossi draw the eye in, securing interest on a painterly level in spite of the works’ architectural size. They also bridge the gap between industrial and natural processes, testifying to the innate properties of metal when acted upon by air, heat, and other metal. But Serra is on record as abhorring painted sculpture. His surface scars merely index fabrication, and are not calculated aesthetic choices. As the Cor-Ten steel ages, in fact, the efflorescences will fade to uniform brownish purple, as seen in Round, 1997, the only work exhibited that was not made this year. For the moment, however, the pleasure of the color is immediate, even decisive.

The exhibition’s largest piece, Elevations, Repetitions, leavens its bulk with a vital foregrounding of these beautiful surface effects. It also privileges negative space and offers visitors multiple angles of approach. The field of sixteen Cor-Ten plates exemplifies its title, in that each measures six inches thick by thirty feet six inches long, while ranging in height from just over three and a half to a little over five feet. The panels are balanced on their long edges in rows of two, with passages between rows and panels creating an open maze. As in Equal Weights and Measures—six larger-than-human blocks of identical dimensions, placed side by side but oriented differently—the changing heights establish a rhythm in concert with the openings between units, through which viewers slip and weave.

The effectiveness of this multiple-pathways/multiple-views format is reiterated by virtue of its absence in No Relief, in which two steel plates of different heights sit flush to the walls of a long, narrow gallery, which seems almost uninteresting in comparison. Unable to map an eccentric approach through the piece, one moves past it relatively quickly. Elevational Mass and Round also eschew modular dynamism. But their comparatively smaller sizes invite the viewer to linger, moving around the booklike row of nine streaked plates set flush together, and the cylindrical slug of forged, bruise-purple steel, as if exploring mysterious industrial relics. Here again is a romantic narrative of tacit figuration and elegy, a drama that Serra would doubtless dislike. But the reverie flits through the room, and he conjured it.

Frances Richard

Brice Marden, 6 Red Rock 1 (detail), 2000–2002, oil on linen, 107 x 75".
Brice Marden, 6 Red Rock 1 (detail), 2000–2002, oil on linen, 107 x 75".
2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
October 2006
VOL. 45, NO. 2
Artforum Inbox
Register to receive our full menu of newsletters—From the Archive, Must See, Video, In Print, Dispatch, and ArtforumEDU—as well as special offers from Artforum.

By providing your information, you agree to our Terms of Use and our Privacy Policy. We use vendors that may also process your information to help provide our services.

PMC Logo
Artforum is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 PMC PEP, LLC. All Rights Reserved. PEP is a trademark of Penske Media Corporation.