New York

Richard Serra

Castelli Warehouse

Stepping into sculpture as if no one were home, Richard Serra continues to systematically lay claim to the entire estate. Sawing, the first piece one sees upon entering the exhibition, comes off as a bulky scatter piece, vaguely indebted to the dedifferentiation pieces of Barry Le Va and Robert Morris. A few minutes of looking reveal the work to be in no sense a scatter piece and in no way concerned with the esthetics of the de-differentiated field. Instead, the piece reveals itself to be concerned with the problem of combining different materials in the same work in some sort of convincing manner (i.e. not a fur-lined teacup or any of its variations). The solution was to unify the various materials by subjecting them to the same process, in this case sawing. As becomes increasingly plain from simply looking at the piece, lengths of wooden beam, marble slab, steel plate and lead pole were laid crosswise across a steel template as one might lay a log across a railroad track. The parts that hung over were sawed off and allowed to remain roughly where they fell. The work is thus a process piece in a very elegant sense, for it delivers to us in an admirably straightforward way not only the process of its making, but also the information that the same process is also the solution to the problem dealt with in the work, i.e. the sawing plainly both makes the piece and is also that which unifies the various materials in the work. To my mind it’s Serra’s most beautiful, completely realized work to date.

With the exception of a large splashed-lead piece, the rest of the works in the exhibition are made of 4-foot square sheets of lead and rolls of lead pipe about eight feet long. They deal with the issues forced into sculpture mainly by the work of Carl Andre: the limitations of materials, structural consistency, the explicit acknowledgement of gravity, clarity of the interrelations between artist and material. Within the limits of this kind of literalism, the elements of a sculpture cannot simply renounce their floor-bound nature and commence piling, tacking or welding themselves up into a gravity-defying abstraction. When the elements of a sculpture come off the floor they must do so in a structurally convincing manner, and each element earns its place in the work by serving an indispensable structural function. And even though the structural logic of each piece is as plain and as satisfying as can be, there is no point in the exhibition at which we are allowed to forget that the issue is still one of coming off the floor, a hazardous, unnatural and perhaps even unnecessary business. (Best made clear by the heaviness of lead. In the sense that this heaviness dramatizes the issue, the pieces can be called theatrical and the teasing of the structural limitations of the lead elements a theatrical mode. This would then be one mode of the theatrical not destructive to ambitious sculpture.)

Structural clarity leaves room for puns and illusionism of all kinds. In 5:30 the “base” is found on top of the sculpture, holding the work “up” by pressing “down,” and this helps us to see that the real base of the sculpture is the floor and that it is always the floor, the base being defined simply as where the sculpture begins. In Two-Two-One the lead pole holds four of the sheet elements up by pressing down on them, but is itself kept in place by the fifth sheet, which just barely catches the pole on its corner, as if the plate were moving away, pulling the rest of the piece after it. In this piece the weight of the materials is momentarily transcended: the rolled lead pin just seems to float above the work, and the illusion of weightlessness is here earned (for a material whose name is practically synonymous with weight) without benefit of paint or weld.

The large splashed-lead piece is a straight process piece, reflective of earlier concerns. Molten lead is splashed against a mold, allowed to harden and then pulled away, and the process repeated. The piece here is comprised of four molds, one 180 degrees, one 90 degrees, one 45 degrees and one U-shaped, or double 90 degrees. Several hardened shapes from each mold lie alongside. One “understands” the piece when one knows how to “go on,” that is, when the process by which its current state was arrived at becomes clear. The process and the work are one, the art and its making both delivered with complete clarity. It is difficult to account for the energy that is released when the mystery of the making is dispelled, but one feels it.

On the way out, one confronts a comical piece: a lead pole about eight feet tall propped between two lead bricks about a foot high, a cock-and-balls piece, a laugh at the gargantuan-ism, the machismo of the show. Very cheeky, very self-assured, as well he deserves to be.

Philip Leider