Los Angeles

Richard Serra

Ace Gallery

Knowledge, the existentialists say, is engaged knowledge; our windows to the world, however theoretical, are specific, located points, and everything within our perceptual field, including perception itself, is in situ. When the psychological “set” involves art expectations, the absence of a separate, finished physical object directly increases the importance of the immediate environment—the closing of time, place, other people and operations. Richard Serra’s recent exhibition at Ace Gallery (comprised of a big piece similar to Sawing at PAM and several propped metal sculptures of a type previously and thoroughly covered in these pages) included the showing of four short films which, with one exception, were fine, but which, as a totality, shifted one’s attention radically toward the situation. In Ace’s big cube, the audience (leather-vested glint-eyed boys in cowboy shirts and aviator glasses and wan, bra-less jeunes filles ennuyées) climbed over Serra’s great log piling and braced itself in the sawdusty heat while a succession of personnel struggled with a tiny, limpid-eyed projector. It must be endemically American, this bringing to bear of a great deal of matériel (people, machinery, things) on a flickering, short duration set of images on the available wall. (They say our combat troops require the logistical support of three men for every one in action.)

The films were projected, it appeared, in a descending order of didactics. In the first, four hands (two Serra’s) remove a pile of sawdust down to the last specks between thumb and forefinger and place it somewhere off-camera. The repetitive short swishes of the quick, efficient hands fall into rough cadence with the revolving sprockets: work = hand speed = rhythmic movement = dance = cycle = the process/materials of the film. Quite a nice movie, it lasted, I think, about four minutes. In the second, a bit shorter, Serra’s right hand, thumb up, opens and closes, grabbing at several dozen lead scraps dropped from just above camera. The hand tires progressively; he misses maybe sixty percent of the objects. The same minor hypnosis as in the initial offering prevails, and the hand fits the screen the way the heads used to fit TV screens in Dragnet. In the third film, a pretty girl is seen through a stationary camera, from the shoulders up, pirouetting; as she turns, her axis shifts and one feels the shift of her feet. Like all the films, the time ratio is 1:1 and, speaking of Warhol, the movie is closely reminiscent of Nancy Worthington Fish, et al. The last picture, a pièce de résistance, is a process-play on trompe /’oeil: under voice-over directions from the cameraman, Serra traces the framing edge with a ruler (“Am I on it? Yeah? OK, a little more in. Ok? Yeah. Lessee, that’s twelve and twelve more . . .”). Although we see the boundary as a round-cornered rectangle, Serra has measured off a trapezoid, and we can begin the questions: How did. this happen? Why do we watch “in” the picture when the “action” flutters along the edge? Why does the “dead” spot in the film seem to be the very part where it comes to life (when the panel is moved and, for a moment, we see out the window to the street below)? If the first film is the best because it is the least contrived real “work” as movement, this last one follows closely; it is also the most conceptual, a specific debunking of universal geometry in which the concreteness of the world is transformed into pure idea, then, in the movie frame’s failure to remain rectangular, modified as art, re-cast in particular terms.

Peter Plagens

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