New York

Richard Serra

Joe Lo Giudice Gallery

A remarkable group exhibition by several first rank artists, notably John Chamberlain, Mark Di Suvero, and Jo Baer, has been installed in the enormous quarters of the Joe Lo Giudice Gallery. One can hardly claim that the intention of the exhibition was to play up the signal qualities of Richard Serra’s recent sculpture, although, in all honesty, much of the work other than Serra’s seemed rather casually included, if not wholly overwhelmed by the characteristics of Serra’s recent hot rolled steel plate organizations. Even Mark Di Suvero’s work, to which Serra acknowledges an early debt, seemed trivialized by the juxtaposition; unless, of course, the rendering of a peace symbol in three dimensions on a mammoth bridge-like scale (Di Suvero’s offering) is, in itself, a trivial idea to begin with, for all its bigness. In fact, the work of both these artists addresses itself to the problem of “big”—Newman’s problem—and much in Newman’s terms, namely bigness without scale comparison.

Possibly distressed by the entropic leveling out of his earlier tipped lead plates which in the process of molecular shift softened and fell, Serra has turned to large, partially rusted steel plates. I think the surface oxidation satisfied an essential feel for color on Serra’s part, as it had for Newman. Granting the scale in which Serra works, enormous technical problems were instituted by this switch of material, but it is not these problems which I find distressing. It is that, in changing materials, something of the intellectual power of Serra’s lead plates has been given up in favor of an artificial taste-controlled and ultimately Cubist organization. Mind you, to say this in no sense honors the sheer physicality of the experience. I am only trying to note that a discrepancy exists between what I feel is happening and what I know is happening.

I should state that I don’t think it especially terrible that the tipped lead plates collapsed—although I admit that the owners of such works could be put off by this—simply because the argument which led to their arrangements theoretically had taken this eventuality into consideration. From the outset Serra regarded this eventuality as inherent in his structural substances and premises. Moreover, the degree of preconsideration of the lead plates meant that the kind of rudimentarism he was dealing with enabled him to slay the specter of David Smith, while enabling him to work in formulations expressive of the more complex structural possibilities (essentially architectural ones) inherent in the Reductivist-Minimalist mode. By contrast the new steel works make concessions (with one exception)—concessions which ultimately transform Serra’s radical work into stylistic connections of David Smith and Anthony Caro. At the moment Serra’s essential supports are longitudinal steel cylinders (it is in these floor-bound axes that Caro is most clearly alluded to) which are slotted to receive, in simple Constructivist fashion, the enormous weights of the vast steel squares, further tightened with the wedging in of thin steel plates. This system of construction, no longer based on centripetal composition or on a tectonics of balance, tends to create—despite the environmental size of the works—plane to plane comparisons in shallow contexts. In short, Cubist taste-derivations become controlling features. And, since the work is supported on the floor (as distinct from the earth), Serra is obliged to slightly bow or arc the bottom edge of each square that rests on the floor so that the floor is not literally chewed up by the corner of the steel plate. Perhaps this is carping but it is in precisely such a detail that one sees Serra compromising his irrefragable absolutism in the name of technical nicety.

By contrast there is one startling, perhaps great, Serra work: a 24 foot by 8 foot steel plate jammed into a corner of the gallery. This divides the corner into two 45 degree angles. Interestingly, the supporting device still deals with the elementarism out of which Serra receives his greatest voice. Standing at the edge of the steel plate means that this monumental Newman-like wall of steel was reduced into an essentially dimensionless presentation, an extraordinarily paradoxical possibility in a sculpture whose sheer tonnage is otherwise so terribly sensate. It is in works such as these that I think that Serra is still able to express his virtual domination over Constructivist sculpture at this moment, rather than in the nicer tipped steel plates, for all of their bigness and drive.

Robert Pincus-Witten