Los Angeles

Richard Serra

ACE Gallery

Richard Serra, who once was credited with having gotten Andre “up off the floor,” may now be decorated for hoisting him as high as the ceiling. In an important new installation entitled Delineator, Serra invigorates the slightly tired issues of ground sculpture by adding to them the fillip of ceiling esthetics. Coincidentally, he takes ’70s sculpture one more step along the usurper’s path, encroaching still another inch on what Focillon called the “fundamental privilege” of architecture—its prerogative, that is, to dominate a real space “not only as a mass, but as a mold.” Furthermore, Delineator is a work of abrupt drama and unusual power, even if these virtues require some behind-the-scenes trickery.

Consisting of an authoritative five tons of rusty, hot-rolled steel in the form of two rectilinear plates (each 10 feet wide, 26 feet long, and 9/10 inch thick), Delineator is reductive in its simplicity and iconic in its figuration. One plate sits on the floor, mantling the ground and, in effect, setting the stage. The second, more unusually, clings to the ceiling 13 1/2 feet up, fastened crosswise in relation to the lower form. The ceiling plate flouts contemporary anti-illusionist doctrine by seeming to require no supporting structure. (In fact, Serra’s installation—a quixotic endeavor in the light of the temporary nature of the exhibition—necessitated extensive prior alterations in the gallery building, and the plate itself is bolted topside to a complicated system of I-beam supports.) Thus installed, Serra’s steel occupies the “framing edge” of an otherwise uncabined portion of real space, while the space so defined is itself annexed as docile matter for the sculptor’s will. Serra’s use of the ceiling-plane as a second, and not an inverted, base line is innovative. In contrast to ceiling-hung work by Calder, Grosvenor, Ginnever, Lippold et al., his piece suggests a different range of sculptural possibilities for ordering space, works in which ceiling-attached forms may complement rather than supplant those on the ground, and in which the ceiling functions as a plane instead of a launching pad.

If Serra’s ostensible interest is the linear demarcation of a space, his formalist stance in no way interferes with his urge to theatricality; he makes no effort to temper the dramatic contrast between his looming, rusty-dark, industry-contaminated steel forms and the perfect austerity of their white-walled gallery setting. Though nominally the two plates form only a partial frame, the top and bottom of a space, they function more dictatorially than the neutral work “delineation” might suggest. The upper plate presses darkly, heavily, on the air below, mute reminder of the iron fist of gravity; the bottom form, in turn, expands horizontally, laying imperial claim to the strip of floor beneath and to the space above. Together the plates mount a massive assault on the cubic content of the room —an aggressive act of domination over light and air in a space which, ironically, as Bob Irwin’s former studio, was a monument to these high intangibles.

Serra stresses the distinction between “inside” and “outside” in this work, although the exact perimeters of the space over which the plates exercise hegemony (I read it as octagonal) are subject to some individual variations in perception. Viewed from outside, Delineator’s heavy top would seem to promise a range of claustrophiliac delights, perhaps even one of those “enclosed spaces for the self” described recently by Robert Morris. Inside, however, it is the agoraphobe who must beware, and it may be the lack of solid vertical boundaries, the very openness of the piece, which is its most unsettling characteristic. Serra counts the viewer as the vertical element of his construct, a necessary formal link between top and bottom. And when one has stepped onto the steel stage and taken up a position under the aphotic metal plate, one does indeed feel absorbed into the drama of the piece, a participant in the structure, willingly or not. What a viewer also experiences is an atavistic awareness of the fragile nature of that thankful form, the human vertical.

It has already been observed that while traditional object sculpture mimics human perpendicularity, ground sculpture, like a miniature horizon, emphasizes the viewer’s sense of the tension between his upright posture and the flatness of the earth. Serra goes further. By adding his weighty ceiling “rug,” he forces perception of the extent to which gravity favors the groveler. But Delineator also italicizes, thereby, the difficult dignity of the upright form. As 19th-century critics of large public sculpture were wont to say, it is a “fortifying spectacle.”

Nancy Marmer