West Berlin

Richard Serra, “Sculptures and Drawings 1967–1983”

Reinhard Onnasch Ausstellungen

It is surely on a boundary between annoyance (for the exhibitor) and the heightening of insight (of the work) that this gallery was not altogether able to accommodate Richard Serra’s works. Corner Prop and Floor Pole Prop, both 1969, and Do It, 1983, had to be installed elsewhere. The route for the curious led from the gallery to the warehouse of the Bergemann shipping firm, where, with no attempt to refine the atmosphere of the space, these works were displayed. The Berlin Wall lies in the immediate vicinity, causing one to think somewhat more intensely about what in Serra’s work could be “purely and simply the nature of sculpture,” as Michael Pauseback’s catalogue synopsis put it.

What does the balance of these simple volumes which stabilize and support each other mean? And what about the constellations of mass, weight, form, and space with which the workaday world confronts us in countless variations? The removal of some of the sculpture from the gallery into a work space, and moreover into a space in which reflections on volume, weight, and balance are a pragmatic tool of professional life, enabled an experience of both the existence embodied in the sculpture and that beyond it; the result was a perception of the sculpture as liberated from everything that it is not. The incarnation within the work of the final supposition of its own “meaning” places it in a particular category of art. In verbal description this category may seem dry, but that dryness is counterbalanced by the emotional challenge presented by the plastic reality.

Though the steel and iron sculptures exhibited here date from 1967 to the present, they offer no linear development, nor do they demonstrate any more or less successful approach to a fixed goal. Each of them absolutely constitutes in itself a plastic sculptural structure that exists on its own conditions. The work’s liberation from the contexts of meaning not inherent within itself can seem to make a direct exchange between the viewer and piece difficult; among both sophisticated and inexperienced viewers there is a deeply rooted longing for art whose context seems greater than that inseparable from its shape and substance, and the isolated intensity of the interacting form and medium in a Serra piece is once again subject to aggressive prejudices. Viewed without hostility, however, this show, with its works that are exemplary both intellectually and emotionally, enabled a serious exchange concerning the existence of sculpture and the condition of existence altogether. The works are in the important media of iron and steel; their tension between stability and instability, between monumentality and the balancing of parts, creates a corresponding tension in the viewer between the certainty of intellectual analysis and a threatening sensation of the instability of his or her own existence.

After vigorous dispute over state and museum purchases of art, the German public is very much aware of Serra, but few exhibitions since the large retrospective in Tübingen and Baden-Baden in 1978 have offered as broad a sampling of his work as this one did. (An equally concise presentation followed this show at the Galerie M in Bochum.) At a time when art is moving increasingly in the direction of literariness, such exhibitions seem more necessary. The fact that art, by making its own conditions and nature into form, is not an intellectually taxing game of theory but is itself existential experience is well demonstrated by an encounter with Serra’s work. The simple truth it embodies, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, remains a compelling one.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.