New York

Richard Serra

Gagosian Gallery

No two considerations have influenced—even literally determined—Richard Serra's sculptural career as much as the sheer physical exigencies of material weight and spatial measurement. In the face of the six forged—steel solids (weighing in at over 222 tons) that constitute his recent 58 x 64 x 70, 1996, viewers were unlikely to forget the former imposition; the simple facticity of the work's title would undoubtedly remind them of the latter.

Each of the six nearly cubic blocks (as the title indicated, length, height, and width differed by only six inches) was literally identical, suggesting a serial logic informed Serra's work. Serra, however, has never been particularly fond of that Minimalist tactic. Instead, he deployed these six solids in such a way that if a structural logic were at work, it would have to be called the logic of permutation. Dividing the six units into two syncopated lines of three blocks each, Serra placed each block on one of its three differently proportioned faces. Considering the dimensions of the solids, these placements yielded blocks of three slightly different heights: one line arranged in ascending, the other in descending order. Faced with a solid rising to 58 inches, there is little chance the viewer would perceive such an object (sinking below the average line of sight) as anything but a three-dimensional solid; with a 70 inch-high block (rising for most above the line of sight), a three-dimensional reading becomes nearly impossible from a frontal position. 58 x 64 x 70 thus set up a situation of perpetual formal transitivity: the viewer's reading of the six solids continually shifted from square to cube, from plane to volume, from two to three dimensions. Playing with the discrepancies created by an object's relation to a viewer's line of sight, the sculpture ultimately seemed to operate a subtle reworking of one of the classic articulations of Minimalist sculpture's aims: Tony Smith's widely circulated remarks about his six-foot cube Die, 1962. “Q. Why didn't you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer? A. I was not making a monument. Q. Then why didn't you make it smaller, so that the observer could see over the top? A. I was not making an object.”

Measurement has always been a process for Serra, never a physical or geometrical absolute. So, too, with material weight; in 58 x 64 x 70, however, the excessive density of the work belied the less absolute logic of process—the temporary, antimonumental quality of his earliest pieces. The monumentality of weight has become central to Serra's recent work, forcing an engagement with an associational chain of all that weighs heavily: repression, constriction, government, tolerance, resolutions, responsibility, destruction, suicide, history itself (according to a list Serra once composed). At the same time, however, Serra's move toward the monumental seems to herald a larger wish to have his sculptural language cohere: there is little challenge in his recent work to those seemingly perennial values of author and oeuvre, to permanence and the singular (a singularity that extends to Serra's sculptural language, one unchanged in its essence despite the interminable permutations it has undergone). The discontinuities of Serra's abstraction, its dissonances, can no longer hold such a reading at bay. There is a certain logic to this: the larger contradictions of Serra's work stem from the internal contradiction of its transitive abstract content, a transitivity formed in the face of the immobility of his forms, the mute intractability of the material. Serra's engagement with the monumental may yet prove productive; at any rate, he seems increasingly disinclined to avoid such an engagement, a fact that we may attribute (for the moment without praise or denigration) to Serra's intransigence, his sculptural obstinacy.

George Baker