New York

Richard Serra

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Richard Serra is definitely on a roll—of warped, two-inch-thick weatherproof steel. In his recent New York exhibition, the reigning king of the monumental offered elaborations on his “Torqued Ellipses,” the massive gyrelike shapes, alternately melancholy, soothing, and triumphal, that graced the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea in 1997. The new work attracted enormous crowds, who patiently waited to enter the disorienting passages of the two giant spirals as though in line at a theme park. Hard to believe that the sculptor of Tilted Arc would prove so wildly popular. But Serra, by persistently addressing the foundational, has always been ahead of his time.

Walls lean woozily one way, then another, as you penetrate the space of Sylvester and Bellamy (all works 2001), spirals named after two recently departed art-world heavyweights. There's no vantage from which to stop and ponder: The narrow thirteen-foot-high corridors keep you moving and looking and perceiving and thinking, fugitively. Then the space suddenly opens up and you're confronted with a void more central than a center. For a moment it's still and quiet, perhaps a little scary but somehow serene: an apt monument to the no longer living.

Serra introduced a new form in this exhibition, the torus, defined in the catalogue as a plane that would describe the curving outer surface of a doughnut's hole. Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere consists of six slabs of bowed steel, three generated from a sphere and three toroidal, each about eleven feet high and nearly forty feet long. Some of the intervening spaces invite the viewer to enter, while the openings between others are too narrow to navigate. The companion piece, Union of the Torus and the Sphere, looks like an enormous ship's hull listing in a rough sea. It pressed up against the ceiling and out against the walls and, unlike the “open” pieces, assumed a solid form, its vertical edges meeting along perfect welded seams.

Duking it out in separate, unequal rooms was Ali-Frazier, two hulking solid-steel blocks whose dimensions are the same except that one is five feet wide while the other is five feet eight inches wide. Each part of the piece tested the viewer's perceptual memory of the other and, via the title, jogged the historical memory of the legendary boxing matches of a generation ago.

The exhibition thus comprised three conceptual pairs (plus the elegant Elevational Wedge, a broad Andre-like sheet of hot-rolled steel that leveled the subtly ramped floor in one of the galleries). Irreconcilable dualities—open and closed, gyrating and still, buoyant and grave—inform much of Serra's recent work. In fact, considering the imbrication of the opposed terms, an imbrication so intense that it approaches a kind of violent erotics, it's striking how much Yeats there is in Serra and, anachronistic as it may seem, how much Serra in Yeats. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” Yeats writes of a Chinese carving in which “Every discoloration of the stone / Every accidental crack or dent, / Seems a water-course or an avalanche.” Although Serra's gigantic, superindustrial work bears no trace of the handmade and little (direct) relation to the “oriental,” there is an amazing aptness in the description. His new work is terribly beautiful.

Nico Israel