New York

View of “Richard Serra,” 2013. From left: Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969–70; 5:30, 1969; V+5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969.

View of “Richard Serra,” 2013. From left: Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969–70; 5:30, 1969; V+5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969.

Richard Serra

View of “Richard Serra,” 2013. From left: Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969–70; 5:30, 1969; V+5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969.

Richard Serra has a story he likes to tell—as he did recently to a group gathered for a preview of this magisterial, museum-quality survey of his works made between 1966 to 1971 mounted at David Zwirner’s imposingly soign. new digs on West Twentieth Street—about a formative moment in his life as an artist when, traveling around Europe while on a Fulbright, he encountered Las Meninas for the first time. His experience at the Prado was a revelation, he said, because he felt Vel.zquez had somehow managed to make him feel “implicated in the space of the painting,” something the fledgling painter simply could not imagine accomplishing with his own wall-based work. Serra was obviously not the first viewer to be wowed and confounded by Velázquez’s masterpiece—by the “subtle system of feints,” as Foucault described it, that produces the work’s “pure reciprocity”—but for the young Californian, it was a true watershed moment: When he got back to Florence, he chucked the contents of his studio into the Arno and decided to become a sculptor.

One hardly need argue for Serra’s centrality to the trajectory of postwar art—or the importance in that trajectory of the brand of psychospatial implication he and his post-Minimalist contemporaries tracked in their diverse practices. But this show does provide an instructive elaboration of his evolution from overmatched grad-school pictorialist to august pronouncer of the colossally architectonic diktats for which he was to become famous.

Given the artist’s academic background in literature, it’s fitting that one of the earliest works on view is the well-known Verb List, 1967, a litany of things to be done with/things to be thought about materials and space. The hundred-odd terms (verbs and nouns) on the handwritten list—“to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist . . .”—suggest not only a course of physical action but also a conceptual template for a young artist for whom sculptural artifacts were first and foremost the products of very specific kinds of processes, conducted in, and intensely aware of, space and time. If the materials and modes of address of certain works in the show’s first two rooms—in rubber, canvas, and sometimes even neon—are at times redolent of the more generously evocative tendencies of his contemporaries such as Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, or Bruce Nauman, there are also nascent signs of both the anti-form brawn (as in Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure, 1969, an arrangement of studio materials on a steel plate that the artist and his friend Philip Glass cut into sections with a circular saw) and the deceptively delicate engineering (Prop, 1968, a lead plate held against the wall solely by the weight of a pole made of rolled lead) that would coalesce in the more ambitious, more massive works of the following years.

It’s in the show’s second room that the Serra with whom most viewers are now familiar begins to come into clearer focus. Like Prop, his Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969–70, still takes into consideration the presence of the wall, but in works such as V+5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; 5:30, 1969; and especially One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969, the forms come away from the sides of the room and begin to assert themselves more fully and more persuasively in space. An unassuming pile of what seem to be uneven trestles lies in the back of the gallery, yet the work they constitute—Three Cuts, 1971—turns out to be a crucial one in Serra’s story: Unlike the other propped works, which are made of lead, the elements here are made of hot-rolled steel, carefully propped just above floor level. It’s fitting, then, that their closest neighbor is in many ways the show’s pi.ce de r.sistance and the crucial pivot away from the concerns of these early works and toward the increasingly immense, increasingly effective steel pieces for which Serra is best known: At over eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the seminal Strike: To Roberta and Rudy, 1969–71, which juts out of the room’s back corner, is the first of the artist’s works to declare itself not an object in but rather a shaper of space, and to announce its creator not as a marker of place but as a commanding maker of it.

Jeffrey Kastner