On ViewDavid Zwirner
April 12 – June 15, 2013
Is the bracing clarity of Richard Serra’s early work capable of speaking to—if not against—the slippery ambiguity of today? More than usual, the relationship between the work and site of this exhibition set up a then-versus-now situation that it never resolved, leaving me split, but not in the material way that Serra so emphatically had in mind back in the day. Part of this is the result of the slightly awkward entrances to each of the two rooms of the show (both made me feel as if I entered from the wings, requiring me to quickly yet carefully find another spot to orient myself to the work), and the upmarket vibe of Zwirner’s new space, which in my opinion didn’t quite click with the Dan Flavins and Donald Judds in the inaugural show, despite the prices. Based upon the photographic documentation, it’s obvious that the first room of this exhibition was an attempt to recapture the look and, I assume, feel of Serra’s studio circa 1968, even if a couple of works are from 1969, including the pivotal sculpture of his initial development.
At first glance “Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure” (1969) fits Serra’s loose-sounding term “anti-form” very well, as the uncertainty of its selection of materials and their final placements submits to the logic of a procedure: here’s an arrangement of stuff, some of which had been stacked, that has been transformed into a reasonably symmetrical and sufficiently disconnected presentation by way of a couple of unforgiving cuts down the length of each side of its original set up. This, of course, is where the mental splitting also begins: despite Serra’s formidable efforts to banish associations, this work reads as a bilateral body, splayed yet maintaining its composure, and arranged to make a statement that is much, much harder to contain today.
This is what keeps Serra and Bruce Nauman, of all of his peers, joined at the hip. Circumnavigating this room, the imagined conversation between them almost becomes intimate, especially with many of the works from 1967 like “Untitled,” “Chunk,” “Template,” and “To Lift” that take advantage of the flexibility and durability of rubber, and “White Neon Belt Piece,” that along with “Untitled” (1966), incorporates the effect of gaseous light. The vibe of the gallery highlights the eccentric attitude of these works, even providing extra room for their humor if you want to let yourself see it. (I find “To Lift” especially funny.)
In 1968, as the rest of the room reconfirms, isolating lead would give Serra his edge, shifting the eclecticism of his earliest works to a material equally and simultaneously capable of malleability and stability, not to mention danger. “Tearing Lead,” “Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up,” “Slow Roll: For Philip Glass,” “Double Roll,” and—in conflict with his goal of non-association—“Bullet” all read on paper like active crime scenes. In the flesh, so to speak, they come off far less dramatically, even the ripped rivulets around the perimeter of “Tearing Lead,” are uniformly self-contained if not stubbornly dormant.
“Prop,” also from 1968, is a completely different story. If it switched years with “Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure,” Serra’s development from 1966 to 1969 would be too linear, erasing a jump that “Prop” still embodies, and lessening the jarring effect of moving into the second room of this exhibition, where four of Serra’s major prop sculptures from 1969 – 70 take his arguments about material and gravity, placement and attitude to a place of overlapping grace and irritation. My first experience of some of these works was in Serra’s 1986 MoMA retrospective. I still remember working hard to reconcile the rough refinement of “One Ton Prop (House of Cards)” (1969), with what I took as the insult of “Tilted Arc” (1981) before it was removed from New York’s Foley Federal Plaza in 1989. Here at Zwirner, “One Ton Prop (House of Cards)” reasserts itself in the center of the room as the strongest of the series, eclipsed only by one-touch bluntness of “Strike: To Roberta and Rudy” (1969-71). Made of the hot-rolled steel that would become Serra’s most signature material, and simply (!) wedged into the corner to change everything around it, it is the only work in this exhibition that made me lose my awareness of where I was, requiring my total focus be on it and myself. This has been the point of the best of the work that Serra has accomplished: changing space by changing us, something that the most important art has always done, regardless of clarity or ambiguity.