The most remarkable artwork in Richard Serra’s recent exhibition, which included dense paint stick drawings and sculpture, is Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure (2017). The work consists of four extremely massive solid cylinders of forged steel. Each Round weighs 82.3 tons. One is about waist high; one shoulder high; and the other two are taller but thinner. The experience of walking around or between the components of Four Rounds in the aircraft-hanger scale, visually neutral ground floor Zwirner gallery is easy to describe. What’s harder to explain is why this is a distinctively aesthetic experience—why, that is, that Four Rounds is an artwork. Partly the problem is that it’s hard to cite artistic precedents. Unlike a great deal of contemporary sculpture, this radically abstract Serra has no iconography. And it isn’t about our consumer economy. Once sculpture was taken off the pedestal, it was possible that artworks be confused with mere banal physical things in the world. But Four Rounds isn’t like anything you find in the streets—it is a very singular object. Nor, I should add, does it have any real connection with contemporary architecture.
On ViewDavid Zwirner
November 4 – December 12, 2017
Let us proceed, then, by briefly considering Serra’s recent personal development. His Torqued Ellipses made about twenty years ago invited you to enter menacing constructions, walking through, going between high narrow curving walls of steel tilting inward or outward. The proportions of these inner corridors varied in seemingly unpredictable ways. Now, making sculpture offering the converse of that experience, Serra creates walk-around artworks. The Torqued Ellipses constrain the viewer who enters, pressing one to follow the designed path. Four Rounds leaves the viewer free to choose how to move and look, between or also outside of the four component cylinders. Most old master and modernist sculpture requires that you contemplate from outside. Serra allows you to enter his works, putting you within the implied space generated by the very massive artwork. A very contemporary experience of physical immediacy! To understand Serra’s art, you need to grasp the ways that it engages your physical presence. While the Torqued Ellipses were highly complex spatial constructions (the product of highly sophisticated computer guided construction techniques), Four Rounds uses simple cylindrical forms to create complex visual experiences.
Four years ago David Zwirner presented Serra’s early work (made between 1966 – 1970), which was similarly constructed from steel, amongst other materials. That exhibition made evident that Serra was already thinking about how to radically rework the very nature of sculpture. Surely One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969), in that show, clearly anticipates some of his present concerns. “The problem with a lot of work today,” Serra has said, “is its predictability.” He certainly doesn’t have that problem! No living sculptor has shown a more radical ongoing capacity to rethink fundamentals. Serra is a great artist because he remains wonderfully innovative into old age.