Art Is Not Democratic

Richard Serra’s weighty social constructs

Richard Serra

“Rolled and Forged”

Gagosian Gallery

555 W. 24th St.

Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Through Aug. 11 


Wanting to say something fresh about Richard Serra in 500 words or less is a bit of a fool’s errand. Te 67-year-old Serra’s career is chronicled in a half dozen pages of dense biography, 20 pages of solo and group shows—some of the most seminal of the last half century—and pages and pages of selected books, articles, and catalogs. “Rolled and Forged,” his exhibition of five steel installations that just opened at Gagosian, is a run up to Serra’s s second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2007.

If you walk the galleries at all, you know a Serra show at the Gagosian is an event. Pieces weighing several tons are installed with forklifts and cranes in precise situations often with the walls being built around them as they are loaded in. Sculptor and gallery work in tandem to present a meticulous display of enormously heavy volumes and slabs of steel in interior installations of great emotional depth and physical beauty. The sighting of the work throughout the interior spaces is absolutely visionary; outside of a very few museums on very good days, nobody is doing this better.

A real case in point is “Equal Weights and Measures” an arrangement of six forged steel cubes weighing thirty tons; each one has been precisely placed in the main showroom with spacing between the huge blocks set to a human dimension. The space throbs with the density of the material. It is only by physically walking among and really sensing rather than looking that you realize all of the volumes are the same shape, displaying the six possible orientations of the rectangular cube. The experience is like walking amongst a pride of lions.

Viewers should know the two watershed events that have altered Serra’s conceptualization of his work and his interaction with the public. The nadir was the extended and very public 1985-1989 court battle with the U.S. government to prevent the destruction of his “Tilted Arc” installation in lower Manhattan. No matter the bad faith displayed by the government—what a surprise—Serra came off badly, looking peevishly difficult and uncompromising. “Tilted Arc” was cut up by the government in 1989 and Serra has disavowed authorship.

Serra’s apex experience, almost ten years later, was the 1997 exhibition of “Torqued Ellipses” at DIA, New York. All of the hallmark Serra moves were tuned to accessibility, with the focus squarely on the work, resulting in this case, with the public imagination for contemporary sculpture being stoked on an international level.

Still working in this rich vein is “Amongst Elevations,” the largest work in the current exhibition, a variant of his much disputed collaboration with Peter Eisenman for a Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Comprised of 16 steel slabs each just over 30 feet long, six inches thick, and of four different possible heights, they are stood up on edge in hedgerow formation. The impenetrability and barrier like nature on first approach gives way almost immediately; moving in and among the slabs is incongruously sensual and lush. The material density gives rise to thoughts of the grinding of continental plates, yet here, arranged in a four part rhythmic scheme, they amazingly slide past one another as easily as dancers on a stage.