"Richard Serra: Early Work"

By Gibson, Eric | New Criterion, June 2013 | Go to article overview

"Richard Serra: Early Work"


Gibson, Eric, New Criterion


"Richard Serra: Early Work"

David Zwirner, New York.

April 12-June 15, 2013

Though organized by a commercial gallery, this museum-quality show is the third in an important series of recent Richard Serra exhibitions that have greatly deepened our understanding of this artist's work and achievement. The first, MOMA's 2007 retrospective, offered a broad overview of his career as a sculptor. Three years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Richard Serra: A Drawing Retrospective" explored the artist's career as what can only be described as a "graphic sculptor." Hard up on that comes this show, which zeroes in on Serra's formative years in the late 1960s, which began with the rough-edged (literally and figuratively) "process pieces" and ended with the "Prop" pieces. As such, it recreates the period that saw Serra emerge as a fully mature artist, the moment when he turned "sculpture" from a noun into a verb.

The show consists of twenty-four sculptures, the earliest from 1966 and the latest dated 1969-71; Serra's famous 1967 "Verb List," a kind of artistic manifesto; and five films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the best known of which is perhaps Hand Catching Lead.

The Chelsea space consists of two large galleries. The first one contains the process pieces: works consisting of Slow Roll: For Philip Glass, rolled up sheets of lead; To Lift, a sheet of vulcanized rubber positioned on the floor so it looks like an upright cape minus its owner; Tearing Lead, a square formed by wiggly lead ribbons with more such strips bunched and billowing from each corner; and Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure, a cluster of materials like wood, stone, and steel on the floor but dispersed in a way that looks as if it has just been bisected by a chain saw. These early works were a reaction to Minimalism's austerity and emotional detachment, and what's striking is the extent to which they reflect the lingering spirit of Abstract Expressionism, despite being antithetical to it in so many other ways: the gestural quality of the splayed lead ribbons in Tearing Lead, the all-over dispersal of Base Plate Measure, and, throughout the work of this phase, an eschewing of the closed contour. Yet there remains something tentative and small-bore about them. They have the quality of experiments or demonstrations rather than self-sustaining works of art.

The adjacent gallery contains a selection of the Prop pieces that grew out of these efforts. These are open form sculptures made by combining sheets of lead--and sometimes pipes--such that they are held together only by their own weight and the force of gravity. Thus, One Ton Prop (House of Cards) consists of four, four-foot-square lead plates, each one positioned on one edge and leaning against each other to form an open cube. Equal (Corner Prop Piece) consists of a same-sized lead plate poised on one edge and held in place by a horizontal lead bar wedged into a corner and poised on a single corner of the lead square. They are especially noteworthy in this context for their embrace of a Minimalist clarity and formal rigor.

Those early process pieces were radical in their use of unconventional materials (rubber, neon, lead), their direct, informal relationship to the viewer (leaning against the wall, spread across the floor), and in the conflation of making and meaning. Yet radical as they were, they remain firmly within the tradition of sculpture as it had existed for millennia in that, like any conventionally carved, modeled, or constructed sculpture, they represent the residue of a process. …

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