Justified and Ancient
Richard Serra has been called ‘the world’s greatest living sculptor’ yet for some his sculpture is just so much dead metal, an ugly display of unremitting, bludgeoning monumentality. Weight and Measure at the Tate, his two forged blocks of steel grossing almost 80 tons, and his black oil and wax ‘drawings’, stapled to the walls of the Serpentine Gallery, affirm, if not exactly the artist’s popularity in the public imagination, then at least his persistence and endurance.
There’s no phone and fax shows for Serra, no mail-order art, no sudden swerves and switches in style every few seasons, and definitely no bullshit. And, you could say, not much fun either. The last, combined with Serra’s attitude to work, probably signals part of his popularity with museums. Serra is nothing if not serious; I mean serious. He even looks the part. Tough, seriously tough.
Richard Serra’s reputation is also that of an on-site, hard-hat, hands-on sculptor. He hangs out at the forge and the foundry, and cuts the crap with the guys in the steelyard. He patrols windy urban plazas and makes lonely perigrinations to volcanic islands and temples on the Nile, sketching the while. He sizes up the gallery and museum, builds full-scale models in sandpits, directs the traffic of forklifts, and eyes inconvenient architectural details, like the columns in the Tate, with a view to their possible demolition. But for all the legwork and preparation, the surveys and note-taking and the apparent obduracy and intransigence of his materials, he’s an improviser. This can be a bit terrifying when he’s improvising with heavy industry, performing a balancing act with a steamship’s tonnage of steel, and it doesn’t make things easy for institutions or planning authorities, for curators or building supervisors, or for the armies of toiling technicians.
Maybe they’re all masochists. The museum director wakes in the night, soaked in a battery-acid sweat, wondering if his beloved, spacious halls will still be standing in the morning. But Serra’s site-specific, and no mistake - he’s probably down in the cellar right now, shoring things up with the help of a structural engineer.
To install Weight and Measure, those two, simple blocks which seem disconcertingly small given their weight and mass, the Tate had to reinforce the basement and shore up the floor with enormous T-beams, H-beams and hidden hydraulic supports drilled right through the floor from the basement below. Each exhibition is a major logistical exercise, even when the artist presents his work in modern German museums, beneath the floors of which are nuclear bunkers, designed to withstand megaton blasts and the weight of the entire building above, should it collapse.
Pursued for over a quarter of a century, Serra’s work has been a honing-down of what sculpture is, could be and might be. His sculptural syntax is narrow, his vocabulary of forms is, in several senses, truncated, and even his repertoire of materials is limited. But these are the limits he enjoys working against, if ‘enjoy’ isn’t too frivolous a verb. What, in a lesser artist, would make for a very boring career, lends his work unusual authority and gravitas. Improvising, for Serra, means bringing his own constraints to bear against the unique situation of each show, and in particular the constraints of the site itself. This isn’t only a matter of staging the work, the choreography of materiality, volume and mass, within a given space. Serra is, equally, choreographing space itself, dramatising it, condensing and expanding it. For Serra, space is more malleable than metal. His sculptural concerns would be traditional enough, were it not for the extreme degree to which he challenges the materiality and even fabric of the museum, our expectations of public space, and the ways in which we occupy it. He puts even the architecture around his work under duress. Perhaps it is in recognition of this that Serra has earned a wary respect, and a rota of almost annual museum shows and public commissions to prove it. His work endures in a peculiar way.
As much as his forged slabs, arcs and blocks of steel lean, stand, shunt, prop and balance, enduring is what they do best. They seem to slow time down, and are both timeless and full of a sense of time. Their equilibrium has an air of permanence - and this goes for the drawings too - which is not the same as a sense of stasis, and makes the spaces and architecture around them feel provisional, even when they themselves are venerable, historic settings.
There is another kind of endurance: Serra’s public, outdoor commissions endure and slough off not only criticism, approbrium and City Hall know-nothings, but also vandalism, graffiti, fashion and being pissed on - mostly, anyhow. His grandiloquent outdoor pieces are not in themselves necessarily intimidating or alienating, and certainly haven’t been intended as sullen and arrogant impositions on public space. By night his massive yet airy sculpture in London’s Broadgate turns itself into an intimate little pissoir for the already alienated; those dispossessed suburbanites who unhappily find themselves caught short between the wine bar and Liverpool Street Station, whence from they will depart, to the half-timbered, cardboard-stuccoed estates and off-the-peg villas of Theydon Bois and Loughton.
Serra’s is a style of no style, the most enduring style of all, if you can achieve it; at best it is grace without manner, an achieved inevitability. At worst it is only pomp, bigness, rusted melancholy in the Late Industrial, Egyptian manner.
One might say - Serra Refuses. Serra refuses to decorate, ornament, or augment. Serra refuses compromise or coercion. His is an art of confrontation. There are no dreams here, no expression or expressionism, no classicism, no constructivism (whatever Robert Pincus-Witten or October might have said), no overt sentiment, no fudge, fidget or cant. Serra seems to have taken on board Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Rules for the New Academy’, notwithstanding the painter’s remark that sculpture is what you trip over when you back up to look at a painting. (Definition of the difference between a sculpture and an object: you trip over an object but a sculpture falls and kills you). Not for Serra the bon bouche, the little frippery on the plinth, nor even the kind of portentous metaphysical talking-up that the work might easily encourage. Not for him Druidic or Masonic pronouncements, not for him the spiritual nick-nack picked from the Jungian garbage heap, or the Stonehenge Lode Stone, the Mars Bar From Outer Space that opens Kubrick’s 2001. Neither is he the man of the monolith and the monosyllable - he has talked of the intensity of the way in which a ‘sliver of plaster’ by Giacometti holds the experience of presence within the space around it, and the way Degas’ small sculpture Young Dancer Aged 14 ‘drinks the whole space of the room right into its grasp’. And for all his wariness of the associations which we might bring to his work, he also recognises their inevitability- in this respect he leaves us to it, even where the works are signposted and labelled with titles, notes and dedications.
His work may indeed seem taciturn, unyielding, largely humourless and relentlessly, joylessly masculine (even though he works in constant consultation with his wife, Clara Weyergraf Serra). Yet both his sculptures and drawings are also peculiarly attuned to the spaces they at once occupy, deny and counterpoint. Serra’s work’s appeal rests in the fact that it is not about objects, or surfaces, in themselves. More - and Serra reiterates this point - it is about time and memory as much as things in spaces. For all their mass and solidity, for all their physicality, here-ness, matter-of-factness, don’t-fuck-with-me,-just-take-it-or-leave-it-ness, his sculptures are not quite as solid as they at first appear. Loss and absence, too, play their part (as they do in any art worth thinking about). All that is solid does indeed melt into air. In Serra’s case, though, it might be more a matter of cutting, even of wounding the space around the work, and our perception of it, as of melting into it. As you approach, the leading edge of a rolled-steel arc cuts like a ship’s prow into your vision, ploughing into human territory, leaving you in its wake. The edges of the black drawings splice the walls like blades, and cast no shadows. The word revenge comes to mind, but won’t quite focus. Revenge and the fear of death, shoring oneself up against death.
Mutability as well as permanence, the living and the dead litter the works: Guernica-Bengazi; Fassbinder; Two Forged Rounds for Buster Keaton; For John Cage; For Samuel Beckett; Two For Rushdie. Work is done ‘in the name of’ Cage, Keaton, Beckett, Rushdie - and in a sense, perhaps, Serra’s unerring path continues in the name of Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson, two close friends who died when they were all three at the cusp of their formative years. A sense of maturity, too, or at least a desire to make the sense of endurance palpable, might in Serra’s work have something to do with his mother’s suicide. At least Serra is around, alive, to confirm, deny or ignore all this; but it is clear that his activity as an artist stems as much from an ethical as it does from an aesthetic position. He is very particular about what he doesn’t want to do. The negatives, the no’s to this and no’s to that, as much as they might be seen as evasive, are pointers to what cannot, or will not, be said. The silences in Serra’s conversation tick away like time-bombs, as he glances between the black wall drawing and the whiteness of the wall itself.
The twin foundations of his work, abstractness and concrete specificity, are not inhuman. They are properties we imbue things with and experience for ourselves, as messy, lumpy, subjective, divided creatures. Serra seems as aware of the limits of language as he is of the limitations he brings to bear on his art - the two, in his work, are not unconnected. We construct our own horizon, or death does it for us, beyond which it is impossible to go. Abstract Torture is the title of a 1974 drawing; Threats of Hell that for a recent sculpture.
‘Black’, Serra has said, ‘is a colour that absorbs and dissipates light’, and ‘you can cover a surface with black without risking metaphorical and other misreadings’. Serra covers a gessoed, nubby linen with tarry, greasy blackness. The commercial oil and wax paintsticks he uses have been remelted into gummy, resinous slabs. This giant crayon is rubbed into the canvas, burned-in in the manner of traditional encaustic painting and then reworked in situ, on the gallery wall, once the canvas has been cut and tacked in place, the lower edge flush with the floor, grounded. They occupy the rooms they inhabit with a measured, tailored stillness, and the scale and positioning of the four-square shapes restructure our sense of the interior space of the architecture. Recalling these drawings, one remembers the room as much as the canvasses themselves, and the memory of having been there. The rest is just metaphors and misreadings. He told me that his works were not momento mori.
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