Richard Serra is widely celebrated by academics and popular critics alike for rethinking the very nature of sculptural objects. Rather than functioning as sites of aesthetic interest in themselves, Serra's works have served as literal indexes of his working process, or as quasi-architectural structures that prompt critical reflection on how we perceive space and time.
These terms, which have been painstakingly refined in the voluminous critical texts on Serra's work, can be applied to the "New Sculptures" (all works 2013) on view at Gagosian's two Chelsea locations. Remarkably consistent with Serra's output of the past decades, the five pieces—uniformly large in scale and ambition—are striking interventions, forcefully reordering the space of the gallery. And yet, these works also help measure just how far the context in which Serra produces and exhibits his sculpture has shifted since the late 1960s.
In truth, I've never liked the torqued steel works that have become Serra's signature, and Inside Out, a maze formed by two long, wavy metal sheets that occupied most of Gagosian's 21st Street gallery (this part closed in February), feels like more of the same. Walking through the meandering structure involves navigating a circuit that alternates between narrow pathways and disorienting atriumlike spaces, with twisting orange metal always overhead.
It seems perverse to characterize the sculptures at the 24th Street gallery as more subtle, though the straight-edged, black steel pieces are certainly sobering. If Inside Out takes on the character of a funhouse, 7 Plates, 6 Angles is more in tune with the brutalist vocabulary of Serra's work of the 1970s and 1980s. Huge steel walls several feet wide zigzag through an expansive gallery, dividing it into triangular spaces where the plates meet at acute angles. An adjacent room is filled with 24 steel plates of varying heights, though all are roughly as tall as a person. The title of the work, Intervals, brings to mind Claude Debussy's oft-repeated cliché that the real music is the space between the notes. For Grief and Reason (For Walter), dedicated to the late Walter De Maria, Serra created a pair of sculptures, each made by setting a rectangular block of black forged steel atop another. The work is quiet, but incredibly tense, conveying great tectonic force.
Still, as much as Serra creates real, physical spaces, his works also register the presence of a network of highly skilled steelworkers, riggers, engineers and factory workers. The sculptures are the nexus of a complex system of production and distribution that temporarily comes to a halt for the months when the exhibition is on view. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Serra created works by struggling physically with basic materials like lead and rubber. But now that laboring, Post-Minimalist body has been replaced by a different (and no less fascinating) kind of corporate body, one robust enough to shuttle massive quantities of forged steel in and out of Chelsea.
For that reason, perhaps, my experience of Serra's show was inflected (some might say polluted) by memories of the metallurgical achievements on view in a previous exhibition in the same space. "Jeff Koons: New Sculptures and Paintings" featured monumental balloon animal sculptures—the product of Koons, Inc.—where 7 Plates, 6 Angles now stands. Of course, all serious people know that Koons is the "bad" artist whose ultra-kitsch sensibility lulls us into complacency; conversely, Serra is known to students of art history as the "good" abstractionist whose uncompromising work demands critical self-reflection. So why did visions of noxious balloon animals haunt my experience of Serra's foreboding walls of steel? At some point in the past 45 years, Serra's sculptures may have facilitated pure meditations on time, material and perception. Today, these terms still apply, but with a significant remainder. The critical edifice that has grown with Serra's work over the years feels insufficient for describing the experience of wandering through today's Gagosian Gallery: a real, finite space, but also the architectural footprint of a far vaster institution, in which the drive for profit renders moot any distinction between the good and the bad.