Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking at Richard Serra with David Brin - 2

Cover art for David Brin's 2nd Book, Startide Rising; David Brin at Gagosian Gallery in front of Richard Serra's sculpture Junction
(Return to Part 1)
To begin our tour, I had David and Cheryl meet me at the corner of 11th Ave and West 24th, just outside the Gagosian gallery. Because over the past couple years David had made it very clear how much he disliked the sanctimonious stridency of the original Modernist artists and architects, I thought the best place to begin would be with contemporary art's most obvious inheritor of that overbearing tradition: the massively overweight installation Junction/Cycle by the sculptor Richard Serra.


There are older and more respected Chelsea galleries than Gagosian, but for shock and awe, it is impossible to top. The 24th street space opened in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. That summer the real estate market was booming. New York cultural institutions alone had billions of dollars worth of brick-and-mortar development at various stages of planning. There were so many galleries building out new spaces in Chelsea, would-be gallerists were having a hard time finding someone available to paint a wall, much less construct a massive new space. I remember Larry Gagosian's ability to get his space ready for the season on time inspiring genuine awe and confusion among his fellow gallerists, who could not understand how he had gotten it done. (It would make a great expos√©.)
Serra's materials staged up on trucks; and installed (via Plate of Fish)

Add to that, that the inaugural show was a show of Serra's Torqued Spirals - made of 2" thick plates of rolled steel that were so large they needed to be moved on over-sized trucks that looked like they belonged at Cape Canaveral. That first exhibition opened October 18th, 2001. At a time when it seemed that every steel worker and truck in the Tri-State area was focused on cutting apart and moving the wreckage of the World Trade Center off Manhattan, Larry Gagosian somehow managed to get Serra's over-sized elliptical sections across the George Washington Bridge, down the West Side, and staged up 11th Ave.

Everything about that first show was about POWER. There was an undeniable thrill of seeing those Serras, installed s they were in a building constructed to hold them (and even larger iterations down the line). After years of seeing the Serra's installations at Gagosian, the Modern, Dia and elsewhere, like a lot of New Yorkers, I have become a bit inured to the work. But not entirely - nothing can take away the thrill of seeing those things on the move. It's like watching a line of industrial-scaled leaf cutter ants carrying home a dismembered supertanker. Its good to be reminded that art can thrill - and I was happy to share what I knew would be a thrill with the Brins.
Ed Burtynsky; Richard Serra

I asked David and Cheryl if either of them had ever heard of Serra or seen any of his work  - a friend of David's who knew he was planning to visit Chelsea had told him to be sure to see "the metal pieces" - so they were coming to the work with fresh eyes. As the three of us entered the gallery and faced the first canyon-like entrance to the installation I introduced Serra as an abstract artist. I told them that his work was born out of a particular Prewar (WWII) surrealist tradition that had coalesced in New York; that the Americans had focused less on dream-like imagery and more on the procedural logic of automatism. The French had Salvador Dali, we got Jackson Pollock.

That New World surrealist automatism become a school of abstraction, not abstracted forms like the cubists, but paintings as things in-and-of-themselves - paint as paint, no referent. In the Postwar years that ethic of truth-to-materials and anti-illusionism hardened into a dogma that gave way to group of young Turks making real things in real space (minimalism). The minimalists made plywood and sheet metal boxes. The scope of their installations was relatively modest - especially compared to the one David and Cheryl and I were standing within when I told them that story. 
Castle Bravo Blast (1954); Richard Serra (2011)

As we walked through the slanting corridors of the installation - at times tipping and a little dizzy because of the wall's odd angles, I made no effort to explain how minimalism was originally discussed in terms of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological philosophy of perception. Instead of bodies and objects interacting space, I explained that the size and scope of Richard Serra's work (post-minimalist) amounted to a very real Post-Cold War "peace dividend." I told them how the steel was curved using the same massive rollers used to make battle ships and aircraft carriers, and that the super computers needed to calculate and execute the complex curves that we were wandering through with crowds of other people had been developed to model nuclear explosions.

Richard Serra's work is not simply a matter of artworld POWER, it is an expression of American Superpower. Serra's work express the ethics of their times through their manufactured being. They reek of industrial strength and command, but they are also a great deal of fun, enormously beautiful and vicerally exciting to move through. A little like a fun house ride.
Tilt-A-Whirl vs Torqued Elipse

Before we had taken twenty steps David called the early Modernists' manifesto/decrees "pseudo-science." When I invited David to look at art with me, and chose Richard Serra as our starting point, I was being provocative. My provocation was intended to challenge the resentments and mistrust that I had seen around the word "Modernist" when reading David's blog posts, comments, and emails. He feels that "the architecture and some of the art wings of Modernism featured individuals so ego-drenched and pyrotechnically solipsistic that they betrayed Modernism's scientific (and hence collaboratively accountable) roots..." 

But he also really loved the Richard Serra installation the whole way down. From the lush patina of the delicately rusted surfaces, to the muscularity of their manufacture, to the fact that the gallery was free and open to any and all. "Para-scientific" I answered. It is a small difference, but an answer that David seemed to enjoy. "They were trying to do what they saw the scientists doing" I said. "The rigor they were aping was the rigor of scientists and engineers." 
Rigging Serra, 1969 and 2011

If I had never found David online and seen him call himself a "contrarian" I never would have associated him with that term. When telling my friends how much better The Postman is as a novel than a movie (times infinity better), or why they should read Earth (because WWIII is fought against the Swiss), I always describe David as an optimist. I felt confident that David the contrarian and I would have fun sparing on the subject of Modernism. I was equally confident David the optimist would enjoy seeing Richard Serra and hearing about war ships and atomic bombs. 

Cultural progress is impossible to meter. Serra's rigor has its origins in emulating the progress made by scientists and engineers, but he is exploring an entirely separate sphere that has less to do with measuring or harnessing POWER, and more to do with expressing it. But there was no discussion of Serra abusing POWER - after all, the phenomenological experience we shared, was one of laughing and talking together surrounded by crowds of smiling people. 
The Postman (1997); David and I standing at the other end of  Junction

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