Richard Serra, Time, Poetics

Lisa Robertson in Richard Serra, Gagosian

I originally posted this photograph along with a response to that Serra show at the Gagosian in 2006, and somehow, it’s fitting to see Lisa Robertson here among the sculptures. While the materials, and impulse couldn’t be more different, the attention and weight of achievement, is not dissimilar. In some ways Robertson’s The Weather is another kind of displacement, ala Edward Burtynsky, and Kim Huyhn who I posted about a few days ago. Displacement as a means of making aspects of modernity explicit, a twist we are clearly in need of, given contemporary art’s preoccupation. The project begins, in some way, with a question of perspective. Valazquez’s Las Meninas was apparently an epiphany for Serra. The painting, he says, “opened up countless contradictory interpretations, none of which answered the questions posted by its perspective…” but ultimately it seems to be about breaking the frame and losing the “I.”

Oddly enough, Vancouver artist, Jeff Wall, another Hound favourite, also claims Las Meninas as an essential moment. And like Serra, Wall deals in scale, in making monumental the materials of the world. Not as explicit as someone like Burtynsky perhaps, but nonetheless, dealing with the conditions and byproducts of modernity and capitalism. What makes these particular projects worthy of note? Well, scale yes, and the degree to which the idea is investigated. Not merely hinted at, not one shot at getting it right, the interrogations of these artists gather over time.

I’ve been coveting Richard Serra’s A Matter of Time, a gorgeous book from Guggenheim Bilbao that covers much of his early work. The surprise of perspective, the harsh contrast of lines of the early embedded work, to the grand, prow-like furls of the latter. Looking at sculpture from Serra (rather than Sol Lewitt who I don’t enjoy very much unfortunately) one gets a sense of dense calm. A thud of consciousness. Time flowing and immovable simultaneously. Deep calm. It’s interesting that minimalism can achieve this in terms of scale…not sure what that means, but scale and depth. Minimalism as a modernist echo.

Serra acknowledges a Zen influence, catching that wave of “everything connected,” that is much more believable once one comes to terms with his scale. At first I, like many people I’ve spoken to, was offended by the grand gesture. It seemed a kind of gross over-compensation …extremely masculinist and perhaps even wasteful. I have since changed my mind. This is what comes of being an art lover without art training–context sometimes arrives after the fact.

I’m intrigued by the friendship of Richard Serra and Robert Smithson, too. In the previously mentioned text Serra states that his conversations with Smithson were never replicated. But one doesn’t have to be alive to be in conversation. The work continues to grow it seems to me. Good work in any case. Of his own process, Serra notes “at a certain point it was necessary for me to construct a language based on a system that would establish a series of conditions to enable me to work in an unanticipated manner and provoke the unexpected.” The list became, and here I am condensing, as follows:

to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist, to dapple, to crumple, to shave, to tear, to chip, to spit, to cut, to sever, to drop, to remove, to simplify, to differ, to dissarrange, to open, to mix, to splash, to knot…to hang, to collect–of tension, of gravity, of nature, of grouping, of layering, of felting–to grasp, to tighten…

and so on…”the verb list,” he suggests, “established a logic whereby the process that constituted a sculpture remains transparent…”

Of course what I wonder is where this energy appears in poetry. Is there a corresponding modernist sculptural poetic? And in terms of a lyric aesthetic, I’m still not convinced that the “I” in question, the “I” that needs to be gotten rid of, actually goes anywhere. Perhaps what is gotten rid of is a simplistic “I” the I that is only one of the pillars of the “w” in “We.”

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