Open Ended: A Broader Dialectic Emerges

Richard Serra said that to him, sculpture means “…a life-time involvement.”1 He remains singularly committed to that involvement, working directly in the fabrication of his works. Seeking to establish a new perception for the viewer rather than represent an idea, Serra’s goal for many years has been to establish a space that an individual can experience. At first glance, however, his works seem almost too rough and intimidating to be engaged with properly. His ability as an artist, at least in some capacity, has been measured by his ability to overcome this apparent contradiction. In two of his recent works, he has achieved this by synthesizing the two considerations. Richard Serra’s construction of space in Blind Spot and Open Ended establishes a dialectic between the direct experience of the work imposing itself on the space of the viewer and the participatory experience of the viewer entering the work’s created space. This dialectic represents a masterful fulfillment of the smaller-scale considerations of Serra’s more recent works.

Walking into the Gagosian’s space at west 21st street, the sheer volume of Blind Spot and Open Ended strikes the viewer before any real observation about the size of the gallery can be made. Unlike many of Richard Serra’s works, these pieces are not site-specific, but they still manage to engage with the gallery in such a way as to conceal the real size of the space. Once the raw visual impact of these pieces subsides, the viewer is left to enter the piece, interacting with it by participating. Walking through Blind Spot, its size and space invite the viewer to further experience it by making noises like handclaps and stomps of the feet. These gestures enhance the immediate perception of space, continuing “…a shift from the memorial space of the monument to ‘the behavioral space of the viewer’”2 that has been a hallmark of Serra’s work for decades. The echoing sounds made possible by the center of Blind Spot represent Serra’s dialectic perfectly: the viewer’s voluntary actions are changed and turned back on them, involuntarily imposing a new perception of the space. These gestures enhance the spatial experience, giving as much texture as the almost painterly rust on the steel. While the space very much overwhelms the viewer, it never feels stifling or unnatural; almost evoking a feeling of being lost in hedgerows. The irony lies here: the organic forms are constructed and the earthy rust color is achieved by an artifical chemical oxidation process. A more traditionally minimalist approach could not achieve such an effect; a purely geometric and impersonal work in the same vein would go too far in its imposition of artificial space and stifle the possibility of engaging with the work. The dialectic Serra has achieved so well here would be lost.

Despite the works’ massive size, sheer volume is far from the primary focus of Serra’s efforts. In order to engage the dialectic properly, Serra has to present one experience before he contrasts it with the other. “Weight is a value for me, not that it is any more compelling than lightness, but I simply know more about weight than lightness and therefore I have more to say about it…”3 Knowing as much as he does about weight, it is hardly surprising that Serra chooses to strike the viewer with it at first. The imposition on the personal space of the viewer makes the works difficult to approach at first, encouraging one or two walks around them before entering their spaces. Their initial volume begs a comparison with earlier works that completely command a space and appropriate it for their own purposes. But Serra seizes upon the viewer’s potential familiarity with the weight of his works, so that when the viewer actively enters it, the created space seems all the more significant. This demonstrates his ability to put his older ideas within the broader context of his new ones, enabling him to use his older techniques in pursuit of new goals.

In Blind Spot and Open Ended, Serra continues his partial departure from site specificity that he began with pieces like Snake and his Torqued Ellipse series, moving towards construction of space on a smaller and more intimate scale. While the pieces are larger than their predecessors like Double Torqued Ellipse, they still represent a smaller total reconfiguration of space than site-specific works like Tilted Arc. The overall objective is similar, as Serra said “after the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture.”4 Despite their lack of site specificity, the pieces nevertheless dramatically reorganize the gallery. In particular, the ceiling feels much closer to the floor when the viewer walks through the passageways the pieces create. In constructing the site-specific Shift, Serra said “what I wanted was a dialectic between one’s perception of the place in totality and one’s relation to the field as we walked.”5 While Serra in Blind Spot/Open Ended clearly has an interest in maintaining a dialectic, the focus has shifted considerably: the configuration of space in both keeps the viewer from ever percieving the place in totality. Both inside the pieces and out, it becomes very difficult to visualize the Gagosian’s space outside their context. From nearly any place within them, the only part of the gallery visible is the ceiling. From outside, they occupy an enormous portion of the field of view, their tactile rust creating an enhanced feeling of sterility in the gallery’s smooth white walls. The shift from inside to outside as the viewer completes the walk through Open Ended demonstrates a change in focus from the quantitative aspects of space (height, weight, form) to the qualitative (texture, color). A dialectic between the qualitative and the quantitative remains present in both cases. The quantitative consideration of form affects the qualitative experience of sounds through the echo, which in turn allows a new perception of quantitative space.

While Blind Spot/Open Ended do not represent true innovation on Serra’s part, he has erased earlier constraints on his construction of space. Fittingly for a spatially-oriented sculptor like Serra, the enormous size of the Gagosian gallery on west 21st street allowed him to achieve what smaller galleries could not. He has continued a tradition of the minimalists and post-minimalists: “a partial shift in focus from object to subject, from ontological questions (of the essence of a medium) to phenomenological conditions (of a particular body in a particular space as the ground of art).”6 Interestingly, the constraints on his ability to create a phenomenological experience like that of Blind Spot/Open Ended were material rather than conceptual, speaking to Serra’s mastery of his ideas. Carter Ratcliff wrote that “…the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art… was designed with the sheer weight of his work in mind.”7 Serra’s need to continually find new spaces for his work like the Gagosian shows that he has yet to stop innovating, and he remains on the cusp of the avant-garde. What better proof is there of that than the museums themselves changing to fit the necessities of his art? Serra’s ability to create the dialectic that he does in these works shows that he still has much more to say about space. Blind Spot/Open Ended, while clearly influenced by precursors like Double Torqued Ellipse, have changed the primary focus. In particular, Double Torqued Ellipse allows the viewer a much wider view of the gallery while walking through its forms, showing that both inside the piece and out, Serra’s goal is for the viewer to understand the gallery in the piece’s context. This goal is present in Blind Spot/Open Ended, but Serra has placed it in the larger context of his dialectic by casting the experience of the gallery’s changed space alongside the experience of exploring the entirely new space created by the pieces.

The interaction between viewer and piece in Blind Spot/Open Ended blurs the lines between object and subject. Serra has gone even further in his new works than he had when Hal Foster wrote that Serra had continued the “shift in focus from object to subject.” By participating in the work directly through movement and sound, the viewer is invited to give up any sense of objectivity in favor of a direct and unmediated personal experience. As the viewer continues, the narrow, winding passages of the works induce in the participant a sense of being lost: both in the sense of being unable to spatially orient the self and also in the sense losing the self entirely. In this regard, the viewer, once far enough into the works’ created space, becomes the object to the works’ subject. The epistemological distinction between the two is temporarily erased: with no possibility of objectivity, the viewer must understand themselves only in relation to the work, and understand the work only in relation to themselves. This is the heart of Serra’s new dialectic. As Foster wrote: “… with Serra sculpture becomes its deconstruction, its making becomes its unmaking. For sculpture to harden into a thing-category would be for sculpture to become monumental again-for its structure to be fetishized, its viewer frozen, its site forgotten, again.”8

Serra’s dialectics enable a much richer intellectual understanding of the work, but to enjoy the rich phenomenological experience of being in the work’s space reuires no such knowledge. The sense of losing the self in the work while viewing Blind Spot/Open Ended is as much as any artist can hope to achieve for the layperson, and Serra has created just that. Both those familiar and unfamiliar with Serra’s larger body of work can appreciate the almost overwhelming imposition of a new space. The Gagosian has used its enormous gallery location extremely well in showing these works.

1Foster, Hal. The Un/making of Sculpture p.13

2Foster, Hal. The Un/making of Sculpture p. 18

3Serra, Richard. Writings/Interviews p. 184

4 Serra, Richard. Writings/Interviews p. 127.

5 Krauss, Rosalind E. Richard Serra sculpture p. 30.

6Foster, Hal. The Un/making of Sculpture p. 14.

7 Ratcliff, Carter. The Fictive Spaces of Richard Serra p. 117.

8Foster, Hal. The Un/making of Sculpture, p.17

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