Richard Serra: Triptychs and Diptychs
September 17 - December 7, 2019
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, October 2019
Richard Serra’s show of diptychs and triptychs, created with paintstick, etching ink, and silica on sheets of handmade paper, is about weight--the notion that what might seem at first to be heavy-handedness is actually, over time, a celebration of visual gravitas. This exhibition, uptown, is going on at the same time as his show of sculptural art in Chelsea. It presupposes that use of a spectacularly dense black, in applications thick enough as to create a low relief, results in the suggestion of heft and mass sufficiently weighted to overwhelm viewers looking merely for a two-dimensional design. The imagery, consisting of simple rectangles with the odd edge jutting out, links the works to the equally direct three-dimensional works Serra has shown over the years. Serra, now late in his career, continues to make work that is notable for its solemn ponderance; his audience remains in admiration regarding the thickly established, if also simplified patterns of two-dimensional work and its close relations with the giant, slab-driven sculptures. As it turns out, one has to appreciate the implicit mass of the oilstick works, which create an effect that is as much experiential as it is visual. Their surfaces reflect light to a good extent, likely because of the use of silica, with the rough exterior forming both lines and beads for viewers to reckon with.
Opaquely packed with a heavy, heavy black, the right-angled forms, squares and rectangles both, build relations among themselves by closing in on each other’s side. The edges are not pristine, being slightly rough where they end, and sometimes the paper is dotted with specks of dark color. So the imagery is not meant to be perfect, not even in its alignment of forms, which are made to move across a horizontal alignment. The shapes are as simple as can be, pushing Serra’s audience in the direction of their surface, which are eloquent and, like much of his art, can even seem slightly dangerous in their assertion. Although the viewer cannot walk through them, the way he or she would through the spaces of his large sculptures, it is possible to see these drawings as time-based, in the sense that their placement, two or three on a wall, seems to bring about a merger between one drawing and the next--this happens despite the fact that each work is framed and physically distinct from the one beside it. As the viewer walks across the space, his or her relations grow in perceptive in understanding over time.
In Serra’s sculptures, the weathered cor-ten steel offers a similarly complex array of surface effects. In contrast, the diptychs and triptychs are composed with organic materials, but even so, they offer an exterior that calls to mind the thickness of asphalt, its connection to industrial processes (we remember that Serra’s father was a welder of ships on the West Coast during the Second World War). Diptych No. 6 (2019) shows us a rectangle on the left, sharing its right edge with a square form on the right. Neither form takes over the paper completely, whose off-white surface plays a role of its own. The weightedness of the two shapes is impressive, especially since the dimensions are middling in size. Like all of Serra’s work, they are self-sufficient to an unusual degree, so much so there is something slightly menacing about their presence--who would have thought that a two-dimensional, abstract work of art could assume a threatening air! The piece reifies the essentially neutral nature of minimalism, its ability to possess weight and measure without reference outside the artwork. They neither add to nor take away from our cultural background, being works of unusual visual impartiality.
Triptych No. 2 (2019), recorded on three sheets of paper, consists of two rectangles edging a square form in the middle of the composition. The white paper is visible above the rectangle on the left, but a larger expanse of the paper is available below the square shape and the rectangle to its right. The work, like the diptych above is dense with impact; it seems to need no one to become complete (but it can also be argued that, because of the minimal image’s existence without cultural attributes, the style is heavily dependent on physical interaction with its audience). There is something enormously satisfying--indeed, a feeling invested with the great strength of the image--about Serra’s determination to give us a sense of grandeur through the simplest means possible. One might argue that the minimalist style in fact acts as a barrier to communication between the maker and the art’s viewers, given that so little seems to be taking place. But a major artist like Serra quickly moves beyond such qualms, favoring a presence achieved by materials alone and, in the case of the sculptures, major dimensions. And it is true that even if the diptychs and triptychs are moderate in size, their solidity of hue gives them a presence and meaning greatly beyond their proportions. This great strength has always been evident in Serra’s art. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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