NEW YORK — “Richard Serra: The Man of Steel” is the title of a 2008 BBC interview with Richard Serra ART ’64, and the description is fitting. Serra’s large, breathtaking sculptures originate in his dedication to and obsession with his medium: Corten steel, a type of steel with a copper color.
“Blind Spot / Open Ended” is Serra’s new exhibit of steel sculptures at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City. The exhibit does not introduce any new Serra works but brings together two existing sculptures — for which the exhibit is named — that, while similarly composed, have never been presented side by side.
“Blind Spot” (2002-’03) consists of six 13-foot Corten steel plates that create a concentric maze-like structure. The viewer can enter the structure and follow a path that slowly winds around from the outside to the center.
“Open Ended” (2007-’08) is also composed of six steel plates arranged in a concentric oval shape, but it has two paths leading into the sculpture.
The metal walls of both pieces rise well above the height of the viewer, and both pieces create a feeling of vertigo, a sense of being trapped or disoriented. The curve of the walls, paired with the narrowness of the pathway leading to the center, feels imposing — as if the walls were threatening to fall on the viewer.
Though the sculptures are striking, their pointed similarity to one another raises a question: Why did Serra make both of them, and was he not merely copying and only slightly changing “Blind Spot” when he created “Open Ended” five years later?
As I walked through the two works a second time, the question began to answer itself. The sculptures are intentionally similar because they are part of an exploration of the possibilities of the medium. Serra’s use of steel is a self-imposed limit on what he can make; precisely because of the material and formal similarities between the two sculptures, even the slightest differences between them — the number of entrances, the curvature — become more pronounced. Serra challenges the viewer’s perception of space through the looming physicality of the sculptures.
Serra grew up in San Francisco and studied as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, before attending the School of Art. Before coming to Yale, he worked part-time on the West Coast at a steel mill, where he developed his driving relationship with metal.
One of Serra’s first pieces, a 1968 video called “Hand Catching Lead,” consists of footage of a hand trying to catch chunks of lead that are being dropped from above the frame of the video. His 1973 piece “Surprise Attack,” currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, is a short film of Serra’s hands passing a piece of lead back and forth while he discusses surprise attacks.
In his earlier works, Serra enacted a variety of verbs he had written down in a list — such as “rolling,” “creasing” and “curving” — on different materials in order to discover how the materials would react.
This style is called “process art” because of its concern with the physical moment of creation and not the end product.
One can say a number of things about the conceptual aspects of Serra’s two large sculptural works at the Gagosian Gallery, but maybe it is just as interesting to see Serra’s sculptures as a lifelong exploration of a medium, a continued manipulation of material.
His success lies not only in creating an unprecedented style that forces viewers to observe space differently, but also in exploring the possibilities of such a seemingly mundane material as steel and changing the viewer’s perspective on what it can achieve under the stress of various processes.
The exhibition will be on display through Dec. 23.