A visit to Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross with David Cook and Richard Guest.
Richard: This is a space I’ve not visited before; you told me it was big, so I was anticipating scale. And Serra’s work is big and heavy and metal and I was fully expecting lots of slabs of steel resting against each other in precarious, dangerous-looking ways. Only one work disappointed me by living up to this and that was London Cross.
Given that the siting of Serra’s work is so important, I found the entrance to the exhibition really interesting. You enter the gallery through a reception area with a desk to your left. There’s a shop/ office next to it, and straight ahead openings to two exhibition spaces. To your right a spiral staircase suggests there is a second floor (but it’s closed to the public), and beyond this lies another opening/ doorway. No work is immediately visible. It’s a curiously blank way to begin an exhibition – the lighting is cold – it filled me with a kind of sense of funereal expectation. David, you’ve seen other shows in this gallery – was the set-up similar with them or is this something specific to the Serra?
David: I have seen three shows here before – Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz and Jenny Saville. All painters and all working to a scale directly aimed at institutional buyers (by the gallery if not by the artist). I find it a pretty cold space to be honest, but the calibre of artists cannot be ignored. I think that there are similarly huge spaces now with a bit of character and warmth, but this feels like a temple of high seriousness. Richard Serra is in many ways a perfect artist for it.
I think it is very hard not to have preconceptions about Serra’s work once you have seen a couple. It is very uncompromising and monolithic. Or monometallic. It causes spaces to be constructed around it rather than fit in to existing ones. I think that is a huge plus – it stakes a claim for art to be in the modern world, to occupy space. Art is very easily marginalised and made into decorative or bland wall covering. Serra’s work stands its ground and so tends to divide opinion.
This show consists of only four pieces. The space, as you say, is huge: but it is very amply filled by these four works. I find that simplicity very refreshing. He is not trying to spin his themes out into untold variations, but seems content to let each one speak.
Richard: I like it that the exhibition is so pared down – simplicity makes it memorable. And it functions as a showcase: each of the four works acts as a representative of a distinct strand of Serra’s work (each with its own scale). The walls are white, the floors poured, polished concrete; it looks like an art institution. All of which makes the gallery seem like a shop built for the busy buyer. You made a very interesting point when we were walking around about imagining the works in a carpeted space – it’s very difficult to see these works being owned by an individual. Who do you think would buy these works?
David: Well, someone with more than a big garden and an understanding partner. Quite a few of his big works are commissioned – and not just by plutocrats who put them in front of the offices they own to intimidate their employees. Although I think there might be a bit of that…a few of the public commissions have been controversial like Tilted Arc, because of his ‘marmitey’ quality. And that raises the question of who art in public spaces is really *for*. Does it have to be so bland that no-one dislikes it even though it means no-one actually likes it? Or is it the taste of an elite being oppressively imposed on those of us who live/work/study in these places?
Interestingly (at least according to Wikipedia) the top price for a Serra sculpture is only $1.65m (and that was back in the 1980s). So compared to some artists of lesser stature he is a bargain! But the imposing character of the work makes it difficult to live with I guess… although, interestingly, the drawings are relatively expensive. Easier to live with, obviously. But it bucks the otherwise universal trend of bigger = more expensive. Almost all art obeys this, but maybe there is a point on the size graph where the price per artistic square inch goes down?
Richard: That’s a really interesting notion – is there a maximum size beyond which an artwork becomes de trop and therefore in some way suspect? – like a balloon with a potentially dangerous volume of gas inside.
Anyway, the first room we entered contained London Cross. This for me was the least successful of the four works. It did what I expected a Richard Serra sculpture to do – it was big and flat and heavy and looked precariously balanced. What I remember talking about in this room was how the work had been installed…
David: I am fascinated by your reaction to this piece because as far as I can tell, you are disappointed because it met your expectations! For most people I think, the works they like best in any show are the ones that conform most closely to the ideal of their expectation. They come to a exhibition with a pre-imagined experience and live it out when they are going round the gallery. And I don’t exclude myself from that either. Sometimes it’s hard for a viewer to spontaneously absorb non-canon works where an artist moves away from a core style, but that is what a creative artist who is not stuck in a rut will do!
London Cross is from the core Serra style, and the room had clearly been constructed around the work – and in a lot of ways the work is more solid than the building that supports it. The cross piece hangs overhead in a vaguely threatening way, but as it is obviously well supported it is an abstract threat. Its weight, material and scale suggest it is more than simply a way of dividing space.
Perhaps our image of Serra in the UK is a bit narrow and very much shaped by the Broadgate sculpture [http://www.broadgate.co.uk/art/Fulcrum], because looking at his work as a whole the other pieces in this show are not in fact so atypical. Am I/we really so parochial?