It’s official, Richard Serra is the most important and most influential artist of the 21st century, well that’s what I say! I could just be saying that I really like his work I suppose, yet if I strip away the subjective view I am left with the fact that the two current London shows of his work at the Gagosian galleries seem to be delighting and astonishing visitors. I’ve never seen either gallery so busy and never logged such strong responses from visitors around me. And back to the subjective, I never thought I would have such a strong emotional response to the 3 pieces at Britannia Street. NJ-2 is monumental: it elicits a similar response to entering a sacred space. I remember the feeling I had in first entering King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, a space engineered to make your spirit soar. It seems that Serra too has the skill to control the environment and to direct our physical and emotional response. Everyone seemed openly affected by it. A soberly-dressed man overtook me inside and, grinning like a child, said “great isn’t it!” Another man, shaking his head, said to his partner, “absolutely mind-blowing!” The party of young people charged through it noisily (the sound boomed and thundered magnificently through the piece) but then seemed stilled to awe, some open-mouthed staring back at it, once the ceremony of passage was over. A woman just stood quiet and studied the surface of “Rounds: equal weight unequal measure” close up for some time then took a photograph, moved slightly and studied close up again. “Rotate” seemed to cause a sense of community people smiled at each other, chatted slightly shyly to strangers, asked questions of the security man. And me? I thought I needed to create a new term of praise above “bastard!” – this work is more than “clever bastard” stuff! Perhaps any art that I encounter from now on that is deserving of the very highest praise would be dubbed “Serra-quality”!
Serra has the ability to talk to us on multiple levels at the same time and cannot imagine that anyone who spends a little time with these large works would fail to be touched in some way by them, be it emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. He is a very clever artist: teasing the mind; tricking the eye; seducing our senses; controlling the way we interact with space. The more time you spend with the work the more it repays you. The forms are big yet relate to human scale and shape. My eye is at the exact level of the higher of the two blocks of “Rotate” which makes it easy to read as a 2D shape. The lower cylinder of “Rounds:…” a few inches lower, presents me with a similar visual possibility, creating optical illusions unexpected in such massive forms. I loved everything about these three pieces, beautifully understated and precise: nothing flashy or arrogant, just sincere and authentic.
I could understand if people found the Serra drawings at Davies Street less easy to penetrate and draw pleasure from. Thick layers of various black stuff on bits of paper – we could all do that! But I fear we could not. Again time spent reaps rewards! They were not amongst the finest Serra drawings I have seen – though who am I to judge? Better to say there are other Serra drawings I like more, but I could happily live with any of these and explore their rich treasures for a very long time.