Serra, Chelsea Paradigm, Opens Gagosian Art Barn

What do we make of a gallery scene that is renowned less for art than for the spaces in which art is exhibited? Talk of Chelsea will inevitably, and often initially, turn to the physical dimensions of its galleries. These venues are, without question, grand–particularly in a city where space is at an economic and psychological premium. But are such supercubes conducive to the experience of art?

Not all of the galleries in Chelsea are barnlike in their proportions–some are no roomier than the corner newsstand–and there are those whose confines are, in fact, hospitable to art. But space, impeccably anonymous and imposingly reverberant, is the Chelsea staple. Several exhibiting artists I’ve talked with have expressed concern over whether their work could withstand the engineered caverns that typify the West 20′s. This concern has less to do with the quality of their work–although that can, certainly, be a factor–than with misplaced priorities. When art becomes a functionary of the scene, it is an indication of nothing so much as the disregard by the latter for the autonomy of the former.

The Gagosian Gallery is inaugurating its new branch on the corner of 24th Street and 11th Avenue with an exhibition by Richard Serra. It goes without saying that Mr. Serra acquits himself effectively within this tremendous space. He is, after all, an artist whose edifices–”sculpture” is too scrimpy a word for what Mr. Serra does–not only aspire to the architectural but throw down the gauntlet before it. He has, of course, achieved notoriety for monumental works made of steel that partition space with an authoritative sweep.

Notwithstanding the fact that his reputation has long been established, Mr. Serra could be considered the paradigmatic Chelsea artist: one whose art is big, blue-chip and inimical to intimacy. Walking in to his current exhibition, the viewer is wowed by a panoramic plank of steel that is but one side of Switch (1999), a work specifically created for the Gagosian outpost. Made up of six arcs, each measuring 13 1/2 feet high by 52 feet across by 2 inches thick and weighing 28 tons, Switch consists of three passageways. These tilting and swelling conduits are situated so that they curve in toward a common axis. Visitors to the gallery can walk around, in and through Switch , and the echo of footsteps and hushed voices bounces off of its walls.

Switch draws us toward it with a vacuumlike pull. Standing in one of its “hallways,” we feel an intense vertical lift of space that is deftly offset by horizontal striations on the surfaces of the steel. These surfaces–with their scarring, scuffing and (the artist’s?) footprints–give the work a weathered, “painterly” patina that serves as a crumbly counterpoint to the intractable thrust of the piece as a whole. (On the occasions I visited the gallery, there were flaky accumulations of rust on the floor directly around Switch ; the result, I would guess, of gallerygoers brushing up against the work while traversing its nooks and crannies.) In the west wing, so to speak, Switch viewers have to scoot sideways in order to navigate a teetering funnel of space, and we get the sense of peril typical of Mr. Serra’s art. The other sections, in contrast, are more auspicious. There, the work doesn’t pose an imminent threat, although the viewer is, to put it mildly, made aware of its presence.

Switch is a dramatic piece created for a dramatic space. Given the track record of Mr. Serra–and, for that matter, Mr. Gagosian–it could not be otherwise. As an artistic event, however, it isn’t as snug as one might expect. The interior section of Switch , the enclosure created by the three passageways, is calibrated, but has little emphasis. Standing within it we detect a deflation of sculptural tone, a relative flabbiness. This area is less an integral component of the work than a by-product of its shaping. Given this diminution of muscle, one could be forgiven for mistaking Switch as being three separate works. Likewise, the manner in which the side edges of the arcs–or, to be precise, the junctions between these edges–tilt, shift and relate, is fidgety, causing the work’s Promethean momentum to stumble at its outskirts. That, too, gives Switch an air of irresolution. Taking into account these glitches, one begins to wonder if an artist as pitilessly rigorous as Mr. Serra might have been pressed for a deadline.

Still, it is impossible not to be impressed by Switch as a feat of no-guff bravura. The critic Dave Hickey, writing in the December issue of Artforum , rightly states that Mr. Serra’s works “invest the viewer in their presence with a level of acute physical self-consciousness.” Although Mr. Hickey wasn’t writing about Switch , his description is applicable nonetheless. “Acute physical self-consciousness” is the unavoidable response when standing next to the Gagosian monolith. Yet is this response a welcome characteristic of art? Don’t we go to art–even one as concrete as sculpture–for its ability to loosen and, on those rare and magical occasions, unburden the strictures of “self-consciousness,” physical or otherwise?

Switch doesn’t transport us; it puts us in our place. We are left, consequently, to pat ourselves on the back for recognizing its expert modulations of material, form and space. I used to think of Mr. Serra’s art as being unreasonable, but it is, in its own stalwart way, reassuring. It demands respect and gets respect. Then we move on to something else. Richard Serra : Switch is at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, until Feb. 26, 2000.