Circus Maximus


Richard Serra and Larry Gagosian are the DreamWorks of the art world. Each on his own is ambitious; together, they make a gargantuan music of the spheres. Since 1991 S&G have produced four shows together—three in Gagosian’s once-it-seemed-so-big Soho space, and this one in his still-unfinished, terminal-sized Chelsea supergallery. When credited with staging the current extravaganza, Gagosian shrugged, “I just sign the checks.” With the help of those checks, and Serra’s singular vision, New York has beheld an unparalleled run of sculptural excellence—some would say spectacle, others megalomania.

A little research and a calculator will tell you the combined weight of these four exhibitions is a stupefying, Guinness-like total of 600 tons, or 1,200,000 pounds of sculpture. Switch, the astonishing building-sized behemoth now on view, weighs in at 324,000 pounds, making it the second-heaviest piece of the four. Comprised of six tremendous hot-rolled steel plates (forged in Germany, shipped to New Haven, then trucked to New York in a caravan of flatbeds), each ingot weighs 27 tons and measures approximately 50 feet long by 13 and a half feet high. Arranged in a curving, walk-through, triangular sort of configuration, Switch is a combination of Serra’s previous curved-steel pieces (the best among them being Intersection II; the worst, Tilted Arc) and the Torqued Ellipses (not my fave). An unnamed genre of abstract architecture—neither entirely sculpture nor building—Switch would probably have been blessed by Donald Judd as a “specific object.”

Serra not only produces big art, he produces big reactions. When I mentioned him to a curator from a major New York museum, that person snapped, “He’s the enemy! It’s big-dick art. A lot of money and heft; portentous, guy, masters-of-the-universe stuff.” An artist friend decreed, “You have to say his sculpture killed someone,” while another branded Serra “a grandiose and irrelevant asshole.” (I should mention that this person saw Serra two years ago wearing a T-shirt that simply said “Fuck You.”)

Now 60, Serra has been three artists to three generations. First, he was a hero, the linchpin between minimalism and postminimalism. By the ’80s, he was on the outs, perceived as a villainous formalist. Then came the debacle of his public-art project, Tilted Arc, about which enough has been said. In the ’90s, however, the clouds parted, history lifted, and Serra returned, so to speak, a star. When I asked my smart-as-a-whip SVA graduate students (none of whom care about his previous incarnations or supposed taintedness) what they thought of him, they unanimously said, “He’s cool.” Serra is less a sculptor than a movie: something to behold, enjoy, or be amazed by.

Seeing Switch unloaded and installed was like watching the circus come to town, a Cape Canaveral-sized rocket moved onto a gantry, or a ship being docked. Inadvertently, its arrival became part of the show. The piece was a week late in coming, and on Saturday, November 13—the announced opening date—those of us who arrived to see it beheld instead a militarylike operation in which two of the six huge plates were gently raised off the flatbeds and slowly hoisted, one at a time, to standing position. Each was guided through an urban obstacle course of streetlights, traffic, ramps, and doorways. It was hard to believe anyone would do all this for art. (“Yeah,” cynics would add, “that and the $2.8 million price tag.”) Word must have gone out, because the next day skateboarders converged on Eleventh Avenue and used the remaining parked plates as makeshift ramps.

Now in place, Switch is like an indoor cathedral, a force of nature, a fortress, or a feat of hubris. Someone should just buy it and the building and leave the whole thing permanently on view. From some angles, Switch is capacious, from others it’s almost modest. Walk around the piece. Get a sense of its scale, its paradoxical immensity and delicacy, its maleness and femaleness. You might pick one of its access points and enter it. Stop in the center of the piece; use your five senses to see the sculpture. Breathe in its material, weight, and measure. Run your fingers along the steel, smell the damp air, feel the temperature cool, as in a church. Listen to how sound echoes and distorts.

On Saturdays, the gallery’s like a town square: Crowds gather, skeptics scoff, claustrophobics hang back, and onlookers circle. You might bump into acquaintances; you may talk to strangers. I watched a group of young women flirt with a cute guy in the center. Another time, between the slabs, I saw a couple kissing. Kids have discovered messages can be whispered along the edges of the plates; students sketch it as if it were a landscape; dogs go nuts, thinking Switch is some sort of puppy Thunderdome. On weekdays, when it’s calmer, you can see the dimming winter light cling to the scarred steel.

Although there are three “sides” to Switch, there are actually nine ways to enter it. If, while standing at one end, you try to extrapolate how the other openings are configured, you will see how this thing, which is so simple, is really very complicated. Serra makes sculpture not only to see but to experience. Moving through Switch is thrilling, sexy, and scary—a combination of walking through the woods, parting the labial insides of a flower, and coming upon the looming bow of an ocean liner. Whatever it is, it’s magnificent.

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