Back in the day, when it was called Sverdlovsk, Soviet Yekaterinburg was considered a “city of the future”. Not only was it a buzzing industrial giant, but also manifested hopes and dreams of the new country through bold architectural projects. As the USSR named Constructivism its official architectural style, Yekaterinburg turned into the center of avant-garde architecture decades before it even became a thing. Now an open-air museum of Constructivism, Yekaterinburg has more constructivist buildings than any other place in the world. The city is dotted with monuments to Soviet ambitions that let you catch a glimpse into the life of a country that no longer exists.
Commissioned in 1928, this iconic water tower with a once revolutionary design was the first concrete structure built in the Ural region, and at the time of construction had the world’s largest water tank. Designed by 25-year-old architect Moses Reischer to resemble a lighthouse, the 98-foot-tall structure was meant to become the major draw of the Uralmash district. In the 1960s the tower was disconnected from the water supply and soon abandoned altogether. Years of neglect led to a deterioration of the building, and only in 2013, when Yekaterinburg-based architectural group Podelniki took the lead in the preservation project, things started to look up for the white tower. Although its restoration is still a work in progress, the tower is now an attraction open to the public -you may take a tour of the building, look at the city from its observation deck, or visit one of the events the tower hosts.
Madrid Hotel, built in 1934, is a magnificent constructivist building that the city authorities and activists are desperately trying to save. Designed by German architect and Bauhaus graduate Béla Scheffler, it is one of the most recognizable architectural masterpieces in the city thanks to its peculiar red brick color. Originally a purely constructivist building, the hotel has experienced certain changes over the years: in the late 1930s, for instance, its front was embellished to give it a neoclassical touch. Beautifully located at the corner of the First Five-Year Plan Square, the building stretches its wings along two neighbouring streets. Madrid was never the hotel’s official name, it was nicknamed so by the locals. Now it is in a poor condition, but there is a chance that it will host the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in the future, so there is still hope for it.
Iset Hotel and Chekist Town
Yet another constructivist hotel that actually housed the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2015, Iset is the central landmark of the housing complex affectionately called by the locals the Chekist Town. Probably the most popular constructivist building in the region, the sickle-shaped Iset Hotel used to be an architectural symbol of the city when it was still called Sverdlovsk. The building had been nearly empty for quite a while until it hosted the Ural Biennial, so perhaps it will become a functioning hotel again. Chekist Town, designed as the NKVD living quarters, comprises a group of residential and non-residential buildings. The project was influenced by an ideological trend of the late 1920’s: in an attempt to renounce all private property and fight inequality, the concept of communal houses for workers was introduced. A distinctive feature of such apartments was the absence of kitchens and bathrooms, as people were supposed to use public baths and eateries. However, later apartments in the building complex were remodeled to include the bathrooms. Chekist Town is also quite a view from above; its geometry, which some say was designed to resemble a hammer, is fascinating to modern viewers.
The Printing House
This giant building with signature ribbon windows and a rounded facade occupies an entire city block. The project for the Ural Worker Printing House was designed by Giorgi Golubev and was meant to become the symbol of constructivist architecture, as well as the largest publishing company in the region. Built in 1934, it housed three newspaper offices, a publishing house, a local office of the TASS photo agency, and a printing house. During World War II, the printing house used to shelter famous Soviet writers, such as Agnia Barto, Alexei Novikov-Priboy, Lev Kassil, and Marietta Shaginyan. In 2010 this drastically underused building played host to the very first Ural Biennial of Contemporary Art and started a new episode in its life. Apart from being a monument of federal importance, it is now home to the biggest nightclub in the city, a hip bookstore, and popular cafes and restaurants.
Built in 1934, Dinamo is the oldest sports complex in the city of Yekaterinburg and one of the few constructivist buildings that has been functioning throughout its 80 years of existence. Designed by Benjamin Sokolov, an acclaimed architect, it is one of the most recognizable constructivist buildings in the world. With its peculiar naval aesthetics and waterfront location, the complex looks like a ship docked amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. The place is surrounded by nearly century-old trees and is a perfect photo op in the summer.
April 19, 2017
The exhibition Matisse/Diebenkorn, co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art, is an excellent examination of two brilliant artists and shows the extent of how a single artist’s admiration of another can live through works produced years after their deaths. Although there are more paintings and drawings of Richard Diebenkorn’s showcased than of Henri Matisse’s (60 to 40), Matisse enters each piece of work due to the way Diebenkorn held the great French master in a very high regard.
In 1943, at the age of 21, Diebenkorn encountered works by then 75-year-old Matisse for the first time while visiting the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, an important early supporter of the French artist. A decade later Alfred H. Barr, the founder of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, organized a Matisse retrospective in LA, the show that led Diebenkorn to fully absorb Matisse’s approach to painting. While abstract expressionism ruled the art scene when Diebenkorn moved back to the Bay Area in 1953, Matisse’s paintings inspired him to add certain elements to his own work, such as unusual color combinations and compositions organized through distinctive passages.
1955 began the 12-year interval in Diebenkorn’s career that later would be known as his Bay Area Figurative Period. Diebenkorn shifted his focus to subjects of daily life, catching many by surprise; the sudden nature of his switch to representation coincided with Matisse’s death in 1954.
Matisse never fully fades from Diebenkorn’s overall work. A commonality between the two artists was the female figure as a central subject painted in ‘quiet moments’. Attention to the female form was further exemplified through ink, charcoal, and watercolor drawings –both of them enjoyed working directly with a model as a means to experiment for future paintings. A small room off of the exhibition’s main path contains an exquisite collection of these drawings, leveling Matisse and Diebenkorn as equals in this medium.
Matisse’s influence slowly began to infiltrate Diebenkorn’s works once more as his Figurative Period came to its close –Diebenkorn turned to elements in his workspace, highlighting his own work and furnishings, with reminiscences of some of Matisse’s studio scenes from the 1910s.
Diebenkorn used Matisse’s compositional characteristics as a guideline for his own vision: the foreground does not overshadow the background or vice versa –they are treated as equally important to the overall scene; the perspective creates the illusion of being within an interior space with a view of the outdoors; and geometric structures are emphasized (a throwback to organizing the composition based on distinctive features in the Berkeley series).
Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series (1967-88) was the result of a combination of two major events that he experienced in the 1960s: his trip to Russia (back then the Soviet Union) in 1964, and the 1966 LA exhibition Henri Matisse: Retrospective. Diebenkorn took cues from the works he encountered in Russia –such as the large scale compositions and the use of Matisse-esque decorative patterns and flourishes– while exemplifying the ability to adapt what he observed for his own means.
The Ocean Park series is Diebenkorn’s most sustained body of work, in which he returned to abstraction with the same suddenness of his technical switch in 1955. As in his Bay Area Figurative Period, where he wrestled with trying to incorporate his love and knowledge of abstraction, this series bears vestiges of his figurative work. In this area of the exhibition, Matisse’s 1947 ‘Two Girls, Red and Green Background’ offers a bolder palette with broad areas of color and shape, a recurring theme in Diebenkorn’s incorporation of Matisse’s style that resonates with the compositional strategies in his late abstractions of Ocean Park.
Although Diebenkorn made it clear Matisse’s techniques were merely incorporated and adjusted to fit his own work, he left his legacy in the form of a love letter to Matisse. What started with Matisse’s transference onto Diebenkorn’s work has continued to live on through artists of our time. Along with paintings and drawings, books on Matisse from Diebenkorn’s personal library are showcased throughout the rooms, clearly well-read in the never-ending study of Matisse’s work undertook by the American painter. The impact Matisse had on just a single young artist creates a link to his work that lives on today, 63 years after his death.
Matisse/Diebenkorn is open until May 29, 2017 on the 4th floor at SFMOMA. Tickets are available here. If you’re in the Bay Area be sure to plan a trip and see how Diebenkorn translated his home onto the canvas!
The Gutai movement set about to embody human creativity in material form. With an emphasis on radical experimentation, the movement has come to be associated with North America’s Abstract Expressionism and France’s Art Informel movements.
This Japanese avant-garde collective, which arose with the liberal mood of post-war Japan, is experiencing something of a resurgence. Works by associated artists, which have until recently been overlooked by the art market, are being featured in a number of European exhibitions and are fetching high prices at auction.
Gutai, which translates variously as ‘concrete’ or ‘embodiment’, originated in Osaka, Japan, and came into being in 1954 with the founding of the Gutai Art Association (GAA). The movement’s guiding principle was two-fold, with an emphasis both on the autonomy of the individual artist to be creative and on an international outreach. The global influence of Gutai is evident in the inclusion of works by artists such as Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni in the recent Tsuyoshi Maekawa exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in San Francisco.
Born in 1936 in Osaka, Maekawa belongs to the second generation of Gutai artists, having joined the movement in the early 1960s. Following the groups’s disbandment after the death of the its co-founder Yoshihara Jirō in 1972, Maekawa shifted his focus from a radical rejection of artistic practices to a focused experimentation with his chosen materials: oil paint and hessian (burlap).
Maekawa’s work proved to be among the most popular from the Gutai movement. His first solo exhibition was held at the Gutai Pinacotheca, Osaka, as early as 1963, with his work having previously been featured in every Gutai group exhibition since he joined the collective. More recently, Maekawa’s work has appeared in major exhibitions such as ‘Splendid Playground’ at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2013 and his work now features in the permanent collections of international institutions including the Tate Modern.
A solo show comprised of Maekawa’s work from the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Gutai, is currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery, London. The selection of works forms the inaugural exhibition of the Saatchi’s new space SALON, launched in February of this year with the aim of showcasing international artists to new audiences.
The exhibition, a collaboration between Saatchi Gallery and Lévy Gorvy, presents a group of works from Maekawa’s most productive period, including two pieces originally shown at Maekawa’s first solo exhibition, ‘Untitled (A5)’ (1963) and ‘Mountain with Lines’ (1963) and a selection of his work on loan from the Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp.
The canvases are presented uniformly in the windowless lower-ground floor of the Saatchi Gallery. No context for the works is offered to the visitor because none is needed: Maekawa’s creations can be enjoyed on a purely visual level.
The artist’s work is preoccupied with the dichotomy between flatness and three-dimensionality. The viewer is confronted with undulating folds of hessian cloth and ejaculatory spatters of paint in an explosion of colour, which call attention to the surface of the canvas and undermine the notion of a painting as a two-dimensional plane. That said, Maekawa does not wholly reject the representational, and the viewer could be forgiven for picking out recognisable forms in his Pollock-like canvases.
Many of his compositions seem biological, evocative of flesh wounds or of the human circulatory system. Nonetheless, Maekawa’s primary concern is with the materiality of his work. In the case of an untitled piece from 1967, the smooth surface of the painted hessian rolls is abruptly interrupted by a gap in the composition, emphasising the tactile physical nature of the fabric. Maekawa’s visceral works, punctuated by rips and tears which are sewn and stuck back together again, raise questions about temporality as well as space. The experimental cut-and-stick creation process, resulting in works comprised of fragmented parts, has led his work to be likened to that of Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Alberto Burri.
This Tsuyoshi Maekawa exhibition represents just one facet of the resurgence of interest in Gautai, with exhibitions featuring the work of Kazuo Shiraga (b. 1924) at Lévy Gorvy, Old Bond Street, in February and March, and at the Axel Vervoordt gallery, running concurrently with the Maekawa show at the Saatchi SALON.
Tsuyoshi Maekawa is on display at SALON, Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York Square (London) until 14th May 2017.
April 11, 2017
Beginning in the 1940s, a group of painters who we now collectively refer to as The New York School (or Abstract Expressionism artists) broke away from conventional technique and subject matter to better express subjective emotional reality in their art practice. As the name suggest, these paintings were abstract and simultaneously expressed the maker’s inner state of mind and the universal truths of the human condition. Historically speaking, these artists were working in the wake of the Great Depression, experiencing the crisis and aftermath of World War II, and painting in the era of bebop jazz and the Beat poets.
Artists in New York during the mid-20th century were also exposed to the work of many Europeans who sought refuge in the United States during World War II, such as Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst. The techniques used by these Surrealist artists, like automatic drawing and free improvisation, were an important component of the techniques adopted by Abstract Expressionists. The most widely known artists from this period, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, embody the two elements that Abstract Expressionist painters chose to explore: gesture and fields of color.
Jackson Pollock used a radical technique consisting in dripping and splashing paint onto a canvas with sticks and the ends of brushes. His paintings are created through dynamic gestures, and the resulting images are highly expressive and dramatic. These pieces are considered the first entirely non-objective works in the history of art. The enormous scale of the images, the lack of subject matter, and the technique he used was shocking and innovative for its time.
This type of action painting is based predominantly on spontaneity, which gives the work a level of immediacy. Many other artists besides Pollock used action and gesture to convey vigorous energy. Instead of letting paint drip onto the canvas, artist Lee Krasner (who also happened to be Pollock’s wife) used traditional brushes but applied paint in a frenzied tangle of lines that seem to explode on the two-dimensional surface. While other gestural painters filled their canvases, Joan Mitchell often chose to leave passages of her works blank, letting her flurries of color have room to breath. Willem de Kooning, who along with Pollock came to embody the popular image of the macho -the hard-drinking archetype of Abstract Expressionism- never truly abandoned real subject matter; his famous Woman series is highly abstracted and violently gestural, but still rooted in reality.
In the other side of the spectrum, Mark Rothko’s work explores the emotionalism that can be conveyed through large-scale blocks of color. He was deeply interested in the type of meditative or contemplative response that the juxtaposition of color can elicit from the viewer. Rothko’s paintings usually consist in a couple of flat, large swaths of luminous color. Again, the vast scale of the works is crucial for their effectiveness.
The washes or layers of color are supposed to be seen at close proximity so that the viewer would be enveloped in the image. Being surrounded by those fields of color can be a sublime, quasi-religious experience that can only be achieved by pure abstraction.
As Mark Rothko once said, “We assert man’s absolute emotions. We don’t need props or legends. We create images whose realities are self evident. Free ourselves from memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we make it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Other color field artists achieved a similar effect using different methods. Instead of working with conventional brushes, Helen Frankenthaler chose to create fields of color by pouring thinned paint directly onto the canvas, letting it pool in organic shapes.
Barnett Newman interrupted his large swaths of color with ‘zips’, or vertical bands that bisect his canvases, and Clyfford Still used thick impasto paint to juxtapose bright, jagged flashes of color. All of them created images that allow the eye to wander, offering the viewer the opportunity to stop and experience the myriad of feelings that these colors can arouse.
This group of artists shaped a watershed moment in American art. The breakthroughs made by Abstract Expressionist painters effectively shifted the focus of the art world from war-torn Europe to New York City.
In Say Hello to English, his second exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery London, multimedia artist Moffat Takadiwa presents a compelling new series of three-dimensional wall hangings, or object sculptures, that aesthetically engage with problematics surrounding postcolonial constructions of Zimbabwean national and cultural identity.
Born in Haroi in 1983, and practicing in the capital city of Harare since graduating (B.A. Hons) from Harare’s Polytechnic University in 2008, Takadiwa has consistently devoted his work to critical explorations of how material, environmental, and social factors impact the reality of contemporary Zimbabwean daily life. In a previous exhibition entitled Across Borders (on display at the What If The World gallery in Cape Town last year), Takadiwa examined the nature of Zimbabwean-Chinese economic and trade relations, and their deleterious effects on the natural Zimbabwean environment. For that show, Takadiwa created a collection of intricate, highly textural wall sculptures using post-consumer waste materials, such as bottle caps and disused computer and laptop parts.
In Say Hello to English, his current exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery, Takadiwa shifts his (and our) gaze to a critical reassessment of post- and neo-colonial aspects of the English language, a legacy of Zimbabwe’s colonial past as the former British Crown colony of Rhodesia. For Takadiwa, the English language is problematic because of its tendency to create class divisions (i.e., English-speaking elites) in Zimbabwean society, and its power to both shape and undermine contemporary constructions of Zimbabwean cultural identity. For Takadiwa, language and culture are inextricably intertwined –especially in the context of post-independence Zimbabwe–, and this standpoint is reflected throughout his oeuvre.
For the sculptural objects on view in Say Hello to English, Takadiwa makes use of a radically different medium to portray his ideas, namely: lettered, Roman-alphabet keys taken from post-consumer laptop and computer keyboards. These computer keys appear to have been woven together like traditional Zimbabwean textiles, but are here recast into a more contemporary, high-tech idiom. In an amusing and daring act of subversion, Takadiwa deconstructs and subverts the English language itself in these objects, by arranging the keys seemingly randomly (in effect scrambling them) so they are not legible in any way. Moreover, the artist has turned most of the lettered keys upside down, so that all viewers can see are their bottom ends, with the lettered crown rendered invisible. This aesthetic strategy powerfully conveys the struggles contemporary Zimbabweans experience with the English language, and how important it is, at least to some extent, to say “goodbye” to English in order to preserve the Bantu languages, as well as other aspects of pre-colonial Zimbabwean culture.
Although all of the works included in the exhibition Say Hello to English deal with problematics surrounding intertextuality, language and culture, one work in particular provides a paradigmatic example of Takadiwa’s philosophy, namely “The Falling of Rhode/sia.” According to the press release issued by the Tyburn Gallery, this work takes its inspiration from the “Rhodes Must Fall” social movement that was formed to contest Western-oriented education in Africa. “The Falling of Rhode/sia” also makes direct reference to the arch-imperialist Cecil B. Rhodes, whose statue at Cape Town University was recently removed from the campus as a result of student protests. In “The Falling of Rhodes/ia,” Takadiwa essentially reimagines Rhodes as a new, post-colonial creature, whose persona is both fierce (signified by the long red tongue and bared claws) and friendly (suggested by the creature’s loose and amorphous shape). For this viewer, Takadiwa’s “fallen,” reincarnated Rhodes is a likeable, positive figure who successfully reconciles Zimbabwe’s colonial past and post-colonial present.
Say Hello to English is on view at the Tyburn Gallery, London until May 6, 2017.
Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.
The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”
Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.
This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”
With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”
In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.
With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.
The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.
Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.
Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.
Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.
The work of Richard Serra has become synonymous with a fluidity of form and meaning.
Serra, born in 1938 in California, first encountered steel while accompanying his father, a pipe-fitter, to a San Francisco shipyard. Serra said of his experiences at the shipyard: “all the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory which has become a reoccurring dream”. And, indeed, metal has recurred throughout the artist’s later works.
Now Serra’s works feature in the collections of world-renowned institutions such as MoMA, Tate Modern and the Guggenheim Bilbao, among others, but this hasn’t always been the case. In the early days of his career, Serra took to working in steel mills on the United States’ West Coast to support himself, becoming increasingly familiar with the raw material that would, from the 1970s onwards, form the basis of his monolithic sculptures.
Although Serra has produced a prolific number of works on paper throughout his formidable career, it is his sculpture which has captured the imagination of both the artistic establishment and the general public alike. His undulating masses of steel, contorted in ways that make them appear almost weightless, seem to defy gravity. The sheet metal that characterises Serra’s work mimics rippling natural forms. To create them, the artist takes many tons of this solid material and transforms them into towering vertical planes.
In his work NJ-2 the viewer becomes immersed in the meandering curves coated with a rusty patina, the amber tones reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of his native San Francisco. The viewer is invited to walk not only around the piece but through it, as if lost or wandering among winding rocky outcrops and crevasses, with snatches of white-hot desert sun penetrating from high above.
Serra’s forms bend and twist, often striking a stark contrast to their environs. These monumental monoliths seem almost malleable and are open to a variety of interpretations. His sculpture is concerned with ineffability and expresses the unsayable through visual means. The works simultaneously point to recognisable forms whilst also bewildering the viewer. It is no surprise, then, that Serra counts Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze among his notable influences. The artist’s sculpture transcends pre-existing linguistic systems, stepping outside of the constraints of human language. Serra could be described as reticent: his minimal sculpture gives little away, leaving it to the viewer themselves to derive meaning. His work could be interpreted as the visual counterpart to that of the great philosophers and poets of the twentieth century, who struggled to represent meaning as they negotiated the world.
A key facet of Serra’s sculpture is its relationship to and dependence upon place. This site-specificity quality characterises his art and ascribes meaning to it. In fact, the work’s purpose relies so heavily on its environment that Serra himself said that to remove it from its intended site would be “to destroy it”. This is evident in the case of his infamous commissions for the Federal Plaza in New York City and the California Institute of Technology. Following a controversy, the former was removed while the latter was never installed, and so the works were “lost” or at the very least not realised in their intended capacity. Though the locations of Serra’s pieces vary enormously, ranging from east to west, city to desert, public space to private gallery, the gently undulating yet imposing metal facades, tarnished with a rusty patina formed naturally over several years, remain recognisably Serra nonetheless.
In contrast to Serra’s usual site-specific works, installed in public squares or national parks, three recent works were nestled in a gallery by London’s King’s Cross station. The large-scale steel sculptures, each on display in their own room of the Gagosian gallery, were disconnected from the natural environment and instead presented in a vacuum. Here, prevented from interacting with external influences, their ambiguity and uncertain meaning was intensified. This mode of display bridged the gap between Serra’s site-specific sculptures, created for and bound to their environment, and his two-dimensional canvases displayed on the distraction-free spaces of contemporary art galleries.