Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Twist and Clout

By Cory Dugan

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  NEW YORK -- Richard Serra has a reputation for an aggressive, perhaps even macho, sense of sculptural form. Much of that misperception is based on his favored material -- steel -- and the often invasive presence or provocative posture of his work (the now-infamous and ill-fated Tilted Arc is but one example). But Serra's work has never really been about such narrow, anthropomorphous, pseudo-narrative concerns; nor has it been about the "ideal" minimalist form, with whose champions Serra has often been linked.

"Torqued Ellipses," the inaugural project at the Dia Center's new space (across the street from its main facility in Chelsea), is the to-date culmination of Serra's considerable art, making inescapably obvious his true concerns and undeniable his power and his position in art history. Consisting of three individual pieces, "Torqued Ellipses" is 300,000 pounds of steel in a 6,000-square-foot gallery. Yet its most vital component is empty space.

Space is the principal concern of the Torqued Ellipse series, as it has been in many of Serra's previous works; along with mass and perhaps gravity, space is a central theme in his sculpture -- the way an object can affect, change, or define a space. But never before has space become a medium for his work in the way that he accomplishes in these pieces. Space is not merely affected or changed or even defined; it is created. This is space as we have not seen or experienced it before, not in art, not in nature, not even in architecture.

To explain this space literally and physically, Serra has taken the form of an oval cylinder and torqued it; i.e., rotated the top of the form on its axis at an angle from its bottom, maintaining the same diameter and circumference throughout. Torqued Ellipse I is turned at 90 degrees, Torqued Ellipse II at 55 degrees. Double Torqued Ellipse, wherein one form is nested inside another, is torqued at 70 degrees. The shape of the sculpture -- the skin of the void -- is manufactured of two-inch steel plates, 13 feet high, each of which forms one half of the piece. At one juncture of these plates, each piece is left open, allowing the viewer to enter the sculpture.

The experience is at first disorienting. There are no perceptible vertical lines or perpendiculars (save the floor) with which to gauge one's physical relationship to the work; one's head and feet are never in agreement in their distance from the steel, causing an unconscious inclination to lean as one walks around and within. In places, the steel bends toward the viewer, overhanging his/her head by as much as 5 feet, forcing a retreat. In others, it leans away, beckoning at or just beyond arm's reach.

The challenge is most stimulating in Double Torqued Ellipse, where the viewer enters the outer shell and must traverse a narrow elliptical corridor -- where the interior and exterior steel walls do not follow one another -- to find the adjacent entrance to the inner shell. Womb, canal, moat, courtyard -- biological and architectural motifs suggest themselves again and again.

But this isn't about biology, or even symbolism thereof; this is mathematics, pure and simple. This is physics, this is engineering. And, yes, this approaches architecture -- Frank Gehry's office assisted in the technical aspects of the design; the creative impetus was Boromini's oval design for San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane in Rome.

Yet, for all its cold, analytical origins, this is art at its most human level. Richard Serra would claim more interest in the project's physics than its aesthetics; but, however accidental, there is a sure and certain beauty to the various steel surfaces of these structures -- crusty orange rust, pitted dull gray, oily black metal -- along with the scrawled chalky instructions of the steelworkers left intact. One does not expect such elegance from heavy, industrial materials, but the graceful curves are as fluid as ribbon.

One hopes always to see something new in art, at least a new way of seeing something old; one is usually disappointed. Serra's Torqued Ellipses are completely new -- new forms, new space, never seen or experienced before. It is not only their enormous scale which leaves one in awe.


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