Thursday, May 5, 2011

Serra and Caro at the Met

By Charles Kessler

Richard Serra, From left, works from 1989, The United States Courts Are Partial to the Government, No Mandatory Patriotism (center) and The United States Government Destroys Art,  (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times).
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, April 13, 2011–August 28, 2011

The usually perceptive Roberta Smith starts her review of Serra’s retrospective with this: Few artists have pushed drawing to such sculptural and even architectural extremes as Richard Serra. The thing is, most of Serra’s “drawings” (or should it be “drawing” as in the title of the show — as if he’s there all day drawing) simply aren’t drawings. Some are paint on canvas, some are even stretched. Simply calling paintings drawings isn’t defying convention or stretching the definition of drawing. He may as well call those room-sized installations he does sculptures. What? ...Oh. 

She’s on the money elsewhere in her review when she writes: But at times this show suggests that without the steel forms and volumes of the sculptures, the work can sometimes seem at once meager and histrionic. And that pretty much sums up my take on the show: pretty thin stuff, and surprisingly arty — even precious at times. One work in particular struck me this way, Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976, re-created for this exhibition. It reminded me both of Japanese art at its most refined and James Turrell.
Richard Serra, Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976/2011, Paintstick drawn on the wall of the Art Institute of Chicago on the occasion of the seventy-second American exhibition, 86 x 89 in., Private collection. copyright Richard Serra
What separates Serra's "drawing" from the work of hundreds of other artists who make minimal, monochromatic art, is there’s an architectural aspect to SOME of his “drawings.”  Some create the illusion of looking into dark voids or tilted planes. And to Serra’s credit, he knows how to create a dramatic space. They don’t, however, as has been suggested a lot, suck the light out of the room — there’s literally less light shining on them. (One room I noticed has two lights on the “drawing” and four on the adjacent white walls.) Most of his work, however, is pretty straight-forward minimal abstraction.

Serra’s personality sometimes works in his favor and sometimes works against him. His ambitiousness allows him to conceive of those enormous, room-sized sculptures, and to get the Met to install the work the way he wants. On the other hand he can be inauthentic, bombastic and downright cheesy. I mean, look at those titles, for God sake. The guy is shameless.

Anthony Caro on the Roof, The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden

Anthony Caro, Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof, April 27, 2010.
What is this obsession with Greenberg? Why can’t people write about Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski or Anthony Caro without mentioning Greenberg. Has there ever been another critic or another artist that this is the case?  In the second paragraph of his condescending and dismissive review, Ken Johnson dredges up Greenberg: The authoritarian, arch-formalist critic Clement Greenberg was an admirer, friend and studio consultant. With characteristically imperious self-assurance, he told an interviewer in 1968, “Anthony Caro is a major artist — the best sculptor to come up since David Smith."  What's with this? Is Greenberg's mere approval (42 years ago!) somehow automatically condemning? Let it go already. ...It’s got to be something oedipal.

A little further on Johnson writes: Remarking on Mr. Caro’s roots in English tradition, Greenberg wrote in a 1965 essay, “Without maintaining necessarily that he is a better artist than Turner, I would venture to say that Caro comes closer to a genuine grand manner — genuine because original and un-synthetic — than any English artist before him.” No artist should take that kind of statement seriously, but it seems that Mr. Caro found it hard to resist.

Well actually Caro resisted the “grand manner” and that’s the problem with this show. If Caro had some of Serra’s chutzpah, maybe he could pull off a theatrical space like the Met’s roof. But he’s not bombastic, his work is intimate, however powerful. Serra's art may be thin, trite, and humorless, but it is helped immensely by his space; Caro’s art is rich, original and playful and is killed by this space.

When I came off the elevator, Caro’s sculptures looked sad and dingy, as if they'd been out there for thirty years. It also seemed there were too few of them, like a barren closet with only a few things hanging in it. In the context of this grand space overlooking Central Park and all, there was a desolate quality to the exhibition, even on a gorgeous spring day — or maybe because of it.

I saw one of Caro’s sculptures (End Up, 2010) at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery recently, and it worked much better inside where it was set off by walls so the sculptures could play off them. The space in this show is just too open.
Anthony Caro, End Up, 2010, steel, 72x90x62 in. (Collection of the artist, courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York).
The only thing that seems to work well up there are spectacles like Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big BambĂș or Roxy Paine on the Roof: Maelstrom.

Caro is credited with taking sculpture off the pedestal in the sixties. He wasn't the first to do so (probably that overachieving pest Picasso was), but he carried it further and drew more implications from it than any other artist. And it was more than mere formal innovation; it meant that sculpture inhabited the same phenomenological space we do. (See my posts on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Cezanne and Picasso.)  Likewise, his use of industrial materials (i.e., not art materials like bronze or marble) makes the work more accessible; and spreading the sculpture out along the floor engages the viewer -- as opposed to monolithic sculpture like that of Caro's teacher Henry Moore (who also worked in bronze).

Caro is currently working on a huge multi-part public sculpture for three blocks of the Park Avenue meridian. It’s supposed to be installed next year. I’m afraid it just isn't his thing -- but artists in their late phase often surprise. This is the third show in the last few months by great 87-year-old artists (Charles Garabedian and Ellsworth Kelly were the others). 1924 must have been a good year for an artist to be born.  

P. S. After the Met, I went to the Guggenheim to see The Great Upheaval show again, and I was really taken by the Franz Marc paintings on view. Wouldn’t a major exhibition of Franz Marc’s paintings be a valuable contribution to the field?
Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911. Oil on canvas, 55 3/8 x 74 1/2 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).
Franz Marc,  Stables (Stallungen), 1913. Oil on canvas, 29 x 62 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.


Carl Belz said...

I confess to having never questioned Serra along the lines you suggest, ie academic, arty, inflated, pretentious--points well taken once I stop to think about them. I'm wondering if I'd forgotten an old Greenberg remark, to wit (I'm paraphrasing): "That quality is unrelated to size we already knew..." (you'll forgive me for the moment for not yet having gotten over Greenberg myself). In other words, I've bought into the "awesome" aspect of Serra's sculpture and I've allowed that seduction to effect my view of the drawings. At least that's what your response has got me thinking about. (There's also the fact that I bought for the Rose--for a collection of sculptors' drawings that I started in lieu of starting a collection of sculptures that I didn't have room for--a big Serra paperwork from Blum/Helman many years ago, part of a St. Louis project, about 7-1/2 feet square, early 80s, for $13K, which I've always felt was a very savvy art move/market move on my part, meaning I'm not an altogether disinterested viewer). As to Caro, I especially appreciate the point about indoors/outdoors. I lived with several Caro sculptures over my years at the Rose, occasionally placing one or another outdoors, or partially outdoors--meaning on the museum porch--even "borrowing" one for our house for a while one time, and you're right: they're intimate, they're best experienced within closed spaces.

Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, here is the link to Anthony Caro's work in the church in Bourbourg.

Anthony Caro is a deeply intelligent artist who can not be defined by just the work that we see here in the states. He is always trying new things while adding to his universal, expansive, visual vocabulary and redefining expression. He will without a doubt create something unique and powerful for the Park Avenue project.