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The best exhibition in London, bar none

The best exhibition in London, bar none
13 October 2008 posted by John Wyver

With Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko at Tates Britain and Modern respectively, and Andy Warhol at the Hayward, this autumn in London is particularly good for seeing great modern art. But the best exhibition on now in the capital is neither of the Tate blockbusters, nor Andy's world. Rather, it's a show of just three large sculptures, together with an unconventional four-part "drawing". Richard Serra at Gagosian in Britannia Street, just near King's Cross, is, if I can use the word with something close to its original sense, awesome. Beautiful, too, and perplexing, and challenging. Among much else, it prompted me to remember all the times I'd seen -- and on occasions, filmed -- Serra's work over the past two decades. Which in turn made me simply grateful for the artist's work.

My first proper encounter with Serra was with Tilted Arc in New York in 1985 during the research for our series State of the Art. The sculpture, sited in Federal Plaza at that time, was at the centre of a bitter controversy about the place and purpose of public art. We filmed it the following year and then during one night in 1989 the sculpture was destroyed by federal workers.

Next, it was probably Fulcrum, 1987, installed rather wondrously at Liverpool Street, and which we filmed later for The Sculpture 100. After that I remember seeing Serra's Weight and Measure in the Duveen Galleries at what was still, I think, the Tate Gallery (this was the end of 1992 and early 1993). These two massively dense yet modestly proportioned blocks of forged steel sat inertly in the space but you knew that Tate had had to strengthen the floors specially. And I'm always delighted by the fact that if you look carefully you can find in the marble ground of the south gallery the traces of the fixings. These are the immaterial ghosts of a piece that, as with all of Serra's work (along with the best sculpture), is focussed on materiality.

Sometime around then I remember too going to a a show of large-scale drawings, done in a material like pitch, at a New York gallery -- and what I recall most is their harsh penetrating smell. Gagosian has a show of Serra's recent drawings in their small space in Davies Street, but these are glazed and, even close to (and I did try), are effectively odour-less.

We filmed Serra's immaculately sited sculpture Joe at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis for one of the very best sequences in the first series of Gallery HD's Artland. The pictures on the link to Joe come from 2buildings1blog, which the Pulitzer runs with the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis, and which is unquestionably one of the best museum blogs around. And then on a trip alongside the second series of Artland I got to see the Torqued Ellipses permanently installed at Dia Beacon. (Art21 resources about Serra are here and there's the transcript of the artist talking on Radio 3 to John Tusa here.)

Earlier this year, coming home through Toronto's Pearson International Airport, I was amazed and delighted to walk through (and around, and then back again, and several times over, just because it's so great) Serra's Tilted Spheres (that's it above). This piece is so massive it had to be installed before the terminal buildings went up around it.

Much to my regret, I missed the 2007 MOMA retrospective and I've yet to go to Bilbao to see the works installed at the Guggenheim. Stupidly, too, I failed to get across to Paris this summer to see Serra's Promenade installed in the cavernous galleries of the Grand Palais. But I have seen Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet, a very good film made in 2005 for WDR about the sculptor. And now, at least until December 20, I've got the London show. As I say, there are just three large-scale sculptures, and one of the things that it's hard to get past is just how on earth did they get these vast objects into the space.

If you go, take a walk first through Open Ended, 2007-08, a steel labyrinth that bends and stretches space, and your own sense of where you are in the world, in the most extraordinary way. Then enjoy the way the pair of torqued toruses, called TTI London, 2007, open up and shut down as you move in and around and through them. Look at how the light changes about you, and on the metal and the walls. And wonder at the mammoth wall of weatherproof steel, Fernando Pessoa, 2007-08, made in homage to the Portugese poet.

Whatever you do, however, don't miss the four elements of Forged Drawing, 2008, which are tucked away in a small gallery on their own. These are geometric shapes cut from forged steel, drawn on with paintstick, and wall-mounted. The shapes seem to hover in front of the surface, yet to be fixed there in the most direct and immediate way. Impossibly light and extraordinarily heavy at the same time, these are simply magical works.

Inevitably, I spent some time thinking about how you'd film the large-scale sculptures -- and for all kinds of reasons, it's tricky. They fill the galleries so it is hard to get any distance on them, but more than that they are concerned fundamentally with experience, with how your body (and brain) moves in relation to the planes and curves and spaces -- and that's tough to get close to in flat moving images. But the Telegraph Online have had a go, as well as talking to Serra, as you can see below. 

Update: entirely coincidentally, on the day of this posting the WDR film referred to above, now titled in English Richard Serra: To See is to Think, was nominated for an international Emmy. The awards are on 24 November.


David Gassman

5 December 2008 12:38

John Wyver's blogs are brilliant, in some cases even more outstanding than the Illuminations productions they relate to, and should be much better known. I have the advantage of him in having seen Serra's works in the Bilbao Guggenheim. Regarding Pessoa, visitors to this blog or to the exhibition may be interested to know that one of his homonyms is the protagonist of Jose Saramago's excellent 1984 novel, 'The Life and Death of Ricardo Reis.'

John Wyver

6 December 2008 06:28

Many thanks, David Gassman -- you're far too generous, but that's not going to stop me encouraging you to contribute a Comment or two elsewhere on the blog, including in the more recent posts. Thank you again.

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