June 3, 2013

Balance and Tension: Richard Serra and Others

Richard Serra, 5:30, 1969; lead, four plates each 48 x 48 x 3/4, pole: 84 in. 
Serra images courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.

A fascinating show of Richard Serra's early work at David Zwirner Gallery showed the beginnings of his interest in precarious balance. It also reminded me of his flirtation with danger, in the use of lead in plates and thin sheets rolled into poles. Using very simple elements––flat plates and round poles––he created sculpture with dramatic presence.

Richard Serra, Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969-70; lead, plate: 48 x 48 x 3/4, pole: 4 3/8 x 84 1/4 in.

Each of these works is held, temporarily, by its elements and sometimes by the wall. The points of contact therefore seem full of tension, as the keeping together can easily come apart. These "prop" sculptures do something new in their reliance on one form holding up another, oh so carefully. 

Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969; lead, four plates each 48 x 48 x 1 in.

To use heavy lead plates as one would flimsy playing cards reminds us of the uncertainty of such a balancing act.

Richard Serra, V + 5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; lead, four plates, each 48 x 48 x 3/4 in, pole 7 ft.

Another configuration using the same elements as 5:30 above, but even more tense as the pole stretches across the piece, seeming to barely hang on to the outer plates.

Richard Serra, Strike: To Roberta and Rudy, 1969-71; hot rolled steel, 97 x 288 x 1 1/2 in. 

This piece looks forward to future work in its material, now steel rather than lead, and in its large size. In the way it is held by the corner, it is also a precursor to Serra's large tilted steel plate pieces, that a viewer often felt were about to fall over. This tension and sense of danger famously escalated in the case of Tilted Arc, a large piece in a public plaza, where workers felt annoyed and threatened by the work cutting across the broad open space. My own feelings about Serra's work have gone from anger towards it to great admiration, which I write about in this blog post. Seeing these older works got me thinking about how many artists have used elements of balance and tension in their work––they've been important to me also in composing a work––elements that Serra pushed to the extreme.

Rogier Van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, ca. 1435; oil on oak panel, 86 1/2 x 103 in. 
(see high resolution image here)

When I think about pictorial tension, this brilliant painting always comes to mind: the figures are compressed into a tight space, with the two outer ones pushing physically against the bounds of the frame.

Chardin, Basket of Peaches, 1768; oil on canvas, 12.6 x 15.4 in. 
(see high resolution image here)

Still life painting seems to me to be a balancing act, finding a perfect arrangement of shapes that pull and push against each other. When there is a knife hanging off the table, the balance becomes literal, though Chardin is likely trying to heighten an illusion: a form entering the viewer's space while breaking the picture plane.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism (Self Portrait in Two Dimensions), 1915, oil on canvas, 
31 1/2 x 24 3/8 in.

Shapes tilt and spill and hover in this Malevich painting, all coming to a balance and held by the black square at bottom.

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1964; oil on canvas, 10 x 12 in. 

Morandi is supremely aware of the tension between his objects as they huddle together. He creates a balance of shape and line that belies volume while expressing it. 

Ellsworth Kelly drawing. 

In this Kelly drawing, you see him adjusting edges so that the black shapes touch them just so, while the upper shape barely touches the lower, at one tense point. In a way much less physical and intense than Serra, these artists and many others are working with similar concepts: arranging forms to play off each other, playing with balance, imbalance, and tension, which brings a deeper feeling and meaning to the work.

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