Talking on National Public Radio a few weeks ago to promote his new show at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, Richard Serra was precise and stern, his voice holding a note of impatience. He was very masculine, very adult. Serra has to be serious -- people have died making his sculptures. And though the art is grand, his simple artistic goals seem rather rudimentary today. Sculptural notions of "space" and "form" don't carry the same esthetic freight that they used to. So Serra has to be tough.
But actually seeing the works was a surprise. What Hilton Kramer once begrudgingly called an "esthetic of dread" has developed into something more sensuous and playful. Though still shrines to a lost Rust Belt physicality, the new works are heavy steel made all feminine, rust-splashed and striped, pretty as a lyrical abstraction. Wake, a group of five undulating 14-foot-tall steel walls, is as curvy as Stephanie Seymour. Serra's having an "Ellsworth Kelly moment," said one wag, pointing up the work's elegance rather than its industrial brute force.
Of the four sculptures, the exhibition's tour-de-force arguably is Blindspot (2002-03), a massive almond-shaped spiral that folds back on itself six times. Its asymmetrical spaces are as disorienting as a funhouse, like the roadside tourist-trap "vortexes" where the laws of physics are suspended, X-Files style. Vice-Versa (2003), a mirror-image pair of parabola-shaped steel plates that are more than 15 feet tall and 38 feet long, is Serra's version of Picasso's guitar or Man Ray's Ingres Violin. The fourth sculpture, Catwalk, is a two-inch-thick slab of steel measuring 16 x 19 feet that sits flat on the floor, or rather, a bit off the floor on a pair of long concrete shims.
Who owns these fantastic things? Barnes & Noble honcho (and Dia board chief) Leonard Riggio has one on his lawn in the Hamptons; other collectors include San Francisco art patron Steven Oliver and Sonoma County collectors John and Frances Bowes, insiders say.
Nearby, in Paula Cooper's airy, arched space on West 21st, is another big piece of steel, Mark di Suvero's XV (1971), a teepee-shaped structure of four 20-foot-long steel beams that has been on view at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis since 1976.
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By contrast, Jason Rhoades is California's answer to the yBas, bringing a raucously vulgar "frat boy" sensibility to David Zwirner's pristine white Chelsea gallery. Dubbed "Meccatuna," the sprawling agglomeration of assorted junk ostensibly results from a comic quest -- to take a tuna on a pilgrimage to Mecca and with it circumnavigate the Kabba, one of the holiest of Moslem shrines. "Upon realizing that moving a live tuna would be met with great difficulty," Rhoades improvised -- he had someone buy a case of tinned tuna and drive it to Mecca and take pictures of it there.
In the center of the gallery space is a huge model of the Kabba, supposedly made of 1,000,000 Legos. Also on hand are five life-size white fiberglass donkeys, five large white plastic camel toe bones (copied from a petrified camel toe purchased on eBay), a heap of camel saddle foot stools (also purchased on eBay), five polished aluminum "Mecca vulvas," assorted structures made of glue, Ivory Snow boxes and pellets that the artist calls PeaRoeFoam, and a lot more junk.
And if that's not frat-boy enough for you, the show includes as well 550 "vagina euphemisms" in neon -- missile silo, koo koo, sausage wallet, panty hamster, hairy clam, jizz receptacle, fish pie (that's seven). "It's not emancipatory," complained one critic, but if you ask me, who couldn't like all those synonyms for pussy, especially when marshaled to make fun of our enemies the Arabs. Rhoades may be the most pro-American artist out there. The neon vagina euphemisms -- in groups of two or three, mounted on colored plastic panels and with their own transformers -- can be had for $4,000. Buy one and buy American.
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At Anton Kern Gallery on West 20th Street are 12 new paintings by Mark Grotjahn, who has exhibited his strange, thickly painted monochromes with Blum and Poe in Los Angeles. Abstract painting always seems beyond rescuing, until some artist like Grotjahn makes it new. How'd you get the idea for the paintings? he was asked. "Trial and error," he said. The paintings are orange, green, pale green or black, with nothing but brushmarks limning a clear image of spreading rays and abstract towers, like some kind of 1930s utopian Art Deco. With a gothic, mannerist touch, the artist signs the works on the front with iconic signature initials in bright colors (pace Mark Kostabi's recent "Ask Mark Kostabi" column). All 12 paintings are sold or reserved, at prices ranging from $8,000 to $18,000, to New York-area collectors.
Uptown, at Michael Werner's classically proportioned townhouse gallery on West 77th Street (the former quarters of Leo Castelli) is an impressive assembly of works by the revolutionary post-war Italian artist Piero Manzoni (1933-63) -- nine Achromes dating from 1958-61 and a long line on a scroll that is sealed in a cardboard tube. The Achromes are various: two pieces of white felt with a stitched horizon line; two pieces of yellowing fuzzy velour in a similar configuration; a grid of square, fluffy cotton pads; canvas creased into rows and set with a coat of kaolin clay.
Minimalist art easily flattens out in our high-key culture, but here you can easily imagine that Manzoni's existential tabula rasas act like energy sumps, draining the life out of the room. The art market loves them -- Sotheby's London has two in its Oct. 20 sale of Italian art, estimated at 350,000-450,000 and 590,000-760,000.
And a few blocks away on East 79th Street, C&M Arts has assembled a lovely show combining some Roman and Greek marbles with an impressive group of works from Pablo Picasso's "classical" period in the 1920s (including the major Three Women at the Spring from 1921 on loan from the Museum of Modern Art). In addition to the gallery's hushed otherworldliness -- these are, after all, the remote upper precincts of the art world -- Picasso's uncanny ability as a draftsman and a painter is breathtaking. There's an illustrated catalogue with an essay by John Richardson. The exhibition remains on view till Dec. 6, 2003.
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Get ready for James Rosenquist mania in the Big Apple. In addition to the giant retrospective organized by Walter Hopps at the Menil Foundation in Houston that arrives at the Guggenheim Museum, Oct. 17, 2003-Jan. 25, 2004, are several other shows by the 69-year-old Pop master, all opening next week. The AXA Gallery on Seventh Avenue presents a pair of 46-foot-long murals, the brand new Joystick, dating from 2003, and a 1986 primarily black-and-white astrological painting titled Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil. Mounted in conjunction with Robert Miller Gallery, the show is on view Oct. 14, 2003-Jan. 9, 2004.
Robert Miller Gallery also temporarily takes over Annina Nosei Gallery at 530 West 22nd Street to present Horizon Home Sweet Home, a 23 ft. by 23 ft. room installation of color panels and mylar with a dry ice fog machine that was originally exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1970. That exhibition is up Oct. 23-Nov. 21, 2003 (get-well wishes to Annina Nosei, who is recovering from back surgery). Last but certainly not least, the new Jacobson Howard Gallery -- a partnership between former Andre Emmerich Gallery director Loretta Howard and London dealer Bernard Jacobson, who is Rosenquist's dealer -- opens at 19 East 76th Street on Oct. 22 with "James Rosenquist: Collages." The exhibition features almost 30 works dating from the early 1960s, including a study for Marilyn (1962) and the humorous and personal Collage for White Bread for Ellsworth (1964).
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The Museum of Modern Art selling a Picasso painting? MoMA curator emeritus William Rubin would be spinning in his grave, if he weren't still alive. The museum says that its deaccession of Picasso's 1909 Cubist landscape, Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro, to Berlin dealer Heinz Berggruen, for an undisclosed price, is "a regular part of the curatorial process," and therefore not worthy of any particular attention. The picture is a good one: most recently it was on loan to the Picasso Museum in Paris, and before that it was exhibited at top museums in Basel, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Houston and London -- though not at MoMA. Picasso's early Cubist landscapes don't come up at auction very often; his ca. 35 x 28 in. Femme Nue (1909) from the Morton G. Neumann Family Collection sold at Sotheby's New York in 1998 for $11 million. MoMA has 54 Picasso paintings in its collection.
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Everyone's whispering about looming plans to close Dia: Chelsea (formerly known as the Dia Center for the Arts), ostensibly for renovations but more likely as a money-saving move. According to this scenario, the bookstore would stay open (taking a page from the Guggenheim SoHo's playbook) and the space upstairs could be rented out. Dia's formerly energetic website needs updating, but it looks like the current round of shows there are set to expire in January 2004. The West 22nd Street museum has already found a temporary tenant for the huge exhibition space across the street where Bruce Nauman's Mapping the Studio video installation unspooled in 2002 -- the Italian Trade Commission has installed a ginormous collection of Italian design called "Theater of Italian Creativity" -- with free espresso, when we were there.
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Steven Walls, a 31-year-old Yale MFA who lives in Brooklyn, having sucess at Oliver Kamm 5BE Gallery on West 22nd Street with group of paintings and prints of actors portraying artists -- David Bowie as Warhol, Ed Harris as Pollock, like that. Big paintings are $4,500, but best are prints in editions of 18 for $150. One shows three different actors as Jesus, another Anthony Hopkins as Picasso, Hitler and Nixon. In the back room, an installation of 100 framed replicas of artists' signatures, from Czanne to Elizabeth Peyton.
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Out at Pierogi 2000 in Brooklyn's Williamsburg district, a great new DVD animation by Jim Torok in which a simple cartoon face says over and over "nice shirt" and "you've lost weight" and such positivism. "The idea is that you put it on at home and just leave it running," Torok says. The 13-minute DVD is $100.
In the backroom at Elizabeth Dee Gallery on West 20th, a new work by Kevin Landers -- a flock of pigeons made entirely of gaffer's tape. How much is it? Dee was asked. "I don't know," she said. . . . New paintings by Chris Ballantyne at DCKT at Charles Cowles featuring suburban scenes done in flat fields of color -- the show is titled "Dream of New Jersey" -- has caught the interest of collectors, with eight smaller works on paper already sold at $1,000 each. . . . At Achim Moeller on East 73rd Street, a show of romantic, beautiful black-and-white photogravures of tempests, libraries, tree dwellings, zeppelins and such by the young (b. 1961) German artist Lothar Osterberg, who now lives in New York. The pictures are actually made from elaborate models the artist constructs. The exhibition closed on Oct. 11, 2003.
Painter Kevin Zucker's towering Edward Gorey-esque interiors at Mary Boone in Chelsea marked sold, ranging in price from $5,000 to $27,000. Greg Bogin's Pop Minimalist paintings at Boone's Fifth Avenue redoubt also marked sold or on reserve, at $6,000-$15,000. . . . See Kim Keever's evocative and mysterious little cave diorama at Cornell DeWitt Gallery, apparently a window to a prehistoric dimension. It can be yours for $8,000. . . . Tennis ace and art dealer John McEnroe consigns a 1984 embroidered map by Alighiero Boetti to Christie's "Italian Sale" in London on Oct. 21. The presale estimate: $240,000-$320,000.
Esthetic atmosphere changing at huge Starret Lehigh building over at 501 West 26th Street with new tenants -- the "investigations unit" of the Homeland Security Bureau on floors seven and eight.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.
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