Formalities and Mannerisms

A Richard Serra solo anchors Robischon's dazzling salute to abstraction.

Richard Serra is one of the few living artists who can accurately be described as a modern master. He is best known for his monumental sculptures, which are installed in public places all over the world. But Serra has also long created works on paper. A group of these makes up the first part of Transversal, a strikingly elegant two-part exhibit of contemporary abstraction at Robischon Gallery.

Serra emerged on the art scene in the creative hothouse of New York City in the 1960s and '70s. He was part of a generation that pushed phenomenological understandings of art, which resulted in works that were severe, challenging and, above all, about art itself. The artists in this group included strict minimalists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, as well as classic formalists like Mark di Suvero and even conceptualists of the Robert Smithson stripe. They plumbed the depths of the art-ness of art and believed they were creating the ultimate -- by which I mean last -- artistic expressions possible. By their logic, artists of the future would simply continue to follow the paths they had pioneered.

They were both right and wrong about this: Although art has continued to develop along other theoretical lines, this generation of artists was at work during what turned out to be the final chapter of first-phase modernism, so for a while, it really did look like they were the last of their kind. By the 1980s, modernism was being supplanted by post-modernism, and the whole art scene was balkanizing into mannerism, with formalism, in particular, on the wane.

"Transversal #4," by Richard Serra, one-color etching.
"Transversal #4," by Richard Serra, one-color etching.
"Enero 7.05," Ricardo Mazal, oil on linen.
"Enero 7.05," Ricardo Mazal, oil on linen.

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Through February 19, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

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But that was then and this is now, and formalist approaches -- which have kept going all along, albeit on the sidelines -- are back in a big way. In the past decade, the blossoming of neo-modern and a renewed interest in old modern has bolstered formalism's position in contemporary art. It only makes sense that formalism would make a comeback: How can you beat a visual-art strategy that says art should be about itself?

Serra, whose signature style involves the use of unaltered materials, is a good example of this revitalized modernism. For his most characteristic work, he uses steel or lead plates that are casually canted against the ground or against other metal plates. The elements of the sculptures are typically not attached with hardware but held in place by the force of gravity. And although the act of leaning or tilting usually strikes something of a straight diagonal line, Serra often bends the diagonal into an arch.

The prints hanging at Robischon are direct corollaries to these classic sculptures -- and not just because they have similar shapes. The paper works are from three distinct groups -- the "Extension," "Trajectory" and "Transversal" series -- but despite their separate monikers, all three are very closely related and look essentially the same. In each, there is a deep, black, multi-dimensional color field that has a massive presence, just as Serra's sculptures do. Plus, the prints are basically about ink, the way the sculptures are essentially about metal. This last similarity gives the two a kinship in concept as well as appearance.

Serra has been making prints for more than thirty years, with Robischon presenting them through an arrangement with the artist's longtime printmaker, California's GEL Gemini. The pieces in this show are aquatints -- one-color etchings -- in black ink on white paper. Knowing this, I expected to see the etching plate's register marks as an indentation on the paper, but I didn't. André Heller, Robischon's senior associate, explained that the etching plates were larger than the paper, so there are no outlines of them.

The Serra section of Transversal is made up of only six works, but they are so large, and the images are so bold, that they completely command the pair of spaces to either side of the gallery's entrance. These prints are absolutely majestic, and the atmosphere they create in the dimly lit rooms (a precaution against fading) makes the front of Robischon seem like a chapel. This transcendent mood is enhanced by the gorgeous hanging: The simple pieces play off one another perfectly, with each in its own, discrete place.

The Serra prints succeed on two levels in this gallery: overall and up close. Standing in the middle of the space, viewers immediately perceive the unbelievable graphic power of the simple compositions. The heavy black bars set against the creamy white paper are eye-catching, to say the least. Examining the prints up close, however, elicits a very different effect, because the paper was impressed with a lively, three-dimensional surface that's positively topographical, if not downright baroque. The tension between the bare-bones compositions and the full-bodied fields works beautifully.

The second part of Transversal, installed in Robischon's middle spaces, also stands on its own. This section is a group show comprising contemporary abstractions by artists in the gallery's stable. Much of it is post-minimal in style, so it connects well with the Serras in front.

That's certainly the case with the post-minimal mood of the two small wall sculptures by Seattle's Peter Millett: "Beak," in carved and painted fir, and "Green Shift," in carved and painted cedar. They're installed just inside the middle space, but they're small and easy to miss, so be sure not to. Millett's sculptures look to be influenced formally by totem poles and other objects made by the Indians of the Northwest Coast. He uses the full shape of logs that he then cuts into segments and arranges into simple compositions. In "Beak," four sections are put together in a symmetrical arrangement that resembles an open bird's beak. In "Green Shift," the parts are assembled so that the left half of the sculpture is an inverted image of the right.

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