There's a funny bit in the recent New Yorker hatchet job on Thomas Heatherwick, covering the design superstar's mission to build a centrepiece for the renovation of Hudson Yards, New York City. Richard Serra was also asked to contribute too, but said no. “You know what I do — you know that it’s going to be structural steel, you know it’s going to be monumental. What do I need to show you?” he's quoted as saying, turning down the "billionaire property developer" behind the scheme.
Fair enough, Richard! After all, he's world-famous for his huge, dense, occasionally rusted, monumental steel sculptures: subtle variations on an instantly recognisable theme. Whether elegantly curved or blocky, they've always had a slight 70s sci-fi feeling to me, as I've wandered around (and sometimes through) them, dwarved by their size. I had no idea he drew too, until this show, which opened earlier this month at Gagosian.
Collectively known as 'Rifts', these works are unsurprisingly huge - and monolithic. They're almost all black - the gallery calls out their "unrelenting tarmac blackness" - broken up by white triangular slivers. These 'rifts' could be tectonic plates, or layers of deep underground sediments, breaking up seams of coal. Chinks of light in the blackness, laid on thick with paintstick. Blackness in which, close up, you can see different layers catch the light, and craze the edges of the paper. Just like his heavy steel monolithic sculptures, the imperfections break the illusion, and make these otherwise scarily inscrutable objects slightly more accessible.
That said, I didn't feel like I got that close. Maybe it was that Gagosian's ultra-luxe Mayfair gallery wasn't just crowded with the usual squadrons of black-suited security guards, but also with Russian ladies of indeterminate age and suspiciously plump lips. Maybe it was the gallery's disconcerting fresh paint smell: I thought at the time that it wasn't coming from the Rifts themselves, and assumed it was the fresh paint on the gallery walls, but I've since been told that thick oil paint takes months to dry.
Maybe my slightly alienated feeling came from the suspicion that paintstick on "handmade Japanese paper" is a lot easier to get in an oligarch's luxury pad than a heavy steel block.
That's a bit unfair. One thing about Serra. You know what you're getting. What more does he need to show you?
Richard Serra: Rifts is at Gagosian (London). 6 April - 25 May 2018.