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Lost in Space

At Dia, Richard Serra and Robert Irwin make art you can enter; a forgotten French sculptor enlivens the Met.

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For many artists today, a painting that hangs on the wall is too static, passive, and autonomous a creation to capture the kinetic character of modern life. Instead, their thinking goes, why not transform the actual space around a viewer, making the environment the form? Why not place the spectator within the frame? The Dia Center for the Arts is now exhibiting two “installations” -- Robert Irwin’s Prologue: x183, which opened last week, and Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, which has been on display since last fall -- that not only are individually significant but also demonstrate the remarkable range of expression that can be found in such works. Without too much exaggeration, you could say that Irwin provides a glimpse of heaven and Serra a glimpse of hell.

Irwin, a Californian who will also have a show at PaceWildenstein in May, typically uses a subtle palette of natural light in his installations. For Prologue: x183, he has created eighteen interconnected rooms using semi-transparent scrims as walls. At the north and south ends, he has chosen to let natural light flow into the piece. In each room, however, he has also placed one vertical line of fluorescent light; the fluorescence itself contains carefully modulated white, blue, and gray tones. As you look through the walls of scrim into the interior, these vertical lines of light appear to repeat themselves endlessly, as if you were staring into a mirrored space. Other sight lines do something similar, establishing ongoing repetitive patterns as room upon room unfolds. The light deep within the piece looks as cool and soft as fog: Viewers walking about become ghostly figures in empty rooms, their tangible bodies transformed into shadows whenever they pass behind the scrims.

Irwin often works with subtle perceptual phenomena, but he never becomes simply an “Oh, wow” performer playing tricks on the eye. The perceptual in Irwin is also the philosophical -- a way toward some deeper intimation about human existence. Here, the repeating rooms and lights convey the Zen-like sensation of a progressive emptying-out, a freeing of the mind from its habitual clutter. (Walking through Prologue: x183 is rather like being inside an Agnes Martin painting.) Bodies become lighter, walls porous. The geometry seems strict but not tyrannous. The spaces disorient the eye, but without that mazelike constriction or visual lockup of the endlessly mirrored space. For some reason, this peaceful work made me think of death -- but a death I did not fear.

Like Irwin, Richard Serra also establishes a vivid environment. Although his massive works in rolled steel can be interesting in and of themselves, their power comes from what they do to the space we inhabit and walk through. His Torqued Ellipses -- which is on display across the street from the main Dia building -- consists of three huge elliptical forms tightly packed into what looks like a warehouse. The two closer to the door have a slit through which you can walk. Inside, there is an open space. The third, set toward the back, also has a cut through which you can enter. In this piece, however, you must walk down a cramped and winding passageway of curved wall before you finally come upon the open interior space.

Torqued Ellipses creates a space of unremitting anxiety. Like much of Serra’s earlier art, these particular objects appear at once heavy and unstable, as if they could fall and crush the body. Their geometry does not reassure: We sense a mathematical basis for the design, but one that lies beyond our ken. The three pieces also convey a sensation of barely contained movement, as if the tension in their “torque” might suddenly snap open the ellipse, sending the ribbon of heavy steel flying wildly outward. As you walk about, the walls of steel -- whose curvature is often unexpected -- unbalance your sense of what’s upright and vertical and standing. You may bump into the walls as you walk beside them. Serra also upends the conventions of inside and outside. The exteriors of these ellipses do not enfold an interior in a way that seems protective; the interiors, in turn, provide no sensation of refuge. Even the way Serra sites the three ellipses creates unease. They do not make a settled form together, as houses in a village do.

For all their differences, Irwin and Serra enliven great traditions. In the twentieth century, many artists before Serra have confronted the thrilling -- but also oppressive -- weight of industrial materials; they, too, have responded to the inhuman scales, frightening geometries, and spatial anxieties of modern existence. And many modern artists before Irwin have sought a way to escape this fearful imprisonment, suffusing geometry with light and recovering what the modern world forgets, obscures, or fails to see. The two shows should be seen together. Each strengthens the other by providing a sharp, abiding contrast.

According to the grapevine, not many people are visiting the exhibition of Augustin Pajou’s sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An oversight typical of our period. Pajou (1730-1809) is little known today, but that is not why he fails to attract a crowd: The work of a Serra or an Irwin is much easier for the contemporary eye to appreciate than that of a French sculptor of the Enlightenment who depicts the celebrated figures of his era in marble and terra-cotta busts. Viewers today typically consider busts academic, boring, deadly; in a museum, they are what you walk past on the way to the Impressionists. In fact, Pajou’s art sparkles with charm. Although the Met show includes important examples of his work in marble -- these are often public commissions, such as a profound portrayal of Pascal -- Pajou’s terra-cotta portraits are what particularly delight the eye. They seems as lively as sketches; in his hands, terra-cotta becomes the human clay. You can see the humor in the epigrammatic eyes of an aging librettist; the spirited intelligence in the set of a young woman’s head; the fleshy pride in the cheeks of an important bureaucrat. Francophiles in particular should not miss this show. These eighteenth-century people are alive. You can be a wit at their salon.


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