Mighty oaks, as they say, grow from tiny acorns, but judging from “Richard Serra: Early Work,” the nut that germinated the famed sculptor’s career was a hefty one. David Zwirner’s museum-quality survey takes viewers back to the downtown scene of the late 1960s, when a gritty New York spawned many of the methods being used by contemporary artists around the globe.
Video, performance, installation, site-specific and process art were all part of a messy reaction against the slickness of Pop Art and Minimalism. Serra was in the thick of the action, but as this exhibition demonstrates, his audacity and single-minded vision set him apart almost immediately.
The latter might be described as a kind formal absolutism, which suffuses all of the sculptures here, though most of them are modestly sized compared with Serra’s more recent efforts. At a mere eight by ten inches, a 1967 drawing titled Verb List serves as the Rosetta stone of his artistic approach, offering a taxonomy of simple actions—to crease, to roll, to fold—that have more or less governed his output. Tantamount among these, arguably, is the dictate to impress.
Though Serra’s work has earned him the sobriquet “Man of Steel,” the front gallery shows his experiments with more malleable materials, such as lead, rubber fiberglass and neon tubing. Nonetheless, the four lead plates leaning against each other to form 1969’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards), as well as the 8-by-24-foot sheet of steel wedged into a corner of the second gallery, prove that from the start, Serra’s aim was to bend both gravity and space to his will. And yes, it’s still very impressive.—Howard Halle