Solid and Fleeting

David Sylvester discusses Richard Serra’s sculpture at the Tate

It is interesting that Richard Serra, who is not short of offers of highly promising locations for which to make site-specific sculptures, accepted the Tate’s invitation to do something in their domineering central hall – a space ostensibly built for showing sculpture but serving that purpose rather badly, partly because it makes the things put into it look as if they were lost at the bottom of a well, partly because its huge Ionic columns dwarf other forms in the same field of vision. For that matter, it is interesting that Nicholas Serota has ignored the space’s bad reputation in restoring it to its original purpose and shape, this at some expense because of the need to strip away various accretions which had been added out of despair at the difficulty of showing sculpture there, as against certain kinds of painting – Picasso’s Meninas series, for example – that have looked quite good on the walls.

Its flaws as a setting for sculpture are the consequences of a single-minded pursuit by its main architect, John Russell Pope, of its underlying purpose, which was to provide a famous dealer in need of respectability, Lord Duveen, with a chance to display his munificence on a colossal scale. So the space seems designed to diminish any person or thing that enters it. Completed in 1937, it also has something of the bullying pomposity characteristic of official buildings erected in countries under totalitarian rule. Meanwhile at the British Museum Duveen was employing Pope to execute a takeover of our greatest artistic possession, or ward, the Parthenon Marbles. Before they could be installed in the house he had built for them the Luftwaffe mercifully destroyed it. Blindly the British Museum Trustees rebuilt it and in 1962 moved the sculptures in. Till then they had, of course, been one of the seven wonders of the world. Since then any pleasure still to be had from looking at them has been mixed with a good deal of pain.

There has been no blindness, though there has been risk, in Serota’s decision to put sculpture and only sculpture in Pope’s tripartite hall at the Tate, the South Duveen Gallery, the Octagon and the North Duveen Gallery. He has managed to choose and place and light various combinations of pieces from the permanent collection – and related borrowed items – in viable ways, works by Rodin and by Epstein especially. And he has initiated a highly interesting series of exhibitions ‘which demonstrate a sculptor’s response to the space’. Serra is the third sculptor invited to respond: his answer, Weight and Measure, will remain there until 15 January and will then be dismantled, doubtless for good.

The initial guest, Richard Long, followed his usual bent by focusing attention on the floor and so by-passed the problem normally posed by these galleries – that the space up above crushes sculptures and visitors alike. The three volumes were turned into three areas, thanks to the visual magnetism of three compositions which were not only beautiful in themselves and cleverly contrasted but related nicely to the shapes of their respective areas. The work was a triumph, but one achieved by slipping through Duveen’s gargantuan legs rather than by standing up to him. The next guest, Anthony Caro, took Duveen on. But Caro is an artist whose rich creativeness is not matched by his critical intelligence, and this has never been more evident than it was in his contest with Duveen. He appears in his naivety to have made two strategic errors: to be too easy-going; to be too greedy. He seems to have supposed that he could dump a selection of existing works in this rebarbative space and move them around till they looked all right; and he seems to have supposed that the way to handle an enormous space was simply to fill it up, possess it, stuff it. The consequence was that the sculptures got in one another’s way in the field of vision, so that a piece more than ten feet high and seventy-five feet long became invisible. Caro’s folly betrayed his own art and betrayed the Tate’s act of faith that the space could be redeemed.

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