Serra, Plain and Tall

New York

Left: Artist Elizabeth Murray. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian with artist Richard Serra. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

“Elizabeth Murray tells me that the only way to experience a Richard Serra is from a wheelchair—going thirty miles an hour!” said her husband, the indefatigable Bowery Poetry Club eminence Bob Holman. We chatted during the dinner for 550 artists and patrons attending the Museum of Modern Art’s decorous Tuesday-night preview of “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years.” This is the retrospective that the oft-criticized Yoshio Tanaguchi building was literally designed to show.

It was amusing to watch the other architects in attendance—Richard Meier, Richard Gluckman, and Rafael Viñoly, for starters—as they mingled in the hoi polloi territory patrolled by Rockefellers, Kravises, Cullmans, Shapiro-Gunds, Speyers, Lauders, Marrons, and others—such as Princess Firyal of Jordan. Bernard Arnault was present to inaugurate LVMH/Moët Hennesy Louis Vuitton’s first foray into New York arts sponsorship. (Serra’s Double Torus is permanently installed outside the company’s Paris headquarters.) Meier seemed unusually at a loss during cocktails outside the second-floor contemporary galleries, where Serra’s three new, seductive chocolate-colored arabesques of steel sit, redeeming the artist from vestiges of resentment caused by bad behaviors past.

Left: Artist Brice Marden with curator Joachim Pissarro. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: MoMA President Marie-Josée Kravis. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

Now sixty-seven, Serra himself seemed to have mellowed into sociability and, indeed, garrulousness, table-hopping between dinner courses, greeting pals Joan Jonas, Roni Horn, Anthony McCall, Barry Le Va, Robert Ryman, and Martin Puryear, shaking hands, and bussing cheeks like a politician greeting his constituents. I asked Brice Marden if, as a recent veteran of a MoMA retrospective, he had advice for Serra. “I’m still processing,” he replied, while Joachim Pissarro, with only days left before the end of his brief tenure at the museum, insisted that Marden was the most easygoing artist he had ever worked with on a major show. “Not that Richard has been difficult,” he added quickly. We all laughed.

At least, it wasn’t Serra himself who was problematic. Lifting a million-plus pounds of sculpture above teeming New York streets and gently setting them down inside a white-cube gallery without doing harm to either man or museum was a Herculean feat of engineering. (Serra’s chief rigger, Joe Vilardi, got some of the loudest applause of the evening—though not more enthusiastic than Serra’s pleasant and discerning wife, Clara, who was credited by just about everyone, including Serra, with just about everything to do with his career.)

How is it that these corporate occasions always generate the flattest humor? Outgoing board chair Robert Menschel did raise a few titters by calling Serra “a groundbreaking artist—literally.” MoMA president Marie-Josée Kravis, as enthusiastic a connoisseur as one could hope to find, reported asking Clara, “How can I say anything simple about a man who is so complex?” To which Mrs. Serra dryly replied, “You’re telling me!”

Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman with Manuel Gonzalez. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Seriously. At my table, which had a terrific mix of artists (Murray, Joel Shapiro, Vija Celmins, Keith Sonnier), critics (Roberta and Jerry), curators (Diego Cortez), and museum pros (Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds; MoMA exhibitions deputy Jennifer Russell and catalog editor David Frankel), everyone seemed faintly puzzled by the speeches. Glenn Lowry went on to tell Serra, “You force us to think, you challenge us, you provoke us,” without saying whether or not “us” included every other artist in the room. Isn’t “think, challenge, and provoke” part of the job description? For his big finish, Lowry boomed, “All I can say is, Richard, welcome home! It’s a home built for you.” He didn’t say that the museum has not offered permanent space to any of the sculptures on the floors it spent heaven knows how many millions reinforcing. That act of patronage belongs to Eli and Edythe Broad, who bought Serra’s magnificent Band for LACMA. (Of course, MoMA already owns the two “Torqued Ellipses” currently displacing the usual collection from its sculpture garden.)

The best lines of the night were actually Serra’s. “If you want to know why I did this show,” he said, “it was to see if I could make Kynaston McShine smile.” And he did—the usually dour curator kept breaking into a happy grin. Finally, the artist shared a few words of wisdom he keeps on a sign posted in his summer house on Cape Breton: “I love the weight I have to bear.”

With this simple measure of the profound to remember, many of us went home feeling—perhaps for the first time since this undistinguished building opened—that we had finally come to the right place.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Chuck Close and Veronica Hearst. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: LACMA director Michael Govan. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Charlie Rose and Amanda Burden. Right: Clara and Richard Serra. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)

Left: Curator Kynaston McShine. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Artist Roni Horn with dealer Barbara Gladstone. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)