TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1986

VECTORS OF VIEWER RESPONSE

I CAME AWAY FROM Richard Serra’s show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art hoping he would do himself the favor of steering clear of the place during normal viewing hours. In a statement quoted in the museum’s press release the artist says, “My sculptures are not objects for the viewer to stop and stare at . . . I am interested in creating a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.” (My italics.) I didn’t like to imagine Serra seeing what I had seen: people giving his 11 intelligently distinct pieces the once-over with a mien of skeptical, uneasy boredom, as if wishing Tom Wolfe would come to their rescue. Plenty of visitors scan MoMA’s permanent collection as cursorily, but what struck me here was how little time people gave works whose differences in scale alone might have suggested changes of pace in their observation, if not also a range of possible meanings. Granted that the perceptual effects Serra stages are far more elusive than the materials and forms he uses, it was still disheartening to notice how strong the notion of a sculpture’s “face value” remains. Perhaps I was misreading the situation: I didn’t ask any strangers to explain themselves. But the important fact for me is that Serra’s work stirred my curiosity about what other people were seeing.

Most critics who argue for political content in Serra’s work stress what I take to be one of its primary sculptural qualities, its physical intrusiveness. Two major pieces in the Modern show, Circuit, 1972, and Two Corner Curve, 1986, had explicitly the quality of being inserted, bladelike, into existing circumstances. But when I say that the work’s imposition on given spaces and structures is one of its key sculptural qualities, I have in mind the fact that sculpture, so much more emphatically than painting, joins us in the world of solid bodies. Nearly every decision Serra makes about material, scale, and the disposition of his work’s parts awakens one’s normally dormant sense of being oneself, in Marsilio Ficino’s words, "a limb of the world:’ bound and bounded by specific weights, measures, resistances, forces, and dangers. There were points in the show at which the sheer tonnage, abstractness, and stasis of Serra’s pieces gave an almost surrealistic warp to my view of other people: my fellow spectators and I would come into focus as mere accessories to the artist’s will to reject and invert sculpture’s ancient representational paralysis of the human body.

Can contempt for anthropomorphism in sculpture be an intellectual symptom of misanthropy? There is no answering such a question responsibly, but there’s no ignoring it either, once it comes up: it is simply part of the “ring” of Serra’s sculpture. What brings it up is the feeling you get sometimes from the work that you have been made an accessory to it, have been conscripted unwittingly into fulfilling Serra’s activist critical agenda for his art. Circuit, for example, drawing its visitors one at a time into the central meter-square clearing from which its four standing steel plates radiate to the corners of the room, forces the viewer at its vacant core to become a cynosure of attention from others. In this position one feels outflanked no matter which way one turns. Yet the sensation of entrapment is not inflicted gratuitously The work has serious intellectual purposes. I believe it to be the sculptural and philosophical antithesis of Alberto Giacometti’s famous City Square, 1948, which stylizes social alienation as an existential condition. The catalogue recounts Serra’s fascination with Giacometti during the time when they both lived in Paris, which was news to me.

In City Square, a number of Giacometti’s figures lope upon a plane of bronze along paths that cross but imply no meeting. The figures’ strangeness to each other is signified by an illusion of optical remoteness that makes them look undifferentiated to us; we seem to see the very ripple of their flesh, yet know nothing of them but what is suggested by their configuration in the square. Giacometti undermines the false promise of knowledge implicit in sculptural imagery by means of the illusion that his figures’ identities are beyond the grasp of representation. Contrary to the conventional view of his art, City Square is ironically reassuring. To identify with the symbolic figures in the work is to think of oneself as withdrawn from others in one’s very nature, despite the body’s objectivity, and only contingently accessible to their understanding, a lonely but almost unassailable transcendence of body and behavior by selfhood.

By Serra’s lights, on the other hand, embodiment is a condition of our visibility to each other’s gaze, a condition of reciprocal exposure to which we try to accommodate by fixation upon our own individual body and demeanor as a shell or smoke screen for fending off the gaze and the understanding of others. We are exposed not only in the sense of being always visible, but also because we cannot control the play of circumstances that gives our actions meaning in the eyes of others. Representations of the body in sculpture—Giacometti’s included—are anathema to Serra because, whatever their thematic pretext, they fuel our fixation upon the body’s opacity, further reifying imaginative dichotomies of mind and body, subject and object, projection and introjection: a whole proprietary psychology about which we know too much to defend without bad faith or naivete. The bad faith that keeps these dichotomies intact is what keeps the facts of power and class from being acknowledged and acted upon critically, which is why Serra’s artistic exploration of dualistic views of experience is implicitly political even when his work is at its most formalistic.

Serra’s sculpture reminds us that there are both social and experiential grounds for the dualism of mind and body There are compelling social pressures—easily felt on a city street—to wear the body as a mask, and there are contexts, constructed by memory, imagination, and inward speech, that the body seems unable to inhabit. The implications of Serra’s art are that there are various ways to become responsible for the ever shifting relations of mind and body, and that trying to be responsible for their disunity is a way to unite them. To take up an attitude on this point consciously is to choose the sort of world one would like to establish, for one’s way of managing relations of mind and body reverberates throughout one’s life.

Circuit contradicts explicitly the central idea in Giacometti’s City Square. The idea, again, is that modem history has deepened the rifts between individual mind and body and between persons, to the point where even the charade of pretending to be someone others can know has become a vanity because nobody will catch the details of one’s performance. For Giacometti, representation, if with minimal verisimilitude, remains practicable as a means to put across this viewpoint. His work continues to assert that relations with oneself and others can, even must, be negotiated in the terms subliminally affirmed by representational sculpture, though it envisions this need as increasingly defeated by modern life.

What corresponds in Circuit to the ground plane of City Square is not the floor of the room but the awareness of being exposed to one another’s gaze that people who enter the piece together come quickly to share. Serra, however, has an idea of human visibility very different from Giacometti’s, an idea not susceptible to representation. Circuit is a device for making that idea understood. Standing in its central space arouses feelings of defenselessness so intense that the viewer is compelled to step for relief into one of the four triangular bays formed by the plates and the walls of the room. With one’s back to a wall, one can watch others enter the central space, aware of how acutely they will feel the pressure of one’s gaze. The sensation of being unguarded on every side, which is intense at the center of the work, is an assault upon the vanity of our feeling that we govern the figure we cut in the eyes of the world. No matter how deliberately we may control our demeanor, Circuit tells us, there will be perspectives from which it takes on aspects we cannot foresee or direct. Our rage to represent our inwardness to others in order to reify it is futile because mutual exposure creates the field of interpretability that governs all our actions, self-conscious or not. It is not scarcity of meaning we suffer from, but the inescapability of it.

Incidentally, the illusionistic paradox of nearness and distance so typical of Giacometti’s figures has its parallel in Circuit as well. The viewer seems never to get closer to the four tall steel plates than when standing at the room’s center and looking directly at their vertical edges. It is as if those edges were the only frontal views the sculpture holds. Standing in the triangular bays, one can get no view of a plate that comprehends it as completely as the edge-on view does. Each plate, when one faces it broadside, shifts continually to and fro between looking like an object, an end point of attention, and looking like a barrier which thwarts curiosity as to its other side, and the rest of the work. The scale of the plates and spaces is such that no broadside view delivers a whole object. Only the edge views bring the plates close perceptually, that is, as gestalts.

“Body and soul,” says José Ortega y Gasset, “are two intellectual constructions of mine, two hypotheses, two theories which I have made or have received from others in order to clarify for myself certain problems which my life possesses for me.”1 And the key achievement of Serra’s art, as I read it, is to have undone Western sculpture’s idolatrous fixation, from the classical period on, upon the body, its urge to represent the body, its blindness to the body as a “hypothesis,” a “theory,” whose value lies in its modifiability The MoMA show inevitably compromised this aspect of the work (though not as badly as I had feared it might). For example, the two lead-plate “prop” pieces, One Ton Prop (House of Cards) and 1-1-1-1, were blunted in their effect by being roped off (no doubt at the behest of MoMA’s lawyers, and probably of Serra’s as well). The formal intelligence of these works is easily seen even in photographs, but it cannot be felt unless the viewer is able to taste the physical danger presented by the possibility of their collapse.

No one has explained the formal significance of these prop pieces of 1969 better than former Artforum editor Philip Leider in his review of the showat the Castelli Warehouse, New York, in which they were first seen. He wrote,

They deal with issues forced into sculpture mainly by the work of Carl Andre: the limitation of materials, structural consistency, the explicit acknowledgment of gravity, clarity of the interrelations between artist and material. Within the limits of this kind of literalism, the elements of a sculpture cannot simply renounce their floor-bound nature and commence piling, tacking or welding themselves up into a gravity-defying abstraction. When the elements of a sculpture come off the floor they must do so in a structurally convincing manner, and each element earns its place in the work by serving an indispensible structural function. And even though the structural logic of each piece is as plain and as satisfying as can be, there is no point . . . at which we are allowed to forget that the issue is still one of coming off the floor.2

The issue may no longer be alive to many sculptors today, but Serra’s MoMA show was a catalogue of resourceful means to keep metal plates vertical—poised stacking, propping, bending, the thickening of elements to enable them to stand on edge.

This formal significance of the prop pieces, artifacts of a time of extraordinary intellectual focus in the New York art world, was intact at the Modern. The works commemorated Serra’s brilliant “reconstruction” of sculpture on the rock-bottom antiillusionist logic of Andre’s arrays of metal plates (some of which were lead). But the ropes that made them safe for mass viewing both crowded them spatially and removed their sense of the physical, sapping their capacity to charge space with the energy of their potential collapse. By their gravity-bound structure, the prop pieces stand in real time and assert the identity in time between their physical integrity and their meaning as art. Were they to fall, as they constantly threaten to do, they would revert to being raw material, for their structural logic would collapse with them. The ropes had the odd effect of setting the sculptures back in time as well as in space, rendering their meaning rhetorical rather than immediate. The nonformalist significance of the prop pieces suffered, then, in their presentation at the Modern. Framed and tamed by the turnbuckled ropes, which gave an unwanted emphasis to a formal reading of the work, the sculptures were made to seem like abstract idols, when in fact they are physically immediate symbols of the interdependence of body and consciousness.

In the context of late-’60s art in New York, Serra’s sculpture could not but be seen as responding to a philosophical issue manifest in the works of such artists as Andre, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. The issue was that of the analogous relations that might be drawn between an art object and its meaning, on the one hand, and the spectator’s body and consciousness on the other. The question whether such an analogy could be made, or whether it might not be inherent in the very conventions of viewing art, was inherited from the Abstract Expressionist decade. Action painting aligned the artist’s subjective energy, which produced it, and the subjective energy it would subsequently produce in the viewer. The encounter of the viewer with a painting was to reconcile his or her subjectivity with the artist’s imprinted in the work, regardless of the time that came between them. Artists of a later generation were unable to believe in any such metaphysical symmetry. Ostensibly contentless objects produced by Andre, Judd, Morris, Flavin, and others were, among other things, so many attempts to lodge the art object fully in the present moment, so that its meaning could not be abstracted by concepts of timeless universals. Serra’s prop pieces were the first contemporary sculptures that completely identified the structure of the art object with its temporal meaning. The verticality of the prop works is analogous to the viewer’s own upright posture, or, rather, to the immanence of the powers that sustain it. The physical perception of the work’s danger to oneself is one’s experience of this immanence.3 Not only did the ropes interfere with this experience, I suspect they may also have kept people from sensing the justification for the element of physical menace in the prop pieces. I could not help but wonder whether the ropes were part of the cost to his work that Serra decided to pay for the leverage a show at MoMA and an accompanying book might offer him in the controversy over his Tilted Arc, 1981, in New York, the work currently threatened with relocation to another site.

A dim intuition of the prop pieces’ true physical effect could be had in the gallery at MoMA given over to Delineator II, 1974–86, in which a large steel plate hung, not visibly fastened, flush with the ceiling. Another plate of identical dimensions, rotated 90 degrees, lay on the floor below To walk under the suspended plate was to experience time as intensifying pressure, as a process of waiting to be crushed by the Damoclean plate overhead. Apocalyptic overtones notwithstanding, the piece was a dramatic statement of the nonequivalence of floor and ceiling, a means of making a visceral, immediate reference to the earth as source of gravity To place oneself atop the floor plate and beneath the ceiling plate was to feel mind and body forcibly unified by physical fear. That position of maximum risk—which few visitors I observed were willing to assume—also held a key intimation of Serra’s sculpture, namely that concepts of mind and body are “separated” by different perspectives on time. Under the pressure of standing between the plates of Delineator, one could intuit that the true vantage of the mind is an inchoate fiction of the near future, an anticipation of the future sufficiently involving that the mind is absorbed in it, while the body is absorbed in the present. In other words, the two “hypotheses” of body and mind correspond to different ways of using or suffering time.

Two Corner Curve, an installation designed for the MoMA show, was, among other things, a device for inhabiting consciously the peculiar experiential interval across which the body looks ahead to the future while the projective mind looks back at the present. These two perceptual prejudices were set back to back in the piece as different rates of passage in one’s close viewing of the sculpture’s opposite sides. I think some of Serra’s best work is devoted to prising apart this metaphysical interval. Two Corner Curve was a wall of curving vertical steel plates, set in an arc wedged at one end against a column attached to the side wall of the gallery and at the other against a similar column in the diagonally opposite corner of the room. On its convex side, it looked like the wall of a great vat, or, as one changed position, it might shift in aspect to appear under tension, like a giant saw bent forcibly into a bow shape. Walking this convex side, I seemed to see it expand with the energy of my own forward motion. At the corner of my eye, the steel surface appeared to speed by, yet the arc seemed always to be stretching the measure of the material in front of me, lengthening the distance and time between any given point on the surface and another.

To reach the far side of Two Corner Curve it was necessary to pass through adjoining galleries, and the sense of postponed perceptions became more vivid as two other pieces, Equal Parallel and Right Angle Elevations, 1973–83, and Delineator, intervened between views of the convex and concave faces. These two sculptures were complex enough to make the viewer passing by them forget having wondered what lay on the far side of Two Corner Curve. Rounding the corner past Delineator brought a shock of recall and obviousness when it revealed the concave face of Two Corner Curve, proving that one had nearly walked a circle without realizing it. The piece took to a startling extreme the idea of positioning or structuring a sculpture so as to postpone presentation of its disparate views. And whereas its convex face made it look larger than the space available for it, the concave side had just the opposite aspect. Walking its curve, I had the sensation of it flowing toward my eye, of cheating time and distance by being able to see what was coming before I reached it. The convex side favored the perceptual bias of the body and the concave side that of the mind. Better than any of Serra’s works that I’ve seen, Two Corner Curve offered an account of the disjunction between mind and body as a schism between two orders of continuity.

Severance was announced as one of Serra’s thematic operations by the placement of Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure, 1969, at the top of the show This was a good move in intellectual terms, but an error of stagecraft, for Cutting Device, which MoMA owns, is a work that must be reexecuted each time it is shown if it is not to collapse into being a “device,” a mere emblem of Serra’s attitudes. The work comprises lead, steel, marble, and wood pieces cut through by a circular saw, and the trouble is that these cuts were made in 1969, when the piece was executed for Serra’s unforgettable New York debut at the Castelli Warehouse gallery. It was one thing to encounter the piece there, where it was also one’s introduction to Serra’s work, with sawdust and metal filings underfoot, and quite another to see it all dusted up, and buoyed visually by the Modern’s decorative marble floor.

The prominence of Cutting Device in the show is significant because in its translation from where and when it was made to the Modern’s marble floor, it suffered a disrespect similar to that threatening Tilted Arc now that that piece is slated for relocation. This was particularly ironic since the controversy over Tilted Arc formed a kind of subliminal subtext for the show, a subtext that came into the open in photographs of Tilted Arc on the wall of the entry gallery, and in the show’s catalogue, which seems to have been made available to Serra for a defense of the piece. (Somewhat unspecifically, William Rubin, the Museum’s director of painting and sculpture, remarks in his preface that “we felt it appropriate that the artist’s position on [the fate of Tilted Arc] should be represented in the catalog in the way he personally deemed most effective.”) And the catalogue’s cover photograph is of Tilted Arc, stressing the defiant quality of Serra’s work. The photo, by Susan Swider, is an aerial shot of the sculpture in which it appears as a broad black stroke across the plaza’s mosaic, almost like a swipe of graffiti, or like the sort of black stripe used to mask the identity of someone in a picture. Veering diagonally across the whole cover, the sculpture as it appears in Swider’s photo looks as if it might have dictated the book’s unconventional dimensions (the catalogue measures three inches wider than it is high). It is as though the cover photo is intended to lock Tilted Arc in its rightful place in the public’s consciousness, now that the decision has been made to relocate it in the world (though at this writing no further action has been taken). Perhaps coincidentally, the Arc in the cover photo separates Serra’s name from the museum’s.

Although purportedly designed and positioned so as to interfere as little as possible with pedestrian traffic, Tilted Arc has a decided effect on the experience of anyone walking Lower Manhattan’s Federal Plaza: there is no ignoring it. Its convex and concave faces give rise to very different feelings depending on one’s proximity to the sculpture, on one’s destination, the time of day, the weather, the number of people nearby. Relative both to the flow of foot traffic and, so to speak, to the flow of time—the projection of human intentions—across the plaza, Tilted Arc acts like a stick dipped into water that appears to be still but is actually a smoothly moving current: it reveals pressures that might otherwise not be seen or felt. In a catalogue essay to whose “rhetorical tone and historical polemic” Rubin appears to object in his preface, Douglas Crimp argues in effect that Tilted Arc interrupts and exposes the normally unnoticed flow of power across a federal-government site, where considerations of security and traffic (read: crowd) control are paramount. The testimony he cites from hearings on the General Services Administration’s proposed relocation of the work—which Serra reasonably equates with its destruction, since site specificity is a large part of its meaning—shows that the plaza is a kind of tabula rasa upon which all parties involved have projected their interests. By dividing the formerly uninterrupted space, Serra’s piece has turned the plaza into a complex theater of esthetic, legal, and social conflicts, pointing up differences of opinion within many constituencies.

My own guess is that, by the way it blots out building entrances visually from certain vantage points, Tilted Arc may remind some who staff the bureaucracies within those buildings of their own wish never to have to return to the captivity of office work. The obstacle it poses, in imagination if not in fact, reveals the coercive force of habit that underlay the plaza-users’ previous comings and goings. If I’m right about this, it is easy to understand how people might make Tilted Arc the target of their resentment, since they may well stand more chance of dislodging it than of changing their working lives for the better. Notwithstanding the reading I’ve just given the work, it must be said that Tilted Arc is “ugly” in spirit. Despite its scale, it is ungenerous, and wears too much the air of unrelenting authority that it purports to counterpoise and criticize. There is no hint in the positive readings that have been made of the work, or in the work itself, of compassion for those whose lives it touches. When noninitiates dismiss the work as “ugly,” they may just be using what sounds like an esthetic slur word to express a sensitive perception of the work’s temper. As political action, Tilted Arc is monumentally indirect, and in this respect pretentious, as most of Serra’s work is not. This was true, anyway, until controversy over the piece made its content explicit in the words of those who spoke both for and against it. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that a committee appointed by the General Services Administration could have agreed to permanent installation of what is so obviously a monument to the refusal to be accommodating. It seems to me that Tilted Arc can be “enjoyed” only by those sympathetic to its critical impetus. The feeling is inescapable that the sculpture is a symbol of the artist’s pleasure at fancying himself interfering with bureaucracy in its own front yard.

Wandering back and forth through Serra’s show, I kept thinking of Michael Fried’s famous rejection of Minimal sculpture on the grounds of its “theatricality” Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” essay was published in 1967, before Serra broke upon the New York scene, but it is likely he would have leveled against Serra’s work the same criticisms he made of what he called “literalist” art, by which he meant what most people called Minimalism. Fried’s notion was that Minimal sculpture, holding no clue to how much looking is enough to arrive at its meaning, forces its viewers to stylize their own activities of observation in order to give them a shape, a trajectory or a closure which ordinary vagrant perception lacks. In Fried’s view, it is the artist’s transfiguration of raw materials that makes experiences of “art” differentiable from other moments of awareness. The given material must be transformed so as to elevate it above its normal condition of prosaic quiddity The mark of that transfiguration is an antitheatrical experience of time, an experience of the art object as fully manifest at every moment, enabling us to distinguish the fullness of the artwork from the mere inexhaustibility of the material world. Upon that differentiation are founded all the other discriminations of value that we might use art to elucidate. The trans-figurative achievement of art, particularly in sculpture, sustains the sense of a work’s esthetic withdrawal from the flow of time, a sort of levitation above the hugger-mugger of history, best exemplified by the balletic abstractions Anthony Caro was making in the late ’60s.

In contrast to art such as Caro’s sculpture, “literalist” art such as Morris’, Andre’s, and, by implication, Serra’s merely details and intensifies its viewer’s feeling of the impossibility of transcending the conditions that structure and set limits on experience and understanding. But then the aim of such work is to make explicit the processes through which art takes on meaning, not to suppress them by shifting observation and thought into an idealist idiom, as Fried attempted to do. Never mind that today every art student thinks he or she knows six ways to discredit Fried’s formalism, theatricality in the Friedian sense is just what many of the visitors to Serra’s MoMA show appeared to be rejecting in the work. That is, few of them seemed to accept the work’s invitation to look patiently enough to discover their own consciousness of time as a factor in the sculpture’s coherence. I think that where Fried proposed as antitheatrical a moment of obliviousness to the reality we share with art objects and the rest of the observable world, Serra wants us to experience time as the metaphysical texture of relations, both social and material, that our own actions sustain, or fail to sustain, though in ways we can never determine precisely In other words, he wants us to experience time as history, as a vast web of forces in tension which has us in its grasp as long as we are alive, and which we can grasp only to the extent that we can formulate our own vantage point within it and act upon that. To look thoughtfully at Serra’s sculpture is to rehearse that effort in some degree.

In the process of slicing up the spaces in MoMA’s galleries, Serra repeatedly repositioned the tacit dividing line between his constructive activity and the viewer’s. That process itself is the theme of Equal Parallel and Right Angle Elevations, a constellation of massive steel slabs positioned so that shifts in one’s vantage point appear to change the dimensions and relations of the objects present. In this piece it is easy to be misled by the massive materiality of the work’s elements, which function partly as a diversion, encouraging the assumption that the meaning of the piece lies in its bulk rather than in the observation of how dramatically shifts in perception alter its aspects. Yet Equal Parallel and Right Angle Elevations actually embodies the most radical idea broached by Minimal sculpture and clarified in Serra’s work, the idea, first articulated by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, that things are composed of relations no less fundamentally than is our consciousness of them. We may have chosen or been educated to live by the belief that things are pragmatically rock-solid entities, but it is possible to resuscitate a consciousness of this belief as a choice, and that is what Serra’s sculpture enables us to do. Equal Parallel and Right Angle Elevations and Delineator are two works in which relations dependent on our activity as observers are brought to a level of intensity and explicitness equal to that of the objects’ physical presence.

Since 1969, Serra has unfolded the kinds of changes that shifts in physical vantage point can bring about in sculpture. And he has played those changes off against variations in material, scale, and siting. For viewers, his sculptures are devices both for setting perceptual changes in motion and for keeping track of them. The subtleties of his work are often so difficult to articulate that they provoke the desire for intellectual company They provoke this desire in another way by enriching one’s sense of one’s own responsibility for the appearances the world presents. The sculpture can arouse in its viewers the same kind of curiosity I felt about what other people were observing or failing to notice as they moved through the MoMA show—the curiosity I associate with effective political art. Such curiosity is “political” in the sense that it is the opposite of an ideological regard for oneself and other people, which is what politicians of every stripe seek to impose. And this curiosity does not concern the character of objects so much as another’s style of delineating perceptions, of choosing and marking out in language or movement the still points around which ambiguities and uncertainties may revolve. In other words, it is curiosity about other people’s styles of “worldmaking” that the experience of Serra’s sculptures stirs, to borrow a word from Nelson Goodman for purposes he might not approve. That is what sets them apart both from mere raw material and from the commodity claptrap of everyday life and of most conventional works of art.

After looking hard at Serra’s work, I came to wonder how much of the dualism of mind and body is really a physical intuition of being unable to speak or move freely, whether that unfreedom is just a matter of inhibition or of real threats to one’s liberty and safety Serra’s sculpture positions us philosophically to pose that question; it is almost the only contemporary art that does. Crimp argues in his catalogue essay that the confrontational qualities of Serra’s public projects qualify them as “political” art, but it is the kind of curiosity his art can arouse in less confrontational circumstances that poses a real threat to the status quo. When Crimp concludes by saying that Serra’s public works disclose that “true specificity of the site . . . is always a political specificity,” I think he belittles the work. For what marks the success of Serra’s work as sculpture is that it reveals the dimension of real space we forget most easily, its being a field of interpretability in which actions, objects, and events condition each other unpredictably To be awake to that fact is to be willing to imagine just how different someone else’s vantage point may be from one’s own, and to have to decide how to tolerate and negotiate those differences. Fixation on the confrontational is one way of not being awake to this aspect of the world, and Serra himself seems susceptible to it. Throughout this discussion of Serra’s art, I have shuttled between formalist and antiformalist readings of the work for two reasons. First, and rather ironically, I think the work invites formal appreciation in order to make explicit the kinds of facts about the world that formalism as a critical method was intended to repress. And second, I think it is often necessary to shift focus to the formal integrity of Serra’s work to keep from being caught up in its great weakness: its sublimation of fantasies of power into the heroic qualities of heavy metal sculpture. Serra himself seems torn between the intimate and the overbearing aspects of his work. The manifestation of that conflict in his sculpture makes it hard to take at times. But confronting the sculpture is a lesson in distinguishing the springs of action in ourselves from the fact of our powerlessness.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. His Minimalism will he published by Abbeville Press, New York, in the fall of 1987.

1. José Ortega y Gasset, Some Lessons in Metaphysics, trans. Mildred Adams, New YorK: W. W. Norton, 1959, p. 51.

2. Philip Leider, review reprinted in Amy Baker Sandback. ed., Looking Critically: 21 Years of Artforum Magazine, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984, p. 295.

3. On the other hand, nobody wants to suffer the injury with which these works threaten us. The value of the danger they pose is to banish the merely rhetorical responses that normally reassure us that art will not really impinge upon our lives. The physical threat of the prop pieces reveals our own unexamined impulses to keep art at a safe distance from life.

In 1971 a construction worker in Minneapolis was killed by a falling steel plate in the process of installing a large work by Serra. The artist was not present at the time. Such accidents are not unknown in construction work. But because of the circumstances. this one came hr symbolize, for some of Serra’s critics, an ambltion that might blind him to considerations of the viewer’s safety. In fact, those of Serra’s public works that have a look of precarious instability, like the steel piece at MoMA Five Plates. Two Poles, 1971, are carefully stabilized. To my knowledge, no spectator has ever been injured as a result of viewing Serra’s work.