Los Angeles

Richard Serra

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

Richard Serra’s piece, Sawing, was a bona fide sensation. It was made of twelve red and white fir logs, approximately four feet in diameter and 22 feet in length, sliced twice, each making two eight-foot and one six-foot segments. The total configuration is 36 pieces in three rows of twelve laid down close together with the central row elevated ten inches on a 20 ton concrete base. The whole layout is roughly diagonal across the rounded, white room, and is seen from floor level (although the artist requested some raised viewing platforms to be built).

The giant log sculpture is context art. It operates just as much by set-breaking (felled timber in the middle of a new “art” museum) as it does by being “sculpture.” It isn’t so much the piece itself, as it is the combination of the piece and the museum, that gives the tingle. So, in the long run, the piece depends on the museum, in its classical (as opposed to swinging) stance as much as do the soldiers of the Blue Four downstairs. (Strangely, It is the first work that makes sense in the PAM; more orthodox art, like color-field painting, looks terrible.) The context consideration isn’t reciprocal: Serra’s logs in the museum are more effective than would be little oil paintings hung on trees in the redwood forest.

Process art may yet save us from esthetic technocracy. Even though Serra’s log piece required an EAT-size capital outlay, a whopping crane, mission control and a ground crew, it has a sense of pure, primary, useless play about it. Although the practice of making modern art is recognized as being more or less a tough row to hoe, the requisite thick skin was thought to be on the inside, i.e., a shy, retiring type could get by if he were hard on himself. Art which has to be built on location with the aid of a museum director and a crew of hired hands, art which requires all the physical dedication of sandbagging a dike, but carries none of the immediate utilitarianism, demands an artist who is as good a straw boss as a sculptor. Serra’s pieces would have failed (they probably wouldn’t have been built) had he not been a “strong” personality.

The museum functions as a vagina, the invited artist as a penis. The museum, a pampered spinster by breeding, has discovered the thrill of getting herself roughed up in fleeting encounters with difficult artists. The excitement of the rendezvous is that the artist is encouraged to pursue his (esthetic) fancies to the full; the museum must assume any posture, bear any burden, suffer any inconvenience required of her; in fact, the more difficult the posture (outsized logs in a cul-de-sac), the greater the burden (tons of material), the more critical the inconvenience (demands of manpower), the greater the titillation. One does not have to be a dedicated Freudian to see the import of huge logs in one of the curved, pristine uterine chambers of the PAM. Indeed, one has to work pretty hard to fend it off.

––Peter Plagens