New York

Richard Serra

Leo Castelli Gallery / Pace Gallery

Richard Serra’s three new sculptures are no longer merely Minimalist, site-specific objects, articulating the artist’s familiar concern with space, weight, and measure. Nor are his eight new drawings merely a stylization of the sculptures’ expressivity, a literalization of their wall-like quality underscored by the absolute starkness that can come only from the contrast of black and white. Rather, what counts now is their message—the supposed socio-political import—and if we can’t read it, we are told it by an accompanying Serra poster, which states, with imperious declarativeness, such simplicities as “The American Flag is not an object of worship,” “No mandatory patriotism,” and the implicitly self-serving “The United States Government destroys art.” These and similar latently paranoid assertions—sort of antigovernmental commandments, loosely leftist in ideology—are presented as unquestionable truths rather than as debatable assumptions, and in an even more authoritarian style than that of the government they speak against.

On its first appearance in the ’60s, Serra’s art was interpreted in the usual “phenomenological” way that seemed appropriate to Minimalist objects: the sculpture, through its placement, materiality, and geometrical neutrality, engaged the spectator’s subliminal sense of bodiliness, making it explicit through his or her peripatetic interaction with the object. After one of the giant steel plates Serra typically uses fell on and killed a workman in Minneapolis in 1971, the notion of the inherent, rather than accidental, danger of his sculpture surfaced. The art world loves a little danger, and a lot is tantalizing; it suggests that art has an “impact” on the public. The threatening quality of Serra’s sculpture was at first understood to apply to architecture: his intimidating steel plates dominated, trivialized, and castrated the public spaces they inhabited, or else brought out their innocuousness. (I would argue that, in becoming the psychophysical centers of the spaces in which they were placed, Serra’s sculptures functioned in a totalitarian manner, for their militant, authoritative presence made the space submit to the object.)

But the full ideologization of Serra’s sculpture occurred with the government’s case against Serra’s Tilted Arc and its removal from a public space in New York. This event completed the reconceptualization of Serra’s sculpture as a critical statement and political act against the state. (Such a reconceptualization did not imply that Serra’s sculpture was in the service of society; in fact, it was those members of society who inhabited the government building that protested the work as inhuman, not the government itself.) Serra’s career was, in effect, reinvented by the controversy; it made his sculpture a grand social cause, rather than a narrow, formalist, intellectual activity. What had become a rather redundant, self-stereotyping formula was given a new lease on life by being ascribed a new intentionality. Artistically, only his Münster piece—Trunk, J. Conrad Schlaun Recomposed, 1987—signalled an advance, a new reciprocity with, rather than attempt to defeat, architecture. It also openly acknowledged a dependence upon architecture; Serra’s work usually asserts its independence from a given site in the process of vigorously “dealing” with it.

Yet Serra’s work has never changed in its essentials; what has changed is the character of the recognition of it. His sculpture ought to be recognized as the dinosaur it is. In an electronic age, it represents rust-belt industrialism; in an age eager for sociopolitical reconciliation—however cautiously pursued and fraught with setbacks—Serra’s confrontational mode is a hollow gesture of defiance. The current work betrays a nostalgia for the good old avant-garde days when art imagined it could change the world through its own danger. Today, a Serra sculpture is no more authentically critical of society than an automobile accident is a critique of a highway. Even the artist’s old Modernist stance of alienation today seems self-limiting and unnecessarily isolating. Serra’s integrity has become a cliché of self-identity.

Donald Kuspit