New York

Richard Serra

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

RICHARD SERRA HAS BEEN HEADLINED in recent years by both the New York Times and the New Yorker as a “Man of Steel,” and indeed, like Superman, he seems to be everything to everyone. The most eminent art historians have brilliantly analyzed his art; he enjoys major commercial success; his work is in demand at museums worldwide; and his thrilling, architecturally scaled curvilinear sculptures have at least for the past decade been enormously popular among general audiences. Few contemporary artists have succeeded so well on so many fronts. Why Serra? The Museum of Modern Art’s “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years,” which closed last month—and which, incidentally, made the New York museum’s new building look better than it ever has—afforded a welcome occasion to consider this question.

The show’s curators, Kynaston McShine and Lynne Cooke, mounted what were essentially two separate exhibitions: a retrospective of Serra’s 1960s post-Minimalist sculptures, famous for their simple operations on materials such as rubber and lead, which dominated the temporary exhibition galleries on the sixth floor, and an installation of three enormous interrelated torqued steel sculptures, all completed last year, that occupied the second-floor spaces for contemporary art. Forming a transition between these presentations of two distinct phases of Serra’s career were the last three galleries on the museum’s sixth floor, each of which contained one spare and powerful sculpture—Delineator, 1974–75, Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi, 1986, and Circuit II, 1972–86. Two additional pieces, Intersection II, 1992–93, and Torqued Elipse IV, 1998, were wedged uncomfortably and unsuccessfully into the museum’s Sculpture Garden.

With the exhibition arranged in this way, the artist’s middle period was marginalized—hidden, as it were, in plain sight—suggesting that the curators wished to draw a direct line from the historically significant post-Minimalist Serra of the ’60s to the fun-house Serra of recent years, thereby establishing a genealogy for the artist’s monumentalization of virtual space at the expense of other aspects of his practice. The works in the last of the sixth-floor galleries—especially Delineator, which consists of two massive steel plates orthogonal to each other, one lying on the floor and the other ominously attached to the ceiling—seemed an almost reluctant admission that there had once been a controversial and dangerous Serra too, one who barely featured in the rest of the exhibition, least of all in the torqued steel constructions on the second floor (which could as easily have been in a gallery show at Gagosian).

Many of Serra’s most insightful critics, including John Rajchman in the exhibition catalogue, Peter Eisenman, and Yve-Alain Bois, have called attention to the quasi-filmic quality of the architecturally scaled arcs, ellipses, and ribbons he has made since the ’80s, in which a viewer must circumnavigate a work in order to produce a composite image retrospectively by means of a mnemonic montage of different vantage points. While I agree with this interpretation, I think there is as much of cyberspace as there is of cinema in the artist’s recent sculptures: One’s sense of volume and physical orientation is manipulated through an infinite play of surface experienced at different speeds. Indeed, Serra’s sculptures frequently disorient viewers as their unfurling surfaces waver unexpectedly through subtle torque. In Sequence, 2006, for instance, a huge involuted and double-skinned figure eight, the viewer is doubly perplexed—first physically overwhelmed, almost to the point of losing her balance or experiencing nausea through the torque of curving walls, and, second, spatially confused about where in the galleries she will exit from her serpentine ambulation. (This disorientation persists even on repeated experience of the piece.) The intense physicality of these works is described in a comment Serra makes in the catalogue, speaking of Band, another of the 2006 works: “I wanted the speed of the skin to configure the volumes as you walk them.” While virtual space transforms a person’s phenomenological moorings through streams of digital information playing across a screen, the paradox of Serra’s torqued sculptures is that the effect of volume and motion—likewise produced by an endless succession of surfaces—is created with so much metal, making sensations associated with the light and nimble technologies of electronic miniaturization heavy and monumental.

The dynamism of these sculptures is not, however, entirely unrelated to the charged performance of suspended motion fundamental to Serra’s post-Minimalist works. I have always found the electric point of contact in Prop, 1968, between a rolled lead cylinder and the open lead sheet it pins against the wall, enormously affecting. This is a mode of composition beautifully described by Rosalind Krauss in a 1986 essay as “a perpetual climax, an end-point that continues, and continues, and continues.” Of course, part of the thrill of this work and of those (in the same gallery as Prop at MoMA) that exploit the structural logic of a house of cards by leaning large plates against one another in different configurations, often with a rolled lead cylinder holding them in place, is that they might fall and thus abruptly terminate the “perpetual climax.” For me, the great potential energy of these works was spoiled through their encapsulation at MoMA in tasteful transparent barriers. No doubt this was intended to reduce the museum’s legal liability, but the decision to insulate both the museum and its visitors from danger seems to capture something fundamental about our cultural moment. Shielding viewers from any sense of physical threat is in keeping with the Bush administration’s attempts to stage-manage our understanding of its vicious war in Iraq (even if this strategy is now at last unraveling) as well as, more broadly, the unprecedented asymmetry of sacrifice that the war has required—asking much of soldiers and virtually nothing but complacency from the rest of us. The wish to suppress everything threatening or oppressive is ultimately why, I believe, the middle period of Serra’s career was marginalized in this retrospective. There was no mention in the exhibition, and barely any in the catalogue, of the spirited debate over the virtues or lack thereof of Serra’s Tilted Arc, 1981, which ended in the work’s removal from Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1989 and which crystallized many of the aspects of Serra’s practice that were sidelined here. Despite the unparalleled opportunity MoMA offered by showing so many important works together, and the great interest of Serra’s early sculptures, this omission made the exhibition feel denatured.

In his catalogue essay, Rajchman implies that the essence of Serra’s recent work is an evocation of motion in both viewer and sculpture. “Serra’s sculptures are not objects we inspect but arrangements of space in which we move,” he writes. “The sorts of movement they release in us thus cannot be reduced to the act of looking at them. . . . [T]hey are constructed diagrams of spatial disposition and movement.” I find this description accurate and eloquent—and yet its implications are troubling to me. The forty years covered by this retrospective have seen the development of a wide range of art practices in which action is opposed to matter. Artists like Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer, for instance, have made highly distinguished careers by staging motion in a way that can also accurately be described as diagrammatic, in a variety of contexts ranging from movement and dance to sculpture, film, and video. Jonas’s outdoor performance pieces of the early ’70s in particular come to mind—Delay Delay, 1972, for example, not only established a long, low-angled sight line between an audience on the roof of a five-story loft building in downtown New York and performers in an adjacent ten-block area of leveled buildings and vacant lots next to the West Side Highway, but through the actions of the thirteen performers on the ground accomplished a kind of remapping of a desolated urban landscape slated for redevelopment. More recently, artists such as Christian Philipp Müller and Tacita Dean have made diagrammatic motion their medium, with, for example, Müller’s project of illegally crossing all of Austria’s borders, and Dean’s linking of camera vision to natural cycles such as that of the setting sun.

My intention here is not to scold MoMA for affording Serra honors that could have gone to others (though I do wonder why a similarly high-profile retrospective is not given to Jonas or Rainer), but rather to evaluate the ethical questions implicit in the formal choices an artist makes. Serra did not invent the notion of opposing action to matter, but he made it monumental. I think that his popularity with so many constituencies might be largely due to the transposition of what used to be called the dematerialization of art—and its modern-day counterpart, virtual cybernavigation—into the reassuringly traditional medium of sculpture on the one hand and the pleasures of entertainment on the other. This is why there is something conservative in the works on the second floor of the MoMA show. So much art since the ’60s (including a good deal inspired by Serra himself) has sought to signify more economically by capturing the force of existing structures of meaning through strategies of appropriation, détournement, body art, and so-called relational aesthetics—but without recourse to monumentality. The sheer mass of these sculptures and the resources they require no longer serve to demonstrate the nature of material—and social—encounters. In the smaller works of the ’60s, by contrast, the uneasy balance of the sculptural elements seems to embody the dangers and difficulties attendant on that period’s struggles to invent new models of collective being. The risk of collapse that accompanied this era’s utopian demands had not yet evaporated into the frisson of frictionless disorientation evident in the artist’s more recent work.

In celebrating Serra’s spectacular success, then, I think it is incumbent on us to consider the ethical dimension of his sculptures. It is probably crude but nonetheless important to acknowledge that a work like Sequence could only be made for an art market bloated with huge financial profits corresponding to ever-greater national and global inequality between rich and poor. It is an open question whether art should be held responsible for the conditions of its creation—whether, in other words, it is fair to criticize Serra for seizing his opportunity to make larger and more physically impressive works. Personally, I’m dismayed by their particular combination of jumbo scale and ingratiating effects, but I’m even more dismayed by the absence of careful and trenchant criticism of art’s role in our current hawkish Gilded Age. Serra’s work, in its complexity and seriousness, should provide an occasion to address this debate, rather than simply to anoint an art-world hero—our own “Man of Steel.”

David Joselit teaches modern art at Yale University in New Haven.