"Titan of sculpture," we’re told, comparable to -- no, greater than -- Michelangelo. Mentored by Jasper Johns, implying a "Greek hero-and-mentor myth," goes the story, suggesting the passing of the baton of avant-garde greatness from the older to the younger generation. (Serra is now 67; thus the truth of Adorno’s wry view of the avant-garde as "aging youth.") Installing the works for the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition, he "looked a bit like a druid" in his "heavy olive-green coat with a hood pulled down over his head," implying that he’s a high priest in the mystery religion of abstract art.
A clearly "dominating, master-of-all details personality," Serra is supposed to be the greatest thing to hit sculpture since -- well, I already said Michelangelo, so how about the builders of the pyramids? They too are pompously Minimalist, their huge stones fitted together without mortar (like those of Machu Picchu, another favorite comparison of Serra fans) the way Serra’s metal plates are held together by their own weight and careful placement, and thus in no need of binding solder. They too function as monumental architecture as well as autonomous sculpture. Both are self-contained yet inhabitable. People can move through Serra’s curved sculptures, enveloped by them if not exactly interacting with them -- in the aftermath of the Tilted Arc disaster, Serra said "art is not for the people," but his giant sculptures seem grudgingly to acknowledge them -- as the huge pyramids house the bodies of dead people (Pharaohs, more pretentious and presumptuous than the masses who visit the Serra exhibition).
Both ancient pyramids and abstract sculptures have an indisputable givenness and Pharaonic presence: they take their own sacredness and absoluteness for granted. They lay claim to the timeless. But after the exhibition Serra’s sculptures will be dismantled and removed from the museum site, while the pyramids are permanently in place in the timeless desert, and however nibbled upon by time and predators, look down on both with condescending indifference. The pyramids convey infinity and eternity, and seem to concentrate them in their material density and closed form. They hold their own against the open space of the desert. But Serra’s sculptures only point to their own finite space and measurements, and the finite space and measurements of the museum. And to their own oddly incomplete look; for, unlike the pyramids, they do not ascend to a climactic apex. This gives them a certain uncanniness and poignancy, but makes them seem less consummate and consequential -- perfect and purposive -- than the pyramids (and for that matter than Michelangelo’s figures; even when they seem unfinished they convey an inner glory independent of the facile glory conferred by size and bulk.)
Nonetheless, Serra’s sculptures lay claim to a similar haughty transcendence -- and will sustain it as long as they last, but they will survive only in the catalogue of the exhibition. Like every catalogue, it is a spur to memory, giving shadowy life to the art it analyzes and idolizes. (But then the theory-babble seems more memorable than the sculptures.) Serra’s sculptures are not exactly among the wonders of the world -- although they are among the wonders of modern art by reason of their "cosmic" scale (such scale confers status, even if it often functions to hype a small idea) -- but give them time.
Like the pyramids, Serra’s sculptures dominate and intimidate the spectator by reason of their enormous size and edgy simplicity. They spread in space, sucking it up like a vacuum cleaner, even as they hunker in on themselves. Their curves are tightly controlled, and control the movement of the viewer who ventures into their confines. Like the pyramids, the sculptures have a "no exit" look, and when one does exit from them one breathes a sigh of relief from the monotony and barrenness of the slickly rusted surface -- how does one get rust to look slick? -- and the mindlessness implicit in the hollow space. For Serra’s sculptures are empty -- titanic shells, if one wants to think of them as Titans -- one-dimensional giants, powerful but limited, as the elemental always is. Do Serra’s sculptures signify anything more than the will to power, its rawness clothed in nominally esthetic form? Outer presence counteracts inner absence, suggesting flawed power -- power with no inner reserve and core. Stability and instability are at odds -- the equilibrium of the sculptures looks precarious -- suggesting an imminent collapse (not to say artificed danger). Let us also recall that the Titanic sunk despite its state-of-the-art construction.
Serra constructs a rounded shape -- a pure form -- of broad flat planes. But the result is a sort of reified Constructivism and second-hand Purism. Serra’s architecture-like constructivist sculpture is a decadent, unwittingly ironical reprise of Le Corbusier’s hyper-rationalist "machine for living." But it is less livable -- and esthetically satisfying -- than the purist Villa Savoye. It is worth noting that long before Serra, Le Corbusier turned to the curve, thinking he had exhausted the compositional possibilities of the straight line. He also wanted a somewhat less mechanical looking and more organic -- dare one say feminine? -- construction. Serra also seems to, but the results are hardly as elegant and intricate as the roof of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp church. Serra is also a tired re-run of the "artist-engineer" of Russian Constructivist fame. He has worked in steel mills, and is said to enjoy the company of hard hats. Thus the artist-capitalist -- for Serra’s works cost a small fortune to fabricate and install -- as pretentiously proletarian. There is no question that the works are exquisitely executed -- their execution is a theatrical ritual in itself -- but the hard work is done by machines, not by Serra, who directs the performance and designed the sculptures, which have the look of props on a bleak stage set.
Today the older and smaller works in the MoMA exhibition seem like preparations for the large new works, however conspicuously different their handling and form, and the general feel of their material. But they have the same aura of arrogance and authority -- the same pseudo-gravitas afforded by "weightiness" and mass. Geometry has become authoritarian in the new sculptures. They may be major Minimalist works -- Serra is a Minimalist who maximalizes the minimal, as it were (even if Minimalism looks like a minor art in the context of the museum-without-walls that art history has become, where many works achieve maximal effect by reason of their intrinsic value and not because of large size) -- but his "majorness" has much to do with his inflation of geometry, which denudes sculpture (and architecture) of human significance. His tyrannical geometry forces the spectator into passive insignificance, however much the activity of moving through a sculpture gives him or her the illusion of being a "participant observer" or its co-creator, if to participate means being overwhelmed and trivialized.
The point is made clear by Serra’s response to Francesco Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638-39) in Rome, apparently his point of departure. By his own testimony, Serra responded to its geometrical center, an intricate "hybrid of a Greek cross and oval." He is completely indifferent to the religious meaning embodied by the church, and with that to the spiritual symbolism involved in its geometry. (And its human scale; the human figure remains the classical measure of Borromini’s Baroque structure, as it does not in Serra’s pseudo-Baroque structures.) Serra’s sculptures acknowledge the church’s famous serpentine facade, but they are blind to its nature as sacred ornament and generative flux. Borromini’s facade has become a Potemkin facade in Serra’s hands. It is no longer alive and thriving and lyrical, but a sort of coiled snake that has lost its glorious skin, and no longer has the vital power needed to spontaneously grow a new one. Borromini’s church has sacred meaning, human value, and seductive eloquence; Serra’s sculpture shows a superficial understanding of its dynamic geometry. Serra has not only lost the spirit of Borromini’s facade and structure, but its esthetic excitement and energizing intricacy.
Similarly, if one compares Serra’s sculptural-architectural constructions to Vladimir Tatlin’s model of his proposed Monument to the Third International (1919-20), celebrating the proletarian Russian Revolution and the new religion of Communism, one sees that Serra’s constructions lack social and political import. They are mausoleums of pure art, without the imaginative and psychosocial depth and expressive complexity of the best traditional and early avant-garde art. They are abstract art in a geometrical dead-end: spiritually bankrupt abstraction, abstraction as empty grandeur, smugly self-satisfied and arrogantly self-deluded abstraction.
"Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years," June 3-Sept. 10, 2007, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.