Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Jerry Saltz
"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

Mission accomplished. The Museum of Modern Art’s wide-open, tall-ceilinged, super-reinforced second floor was for all intents and purposes built so that it could accommodate monumental installations and gigantic sculptures if the need should arise. It has arisen.

The artist everyone assumed MoMA was thinking of was the rajah of weight and steel, Richard Serra. Sundry MoMA mucky-mucks, including the late great chief curator, Kurt Varnedoe, said the new building was designed with him in mind. At Serra’s opening dinner the president of the MoMA board of trustees, Marie-Josée Kravis, mused to a crowd of more than 500, "Richard, we built this for you." It’s as if they were all saying, "Never mind all the rest of you artistic dwarfs." In its earnest effort to accommodate large-scaled sculpture like Serra’s, however, MoMA blundered by creating spaces that aren’t very user-friendly to most other art. It also failed to build any permanent project-galleries at all; it didn’t provide nearly enough space for the vaunted permanent collection of painting and sculpture from 1879 to 1969; and it created no space whatsoever -- none -- for the permanent display of contemporary art. These gaffes are so limiting that if not remedied, they will eventually diminish the importance of the museum and maybe even of modernism itself. Heckuva job, MoMA.

But, MoMA wanted a mighty Richard Serra show, and not, say, a mighty Eva Hesse, Hélio Oiticica, Barry Le Va, or Mel Bochner show (to name four artists of Serra’s generation), or even, for that matter, a complete Serra survey. So despite the seeming preordained inevitability of it all, and the fact that the work sometimes feels decorative, inert, or like a funhouse, and the prop pieces -- protected as they absolutely should be within a Plexiglas pen -- look like they’re in a petting zoo, it’s only fair to say that a mighty Richard Serra show is what MoMA got. "Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years" is a gutsy perception-altering show. Call it Sculpture Maximus. When I left the museum the vibrations from the exhibition made the world temporarily transform into oscillating wave patterns and semi-solid biological sculptural influxes and entities.

Before we see how Serra’s work creates these effects we need to look at the adulation he produces. What is the art world celebrating when it celebrates Serra so unconditionally? Serra is seen as a God of Sculpture -- hailed as a kind of mythic king of art. Bigwig theoreticians, academics, and critics regularly trumpet his preeminence and universality. Few mention that Serra’s work is also a massive throwback and is conservative insofar as it is inexorably rooted in the issues of a time when abstraction was Almighty and any form of narrative was banished and pooh-poohed as somehow sissy. Perhaps the exaltation is nostalgia for the days when everyone knew what the issues were, grandeur was good, and men were men. The veneration isn’t limited to writers. Museums revere him. Not only is "Forty Years" the roomiest exhibition the Modern has ever given to a living artist, it’s the second retrospective the museum has devoted to Serra (the first was in 1986), which makes him MoMA’s current Picasso. Architects laud and emulate him too. The Guggenheim Bilbao (which has eight gigantic Serras permanently installed in its ridiculously oversized main gallery) owes so much of its design to Serra that he could conceivably sue Frank Gehry for intellectual-property theft. If not for Serra there would be no Vietnam Memorial, which as effective as it is, is essentially a Serra with names on it. Yet Serra’s master-of-the-universe grandiosity and space-eating megalomania are also very off-putting. This isn’t because a rigger was once killed while working in the vicinity of one of his pieces, but because his sculpture is the apotheosis of a public art. By this I don’t mean it’s meant for outdoor spaces, but that it involves lots of money, power, heft, connections, space and large audiences. These are not attributes usually associated with the private transaction between one artist and one viewer, to say nothing of inner lives and intense looking.

Herein lies a paradox. It turns out that "Forty Years," impeccably organized by MoMA "Chief Curator at Large" Kynaston McShine and guest curator Lynne Cooke, shows that Serra’s art is more inner, intense, intimate and available than one might think. More than any artist, Serra makes abstract art that people who hate abstraction can like. His sculptures speak to lay audiences and the art world alike. "Forty Years" is a no-nonsense primer on an artist who emerged in the mid-1960s and who wanted to explore the ways sculpture might be more than simply a "specific object." Like so many of his generation, Serra wanted to make sculpture entail time, movement, and process, and exist in was then called "the extended field."

"Forty Years" shows just how extended that field has become. It consists of 27 works spread out over two floors and the sculpture garden. To sense the art historical pendulum swinging away from the object toward something else, view the show chronologically. On the sixth floor, in addition to early process works and smaller "prop pieces" ("smaller" for Serra means the size of a Prius), are three massive steel sculptures. One, involving four 10 X 20 foot plates jutting toward the center of the room from all four corners, is like a walk-in guillotine contrived by Edgar Allen Poe; another, consisting of regularly placed rectangular steel slabs, is like an abacus from the 7th dimension. My favorite, Delineator, initially appears to be simply a massive 10 x 26 foot plate of steel on the floor. First you think it’s a rip-off of Carl Andre. Then your attention is drawn upward and you behold another steel plate, the same size, attached to the ceiling directly overhead turned crosswise to the floor plate. The electro-magnetic field of the gallery goes berserk and you grasp that Serra has turned the whole room and even the museum itself into a pedestal for this sculpture -- or maybe the sculpture is a pedestal for the museum. Either way, it’s diabolical. Up and down flip-flop and you perceive that you’re inside Delineator’s volume.

This sculpture is attached to the Modern the way an organism attaches itself to a host; it looms over you like a giant abstract mutant spider (it could also squish you like a spider). Delineator’s cross configuration, its charcoal monochrome steel, and obdurate non-objectivity recall the take-no-prisoners abstraction of the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich, who said he wanted to reduce art to "the zero of form" and "destroy villages." Serra pulls form apart, but so far as I know he hasn’t destroyed any villages, although the Tilted Arc debacle almost destroyed him.

The show crescendos on the second floor with three super-colossal new steel pieces, the best of which is Sequence. Each curvaceous piece is as big as a barge; together all three weigh more than 1,000,000 pounds, whatever that means. Allegedly about the twisting ellipses and soaring forms of the Baroque, on the contrary these works feel mouth-wateringly lyrical and rococo. Walking around these undulating sidewinders is like being around a heard of otherworldly elephants, or seeing steel skirts blowing in the breeze. Here you understand that Serra’s foes are right: His work is not about looking. These sculptures are so huge that they blind you.

This work takes you on a sensuous trip beyond language and optics to a place where physical sensations replace sight. You don’t see a Serra with your eyes; you see it with your whole body. Sheer excess disarms sight. You walk around and through a Serra, brushing very close to it -- closer than to any art I can think of -- taking in it its weight, texture, temperature, mass and volume with parts of you you didn’t know you had. Flow, fullness and rhythm become ways of knowing. It’s like being very close to another person; vision is futile as it’s absorbed into your whole body; you experience a surrender and loss of control. Surprise, tranciness, and enchantment mingle and you become a walking nerve ending.

A famous female curator I know disparages Serra’s sculptures as "big dick art." Serra’s work is certainly butch but in the flesh his ruddy, overlapping, plicae and pleats of swelling steel collapse gender and describe a kind of labial interface with space. His shapes and configurations are vulva-like, surfaces are silky and puckered, outside and inside merge, folds envelope folds and the sculptures become almost embarrassingly erotic. These sculptures are so open they’re in an almost animalistic state of sexual presenting. They reveal themselves to you, yet they also preserve their wholeness and mystery. They’re like Manet’s Olympia, who posses unashamedly while also concealing her sex.

After all this juiciness, before you head out into the sculpture garden to see the two yoni-like behemoths, pause before Rodin’s great phallic sculpture of Balzac and think about how the processes, materiality and sexualness you’ve experienced in the Serra show began here. Seeing the final two huge Serras installed in the sculpture garden just inches from Matisse’s four great back sculptures is revelatory. Matisse was trying to merge skin and material, surface and figure, support and illusion -- he wanted to blur your perception with abundance. Serra wants all this, too. Like Matisse, his work is savage, decorative and enticing. Like Malevich’s, it’s unrelentingly. Eva Hesse said she was trying to make "nothings." Serra is trying to make all-or-nothing somethings. Sometimes this can turn obnoxious or boring. Much of the time, however, you can delight in sculptures that are a combination of cave walls, the circus coming to town, fortresses, flowers and a force of nature.

Four good temporary public
sculptures in New York

At the moment, a handful of temporary public sculptures are on view in New York that might tickle your fancy and make you get how in-play the definition of public art is.

Beth Campbell
Potential Store Fronts
125 Maiden Lane (at Water Street)
Sponsored by Public Art Fund.

This nondescript storefront looks like a series of repeating reflections. You could easily walk right past it (I did). But there is something deeply weird about it, even in passing -- the purple haze to the color scheme, the out of place detritus. Either way, everything you’re seeing in these windows is real. There are "Back in 5 minute" signs, potted plants, and neon letters that spell out the word "Change." Campbell has built each one of these constructions and detailed them down to the last iota so that you know that what you’re seeing is real but your optical mind keeps saying, "No, this must be a reflection." Everything recedes as illusion but surges towards you materially. You end up caught in a fabulous feedback loop of perception and doubt. It’s a riveting trip into the workings of the human mind, optics, the simulacra. It’s also a metaphor for the American Dream: Of opening a shop and having your fortune multiply.

Damian Ortega
Doris C. Freedman Plaza,
60th Street and Fifth Avenue
Sponsored by the Public Art Fund

Ortega’s funny little portable black obelisk on wheels makes fun of big, brawny, expensive steel sculpture like Richard Serra’s. This little thing in the middle of all this massive scale and bustling activity is a wry comment on the Imperialistic tendency to invade other countries, topple their statues, then commemorate those countries with other statues. Interestingly, Ortega’s column is on the exact opposite corner of the park as the monument to Christopher Columbus. Obviously, Ortega is trying to tell us something.

Ugo Rondinone
Ritz-Carlton Plaza
2 West Street in Battery Park City
Sponsored by Creative Time.

Ugo Rondinone’s ghostly aluminum casts of two 2,000-year-old Italian olive trees make you think of nature next to architecture and how everything turns to ash in the end. But there’s also something compellingly noble about these shells of trees. They stood at the time of Roman Empire. Eyes that may have looked into the eyes of Caesar may have looked on these trees. Around the corner is one of the best pieces of permanent public art in all of New York, Jean Dubuffet’s black and white abstract trees that also look like they’re made out of giant molecules, at One Chase Plaza.

Roxy Paine
Madison Square Park
Sponsored by Madison Square Park Conservancy.

These three tremendous aluminum trees and one shiny aluminum boulder are so weird-looking and obviously not-real that people regularly bask in their fakeness. They’re like a fractal world come to shiny life; computer animations in the great outdoors or a collapse of the great outdoors into digital space. One tree stands like a futuristic totem pole or a silver Neolithic monument. Two others intertwine and grow together. They’re all like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte meets the Tin Man meets The Matrix. And they’re fantastic.

JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York magazine. He can be contacted at