Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Que Serra

Tuesday was the press preview for the Richard Serra show at MoMA (up through September 10). First, of course, I had to go to the MoMA Design Store, but they were out of the key chains I wanted. Anyway, I got to the museum in time to witness Serra being introduced as one of the greatest sculptors of our time, which he undoubtedly is—if not the greatest—and I must grudgingly go along with that assessment.

I used to hate Serra’s work, finding it ego-driven and misanthropic in the extreme. He’d set up four heavy metal plates and lean them against one another so they formed a cube that looked as if it might collapse at any moment; it seemed to be all about very heavy stuff that could possibly fall on you. Then a piece did kill a rigger who was installing it--and that Serra would later make drawings entitled Dead Weight and show them in the same gallery space where that tragedy occurred seemed the height of insensitivity, not to speak of bad taste. In the Tilted Arc controversy in the eighties, I agreed with the government workers who wanted the sculpture removed from the plaza in front of the building in which they worked. Who wants to have lunch in the shadow of a big metal plate that looks if it could fall any minute? And since when does the term “site-specific” refer only the physical aspects of the place and not take into account the wellbeing of the people who use it? Art is important, but not that important.

However just as I believe it shouldn’t make any difference if an artist has Alzheimer’s (see Something to look forward to below), I also don’t think the personality of the artist—whether he’s anti-Semitic like Richard Wagner or just a hard s.o.b. like Serra--has any place in the evaluation of the work. The work is the work. So when Serra began to make pieces that really spoke to me—the Torqued Elipses in the nineties—I had to make myself forget all that other stuff. Where the earlier sculpture underscored what we already know about steel—that it’s heavy, flat, and solid and can kill you—the many-tonned Torqued Elipses work against the material’s innate qualities to become lyrical, pliable, curving, soaring and, like Gehry’s architecture, solidly grounded as much as they are unbalanced and unpredictable. When the Torqued Elipses were shown at the Dia Foundation they were a revelation. And the pieces in the sculpture garden at MoMA are wonderfully sited—the steel plays off the marble garden floor, the foliage, the sky, and the vast cityscape. However Serra’s monsters loose their vitality when they’re incarcerated in the white windowless rectangles of the interior galleries and lit with generic track lighting (really, with a gazillion dollars to play with, can’t MoMA come up with anything better?) so that they ultimately end up looking like so many caged hippos. In an effort to avoid creating a context that wouldn't compete with the sculpture, the museum setting has drained them of all life.

Like the government workers in the Federal Building, they need a place to breathe.


DeeDee Halleck said...

Serra is not a mean son of a bitch. Ask the dozens of young artists who have worked for him.

PS I also wrote about the show.

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you, Deedee, for your comment, and I changed “mean” to “hard” because it sounds less personal and more fully expresses what I intended. In the bloggosphere, the public is often your editor. However there can be a great difference between public and private personas. History is full of examples of dictators who were sweetie-pies at home, and gurus who were impossible to live with. I was talking about Serra’s values as they showed up in his art and public stance. I feel to disregard the physical and psychological needs of the people who are using a civic space is unkind, to say the least, and that the Tilted Arc controversy did a disservice to the cause of public art. It’s entirely possible to take human needs into consideration without losing artistic integrity. Before he did the weather project at London’s Tate Modern, Olafur Eliasson interviewed people at all levels who worked there, yet it can hardly be said that this compromised him aesthetically. I hope my great admiration and respect for Serra’s work—in spite of everything—comes through, because that was the point of my piece.

Terry Perk said...

Serra has always been one of those sculptor's sculptors, a man's man, reinforcing the legacy of American sculptor as metal forming industrial worker that came from David Smith (and Gonzalez in Europe prior to that), but I've always seen Serra as someone who in a strange way (though he probably wouldn't admit it) is someone whose work deals with lightness as much as weight. And this is not because of, but despite the material he uses. You're right Serra doesn't fuck about: steel is steel and when it's placed there it stays there. But the work's placements have always been a more complex issue than that for me. You're right that his early works were blunter than his later ones, which are more obviously concerned with a less imposing and gentler poetics of a viewer's movement around and in relation to architectonic space, but even in his earlier works (from the mid to late seventies), there is a playful use of placement to create a human dance around and between the works. See pieces like 'Circuit' and 'Twins'.

With regards to the 'Tilted Arc' debacle, I've always had mixed views about the piece that have to do with the politics of fear and the power to impose conditions on a particular place. Angst, depression and fear are as much a part of human existence as the gentrification of space. You don't have to head very far uptown from central plaza in the eighties to realise that this was a condition of many people's lives. The mistake of 'Tilted Arc', which quite rightly could not exist there at that time for those people and was rightly removed, was not Serra's, but those who thought that he would create something that wouldn't be so obdurate and imposing. Someone somewhere looked at the top-ten list of sculptors and found one who lived in New York, rather than looking at the type of work he actually produced. You get what you pay for. You want a Serra, you get a Serra. Or at least you did back then. Since then his work has become more autonomous. Less to do with where it's sited than the subjectivities it produces.

So despite the fact he's only ever used one material (except very early in his career when he employed found objects for a while in Italy) his work has evolved with a grace that belies his outward public stance on sculpture. Militant in the seventies in Max's Kansas City, an interesting affront to and parasite of the money floating around in the eighties and now a gentler older statesman of sculpture, acting out the role of the Master Architect as he did in Matthew Barney's Cremaster. Time has aged him well and it seems he's been able to let go a little just when he needed to (or a more cynical critic might argue when the flow of money and desire for art changed). To paraphrase Dylan (Bob not Thomas), "He was so much older then, he's younger than that now."

Carol Diehl said...

Terry, your point is well-taken that the people who commissioned "Tilted Arc" were wrong-headed, but an artist always has the option of refusing a commission he deems inappropriate or choosing to offer to make something that's not. Again, I don't believe that taking the human aspects of a site into consideration in any way compromises aesthetic integrity--indeed, it could even stimulate new artistic directions.

Terry Perk said...

When you use the term ‘human aspects’ I wonder if you’re talking about being civil, not upsetting people, interfering in a way that is convivial? We may both agree that this is important, but being sympathetic, rather than antagonistic to the conditions of a site is not the only way to address it as a place. I’m not defending Serra’s work, but as an artistic question the problem of what it might mean to disrupt the connection between gentrification and the consolidation of wealth is actually quite interesting.

The question then is why anyone would want to juxtapose human aspects (habits that belong to particular conditions) that don’t usually exist there? It’s an interesting question, but one I’m not sure Serra addresses (or at least it was not addressed in the writings about and recordings of the Tilted Arc trial). His concerns at this point in his career, at least as much as one can gather from a reading of the work, is more formal than this. It seems to me that the work was simply intended to restructure the site along two axis: From the sky as a line cutting across Federal Plaza and as a changing view along the horizon at ground level. The first is an almost graphic cut in space from a disembodied position that relates to town planning (the site of buildings in relation to each other etc. a bird’s eye view) and the second is concerned with the subjective experience of gravity, both our own and that of our relationship to steel and a wall). The problem with the work, or its failure was that it functioned well in the first sense (in design?), but led to an oppressive condition in the second sense.

I understand that the work is public art and therefore an investment in the well-being of people (that’s what you sign up for), but at the time I guess he just wasn’t ready to address that in his work and the idea of refusing the commission and the money and symbolic capital that came with it wasn’t something he was able to do either. I don’t think many people could be honest enough about their own work and capabilities at that point in their career to refuse the opportunity. And in fact with so much at stake having the balls to try something outside his comfort zone was probably also unlikely. It’s a shame, but given the opportunity I wonder what he’d site there now?