Man of Steel
The Richard Serra retrospective, opening Sunday, arrives at the Museum of Modern Art virtually a foregone matter, in the way that Picasso and Matisse shows arrived in the old days. It’s a landmark, by a titan of sculpture, one of the last great modernists in an age of minor talents, mad money and so much meaningless art. At 67 Mr. Serra is still nudging the language of abstraction, constructing ever more awesome mazes of looming Cor-Ten steel.
The other day in the museum’s garden, where two big Serras from the 1990s have been parked for some weeks, children dashed down the curved, leaning, fun-house corridors of “Intersection II,” while a trio of young women with their T-shirts rolled halfway up sunbathed (before a blushing guard appeared) on the ground inside “Torqued Ellipse IV,” its enclosing wall bent, curved and folding outward, conveniently forming a giant face tanner. All around, office workers sloughing off the afternoon and tourists resting tired feet roused themselves from scattered garden chairs to survey the two sculptures, sauntering through them like explorers happening upon a South Sea island, squinting up into the sky from time to time to fix their locations in space.
Actually they were explorers. These shapes and experiences are new. That’s about the best, and the rarest, compliment you can give to any artist. Mr. Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” and “Torqued Toruses” and other recent works like “Band” and “Sequence” have their origins in work he did 40 years ago in rubber and lead, as this retrospective handsomely affirms, but these are nonetheless unprecedented variations on the theme of dumbfounding spirals and loops.
The public’s perception of Mr. Serra’s work has also obviously changed from the bad days of “Tilted Arc,” a quarter-century or so ago. That same vocabulary of curved, giant metal walls, once vilified as art-world arrogance, is now better understood and broadly admired. This is how radical art operates.
In Mr. Serra’s case you can also call it democratic art because it sticks to pure form that requires no previous expertise to grasp. There’s no coy narrative, no insider joke or historical allusion or meta-art theme. There’s none of what Mr. Serra disdainfully calls, in the show’s catalog, “post-Pop Surrealism,” by which he lumps together all contemporary art that leans for a crutch on language and Duchamp. In that catalog interview he was talking with Kynaston McShine, one of the show’s two curators. (The other is Lynne Cooke.) Mr. Serra famously looked at Borromini churches in Rome before he started torquing steel, but his work is not “about” Baroque architecture any more than it’s about Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman or Donald Judd, whom he also looked at and learned from early on.
The art is about the basic stuff of sculpture, isolated and recast: mass, weight, volume, material. What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the sculptures, at a given moment, the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning.
A filmmaker I met in Bilbao, Spain, wandering through Mr. Serra’s sculptures there, likened the experience to movies. He thought the paths Mr. Serra devised within the works, between curving walls of steel, which suddenly jog, then arrive, unexpectedly, at cavities or enclosures, were like plot twists with surprise endings. Except there are no beginnings or endings in the sculptures. A novelist who has written about the Holocaust said the high, curving steel walls leaned over him threateningly, leading him until he became disoriented and lost, into what he felt were penned-in spaces, bringing to mind a concentration camp. The art scared him, he said, but he also loved it.
Kant called this feeling “the terrifying sublime,” which is “accompanied by a certain dread or melancholy.” Awe and fear mingle with pleasure. The concept was applied to mountain climbing, and Mr. Serra’s new works on the museum’s second floor, perhaps not coincidentally, evoke canyons, dunes, crevasses and ravines. The industrial steel walls, in uncalculated rusty orange and velvety brown, evoke natural terrains; the spaces through which the sculptures move people are akin to spaces in nature.
And like nature you get to know them only by walking around them, although the works partly thwart the effort. Mr. Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” and their descendants can’t be pictured mentally, except in broad strokes, because from no place, not even above, can you get a good sense of their shapes. They’re too complicated; from outside you don’t know what the inside is like, and vice versa. Never mind that sometimes there’s no inside or outside.
This complexity, requiring your constant attention, is the pleasure of the art, if you have the patience for it, and it adds the element of time to three dimensions, which is among the changes Mr. Serra and his generation brought to sculpture.
That second floor at the Modern, by the way, is the show’s tour de force. A high, huge and like so much of this museum, totally unlovable space, it was conceived for housing Mr. Serra’s sculptures. Kirk Varnedoe, the Modern curator, came up with this idea, and the museum saw his plan through after his death. The resulting space is antiseptic, unfortunately, and too much of a barn for showing anything else, but it looks fantastic now. At one end is “Band,” a 70-foot-long steel undulation, absent an inside or outside, forming four cavities. On the other end is “Sequence,” which links two immense spirals. In between is “Torqued Torus Inversion,” a pair of mirrored enclosures whose forms Mr. Serra has said may partly relate to his fondness for curvy Chinese bronzes.
The rest of the show is on the sixth floor, with sculptures (nearly two dozen) from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The retrospective is not nearly complete, but it’s huge, and there is enough in it to trace the arc of Mr. Serra’s familiar career.
Born in San Francisco, he worked in steel yards, went to graduate school at Yale, and was generally a gifted young troublemaker in a big hurry. The first rubber pieces he made out of scrap after he moved to New York knocked sculpture off its pedestal at the same time Mr. Serra was trying, quite literally, to lift it up. He hung, for example, a row of knotted scraps of rubber to make, with help from gravity, what looked like Pollock’s “Mural.” He scattered pieces of wood, stone, metal and lead on the floor. He made a rubber template of a footstool, which he nicked from Bruce Nauman, and rearranged its parts to create something that, when also hung on the wall, resembled Picasso’s “Guitar.”
Jasper Johns was a big influence. Mr. Serra cast doors out of rubber (Mr. Johns cast beer cans in bronze) and he leaned them against the wall, and, at Mr. Johns’s behest, he splashed molten lead into the corner of a studio.
At one point Mr. Serra raised the center of an edge of a rectilinear sheet of rubber lying flat on the floor to make a tent shape, suddenly creating an object with an inside and an outside, and also a continuous topography, a shape implying motion. All these early works looked ugly, nasty, down and dirty. They’re still not appealing. They reacted, in perfect late ’60s distemper, against the neat tooling of Pop and Minimalism. They stressed raw materials. Mr. Serra’s compatriots were artists like Mr. Nauman, Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson; his friends downtown who shared his interests in process and performance and rocking the boat were dancers and musicians like Yvonne Rainer, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
They were devising simple tasks, repeating them, working with basic forms. Mr. Serra drew up a list of 40 verbs to enact: to roll, to fold, to dangle, to twist. He unrolled large sheets of lead, then rolled them up again, not exactly sure of what he was doing, if anything, just wanting to see what happened. At a certain point he rolled the lead into a curlicue and made a shape that, it clearly turned out, would incubate in his head for 40 years. You can see its offspring, in steel and on a vast scale, in “Band.”
The second great room in the show has the “prop” pieces he put together, with help from Mr. Glass, Mr. Reich and others in the late ’60s, which haven’t been exhibited in years. They’re like houses of cards (that’s the title of one of them): made of lead plates and poles miraculously balanced in oddball configurations, which just barely don’t collapse. The work called “1-1-1-1” consists of three tilting plates that stand up by virtue of a pole resting on top of them, itself stabilized by a fourth plate teetering on its end. Every part depends on the others. Precariousness amplifies an element of Buster Keaton-esque wit. Tectonics is the main issue here. Tectonics and movement.
Along which lines the other great work in the show is “Delineator,” from the mid-’70s, which positions two huge rectangular steel slabs, each 10 feet by 26 feet, one resting on the floor, the other affixed to the ceiling above it. They align so that the slabs make a cross. The work invites your movement to that spot at the center of the floor slab where the plates intersect. From there, looking up, the steel behemoth hanging overhead creates a feeling of vertical lift — and also alarm. It alerts you to the height of the room and also to your inability to see both slabs at the same time. It forces you to move around it to take in its whole.
Rough simplicity is its genius. If Mr. Serra’s more recent sculptures have a weakness, it’s that they’re almost too ravishing. “Torqued Torus Inversion” consists of two steel enclosures. To picture the shape of a torus, imagine the rim of bicycle wheel. Now picture two rims on the ground. The rims are each almost 13 feet high. They’ve been pulled into ovals, then twisted like bottle caps, so that their tops and bottoms end up at right angles to each other. Now you’ve got “Torqued Torus Inversion” in mind, except you can’t begin to imagine the elegance of it except firsthand. One enclosure leans inward, the other outward, like swooning lovers.
How remarkable that Mr. Serra started by making such proudly uningratiating and aggressive rubber sculptures and ended up making such sexy art. It’s more striking because of how perfectly logical the progression was, and how he kept finding some deep, basic, fresh truth about sculpture each step along the way. There’s the real beauty in the work.
“Richard Serra Sculpture: 40 Years” opens Sunday and runs through Sept. 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400 and moma.org. The works in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden are already on display.