Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Yearsby Anne Byrd
The Museum of Modern Art June 3 – September 10, 2007
In conversation a few years ago, Richard Serra and the art historian Hal Foster spoke about the psychological effect of the sculpture that Serra had been making since the first torqued ellipses. They agreed easily enough that it was powerful, if hard to explain. But while Foster thought this psychological dimension was new—that Serra’s earlier sculpture had in fact been actively hostile to it—Serra proposed that it might have always been a part of his work, though not so overtly. “Is it there,” he asked Foster, “in Delineator, the piece with the steel plate beneath you on the floor and one above on the ceiling?”
If you follow the exhibition’s loose chronological path, Delineator (1974-75) is the first sculpture you see. It’s made of two steel plates, each ten by twenty-six feet, one—as Serra says—on the floor, and one on the ceiling. They cross each other at a right angle, so that when you stand in the middle of the work it’s as though you’re standing in the center of a cross that’s been pulled apart. You’re also standing under a lot of weight—pounds, tons, I don’t know, but enough to do some damage. It’s this weight that gives Foster his answer to Serra’s question: “Yes, but that is a physical threat more than a psychological effect.”
Is it? Entering Delineator, one is certainly aware of the literal, physical stuff of its material. For me, though, it wasn’t the overhang that caused this feeling, but the plate underfoot, a sheet of steel so smooth and dense that the words heavy water came to mind as I walked into the work. (The plate above—too high to get a strong feeling for—has a different surface because it still has a good deal of its mill scale, a byproduct of hot-rolling steel that will eventually fall off but currently gives a number of the sculptures in the exhibition a grainy, flaky patina as well as some color contrast.) To step onto the inch-thick plate is to leave the ordinary space of the room just slightly, to be in the sculpture—and to activate it, turning two flat planes in an empty room into a sculptural volume. It’s a work that needs a viewer—a mobile one—pretty desperately.
Serra tells an amazing story about how he conceived Delineator, one that shows a way (there are no doubt many) into the question he asked Foster. He’d herniated a couple of disks, and was bedridden for weeks—flat on his back on a mattress on the floor. He had the Russian abstract painter Kasimir Malevich on his mind, especially his cross paintings. Their form got Serra thinking about how his body on the ground related to the rafter that crossed perpendicularly above him; he decided to re-create this relation sculpturally.
The idea that an earthbound body—whether Serra’s or the viewer’s—might become part of a Malevich painting is just perverse enough to be really good; realizing all of this in massive sheets of steel twists the knife. Perhaps more than any other modernist painter, Malevich was madly obsessed with flight, space (as in outer, not just pictorial), and the infinite. At a certain point, even color was too grounded for him. “I have ripped through the blue lampshade of the constraints of color,” he wrote in 1919, “Follow me, comrade aviators…Swim into the white free abyss; infinity is before you.”
Now, if there’s one thing Delineator isn’t about, it’s infinity: limits are written into its very name. But Malevich’s infinity is a peculiar one, paradoxically populated by definite, almost sculpturally tangible shapes that he seems to tilt—to force as if bodily—from our space into the alternate, infinite dimensions his titles so often refer to. Often, then, his forms are warped, foreshortened, and set askew, conditioned by the inherently finite viewpoint of our three dimensions. And it’s largely the dynamic lines resulting from these distortions—the very proof that form hasn’t busted the limits of finitude after all— that untether the shapes, giving the paintings the look of the infinite, or at least of a wild ride through wide-open space.
The rectangles in Delineator really are rectangles, but we don’t experience them that way. From most angles, they appear more like Malevich’s dynamic forms – both because we’re in the work and can’t get an objective view of it, and because the plates are large enough that they appear to broaden towards us and recede into the distance. Verticals and horizontals look like diagonals; rectangles become irregular trapezoids; right angles appear acute at some moments and obtuse at others, depending on our movements. Unless we’re looking for these perceptual distortions (which are visible, if too frozen, in any photograph) our conscious minds correct for them pretty quickly, in part because the steel plates are so precise and materially present that they don’t feel vulnerable to accidents of vision. No one is likely to walk out of Delineator and describe it as anything other than two rectangular sheets of steel. In the moment, though, the perception of irregularity and the dynamic force of the diagonals make the space between the two plates seem to revolve. The effect is vertiginous, all the more so because it pits swirling mobility against two static, heavy plates of steel—not, or not entirely, because one of those plates might threaten to plummet from on high.
(Thesheer weight of Delineator must have been much more impressive, though, in earlier installations. In 1986, when Serra had his first MoMA retrospective, the sculpture was installed in a room with nine-foot ceilings; here they must be about twice that high. The pieces lose relationship with each other; a sense of fear-invested atmospheric pressure never has a chance to build. This is one of several reasons that I would resist the increasing media buzz that the Serra show redeems the badness of the new MoMA, glad though I am that its engineering made the exhibition possible. There’s just too much looking through the museum to see the art. If ceilings are too high for Serra, they’re probably too high, period.)
Delineator is an extreme work, but the questions it forces about the way that brute, material fact and the distortions of lived perspective both reinforce and contradict each other come up constantly, if often more subtly, throughout the exhibition. The two works that follow, Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi (1986) and Circuit II (1972), are also simply constructed, room-sized sculptures whose what-you-see-is-what-you-see-ness is contingent on the kind of observer effect you have (on a very different scale) in quantum physics. The passage through these three works has the faint air of a secular preparatory rite; it’s only after fully engaging you as a bodily viewer of sculpture that the exhibition jumps back to a gallery of smaller pieces from the beginning of Serra’s career. Some of these, like the cast rubber Doors (1966-67), do make their impact through a kind of dumb, obdurate thereness and utter self-evidence. But things don’t remain this resolutely immobile and statically untransformed for long. In To Lift, a thick black blanket of vulcanized rubber pulled up at the center to form a peak, what’s self-evident is not so much the material itself as the way that material (as Serra says in nearly every interview he gives these days) “imposes its own form on form.” Serra doesn’t always, though, just let that imposition take place. Belts (1966-67)is a wall-length relief – eleven masses of vulcanized rubber-strips hanging off some of the biggest nails you’ll ever see, each strip looping and curving as far as its own weight and stiffness will allow before being stapled to one of its neighbors. This all happens organically enough, until the action is theatricalized by twisting blue neon that reiterates the curves on the group furthest to the left, and then again—excessively, absurdly—by the looping power cord that attaches the sculpture to the box at high up to the left. It’s a kind of visual pun, though not an arch, Duchampian witticism. It has instead the twisted (probably mock-) tragicomic air of a whole showing its hole in order to prove it has everything, and being aware of the irony.
Next come the prop pieces, sculptures that Serra made between 1968 and 1970 that use the weight and balance of lead plates and rolls to prop each other up, never fixing the joints through welding or other means. On the face of it, these works apparently chase logic to its conclusion just as vigorously and joyously as Belts twists without breaking it. They explore the principles of equilibrium thoroughly, as if trying to reinvent standing ex nihilo. But if lead imposes its own form on form here, it doesn’t do so in an obvious way: uprightness is not a property inherent in the material. On the contrary, the lead props will stand only because the metal is highly entropic, and settles down as though melting. The plates and rolls, then, ease into the floor and each other (an effect that’s especially visible in the rolls that rest on top of some of the plates, which have begun to flatten upon contact). At the same time they smash into each other with a tremendous amount of mutually canceling force. Yet again, they also maintain a perfect, absolutely requisite stasis. A number of the forces generating our experience of the props, then, are powerfully opposed: reconcilable aesthetically, maybe, but definitely not rationally. But it’s also vividly, experientially clear—as long as the props keep standing—that these apparently opposing forces are also completely consistent with the logic of the material. What we see and what we know collide just as forcefully as the lead plates and poles, supporting and refuting each other.
In the late sixties, Serra made a number of works where the logic of materials played out in a much more straightforward, things-lie-where-they-fall sort of way than it does in the props. Probably the best known of these is Splashing, which Serra made in 1968 by throwing molten lead into the juncture between the wall and the floor of the dealer Leo Castelli’s West 108th Street warehouse. Hardened as it was to the floor and the wall—not bound to a portable medium such as canvas—Splashing could not be removed from the site where it was made without being destroyed. This is also true of the large-scale site-specific sculpture that Serra worked on especially in the later seventies and eighties, including, most famously, Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high sculpture installed in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1981 and destroyed, after much argument, in 1989.
Serra and co-curators Lynne Cooke and Kynaston McShine have chosen not to re-create any site-specific sculpture in this exhibition. Art-historically, its absence is startling; philosophically, it’s consistent with Serra’s contention that to remove a site-specific work from its site is to destroy it. It’s an omission that could fuel an essay much longer than this one, and it almost certainly will. But if Tilted Arc’s brand of rooted spatial intervention is relevant to the sculpture Serra has been making for the last ten or so years, it’s so indirectly. Although, as the museum’s PR continuously, somewhat breathlessly repeats, the three largest and most recent works in the exhibition were made with MoMA in mind, they were always meant to be portable. One, Band, has already been purchased for the Los Angeles County Museum, where it will be on view alongside another, Sequence, beginning next February.
The torqued ellipses’ connection to Delineator, though, is quite clear. One way to think about the earlier work is as the twisting column of air that would be created if you imagined the lower rectangle lifting and turning until it met the upper one. The torqued ellipses work the same way, except that their footprint and upper edges are elliptical voids, and the steel takes the shape of the twisting column that is only imagined by the viewer of Delineator. In some cases, the upper and lower ellipses aren’t set at a very extreme angle to each other, and the effect is relatively stately. In Torqued Ellipse IV (1998), though, on view in the garden, the ellipses are perpendicular to each other, so that its curves accelerate and decelerate dramatically and unpredictably. Seen from the outside, it seems to veer wildly towards the main part of the museum; on the inside, its geometric extremity means that an overhang offers an almost sheltering intimacy, while the opening on the other side stretches out generously. Seeing it set against the city is very helpful in seeing why the sculptures are as large they are: however interesting the outside may look from within, within is definitely an independent sculptural volume. Independent, though, doesn’t necessarily mean intended for an inwardly-directed, contemplative form of aesthetic appreciation. Like the earlier works, the ellipses are sculptures you have to move in order to see. And to see more rather than less of them it’s necessary to move into odd angles, slink along walls, see what your companions look like at a distance as they do the same—so that all in all, the sculptures seem to encourage people to explore the workings of seeing art almost as thoroughly as Bruce Nauman did the workings of making it, and often with a similar sense of absurdist pleasure.
There are hints of Malevich here and there through the later work too, though they’re metabolized to a degree that they don’t come out as directly as they do in Delineator. My favorite of the three, the two-part Torqued Torus Inversion, seems the most shot through with a spatial madness that goes through Malevich and beyond. But it’s probably the most measured, least warped, and angular of the three, Sequence, that most deeply takes on Malevich’s aspirations. It’s a large, looping work that creates a complex continuity between volumes and passageways—each of the two ellipses at the sculpture’s core extends so that it loops around the other and forms a kind of double figure-eight. Moebius strips, infinity signs: taken as a symbol, the sequence of Sequence might seem to share Malevich’s obsession with endlessness, or a related concept that writers have often associated with Serra, the sublime. But its time isn’t endless—not only because, as endless and incomprehensible as its overall form may feel, it will always eventually place you outside of it, but also because you’re continually passing from one kind of time to another, from the demanding onward course of its passageways to the openness and exploratory unrestrictedness of its vessels. And it’s up to you to navigate their differences, both bodily and in understanding. Time and form may go on and on, but only as long as you make them.
Anne Byrd is a visual artist based in Houston, TX.