Home / Exhibit Review: Richard Serra at MOMA, New York

Exhibit Review: Richard Serra at MOMA, New York

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Not every piece that a great artist does is great.

Most interesting to me are those artists who take many years to achieve a realization of their work, of a vision that finally, against all odds, so completely includes the viewer that the viewer — most viewers — become enthralled by it.

Great art itself so seldom happens that your encountering it is a moment of fine good fortune. There are many artists who may have had some fleeting fame in their own time, some times even great fame, who are now forgotten. Very little that has been produced by artists in any medium — graphic, literary, musical, whatever — matters. Those works that we see now that do take us away, that do thrill us, are a minute percentage of everything that was being produced by artists in whatever time it was. So, while there was Wolfgang Mozart in the 18th century — and notable others, to be sure — almost all the artists from that century are now remembered not at all.

This is a fact worth keeping in mind when we're looking at contemporary fine arts, when art dealer blather and the hip collusion of art critics have resulted in so much self-referential lying. Indeed, product-touting has become as common in the arts as it has been in industrial products manufacturing since the beginning. This is an effort by art dealers, writers, publishers and the artists themselves to make pots of money and garner immediate great fame. Maybe the artist is, in his heart of hearts, sincere in his work. But none of the others can be, because so much of the work is so bad. Current art dealer marketing is shameless in its glorification of so many minor talents. Almost all of these artists will go the way of the Studebaker.

But there are some who somehow make a breakthrough and do transcend themselves to the level of great art — Richard Serra, for one.

The thing that make Serra's greatness so extraordinary is that most of his work prior to about 2006 is numbingly boring, especially when combined with his own verbal explanations of what he was trying to do early in his career, and with the commentary of art-speak critics hurrying helter-skelter to congratulate themselves for seeing his obvious genius so early on. It is this commentary — you can find it in almost every contemporary fine art publication — that makes Serra's early work so unintentionally comic.

I first became aware of Richard Serra, by the way, during the hilarious confrontation he had with the courts after setting up his piece Tilted Arc in the Federal Building Plaza in New York City in 1981. A construction made of steel, twelve feet high and one hundred twenty feet long that had a slight, curving shape, it basically blocked access to the building itself, and, so, represented a kind of artistic incarceration. It was an example of an artist's hubris writ very large, in which Serra's vision was forced upon the defenseless pedestrians trying to pass into and out of the building. The complaining on the part of office workers and the general public was noisy and constant. After a very public battle in the press and in the courts, in which Serra himself defended the piece as being site-specific and therefore meaningless without the site that surrounded it, the courts decided that it should be removed, which it was, in the dark of night, on March 15, 1989.

Serra, miffed, complained about government interference in the arts. That Tilted Arc was grandly uninteresting – even stultifying – as an object seemed not to matter much to the art press, which defended it for the most part as a great work of art. Serra's own personal attitude was summed up well when he said, "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people."

Now, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, we get to see (through September 10, 2007) full, incontrovertible evidence of Serra's late development into a major artist from his earlier periods when he was not much of an artist at all. There is forty years' worth of his work here, and so many of his early pieces, that we can really make an informed assessment of the difference between the majority of his efforts and what he's doing at the present time.

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Delineator, 1974-1975

The first piece you see upon walking into the enormous indoor portion of the MOMA show is Delineator, from 1974-1975. It is made up of two pieces of hot-rolled steel about one and a half inches thick, maybe twelve feet wide and forty feet long, one of which lies flat on the floor, the second of which is seemingly plastered to the ceiling.

Were they not presented here as the opening gambit of the Richard Serra show, they would probably be covering up repair holes in the middle of Eighth Avenue. Serra has said of this piece: "As you walk toward its center, the piece functions either centrifugally or centripetally; you're forced to acknowledge the space above, below, right, left, north, east, south, west, up, down." This is blather, and it's not true. It's way too much to ask of two faceless, featureless objects that, as you stand on one and glance up a little fearfully at the other, you realize really have little relation to each other at all.

The anonymously written brochure that accompanies the show says of Delineator, "For the artist, this experience of space is what the work is about: unlike traditional sculpture, it emphasizes movement and its psychological impact, not contemplation from a distance." This is contemporary art-speak and makes no sense. Also it's inaccurate. The Serra piece — dull and, almost literally, leaden — contains no movement. It is bereft of it … or will be until the piece attached to the ceiling some day looses its mooring and falls upon the spectators below. Also, if you think that a "traditional" sculpture — like, say, Pablo Picasso's famous goat that is in the collection of MOMA — does not emphasize movement and, especially, psychological impact, there's a serious imbalance in your understanding of art in general.

I don't know whether Serra was under the influence of Carl Andre, another artist of flat steel plates who is now quite forgotten but was all the rage in magazines like ArtForum in the 1970s. Or that Andre was under Serra's influence. In whatever case, the real art for both was put together by steel manufacturers and sold by the artists as work somehow declarative of the state of their souls. (I believe this must be the basis for any such sale, since such a declaration is the purpose of art, isn't it?)

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Chunk, 1967

Moving on, you come to an enormous room that contains many of Serra's works from the late 1960s. There is one piece entitled Chunk, from 1967, that is a curved amalgam of vulcanized rubber, about four feet high, leaning against the wall. It appears so randomly designed and left so carelessly and without ceremony against the wall that I worried that the workmen, not knowing what to do with it, forgot about it there.

Nearby is another piece, a bit more complicated than Chunk because it has three pieces rather than just one. It is entitled Bent Pipe Roll, and was made in 1968. Three pieces of lead pipe are arranged end to end. They are of differing diameters, from, say, an inch and a half to five inches. Each is about five feet long. The thinnest one lies flat on the floor, perpendicular to the museum wall. The second, thicker, pipe is attached to that end of the first, thinner pipe that is closer to the wall. This second pipe goes up the wall at an angle. It is attached end-to-end to the thickest pipe, which is vertical and flush with the wall. And there you have it! The nerve that it took for me to write this description perhaps explains my frustration with the piece, since there is no way that I could write about it interestingly.

All the other pieces in the room — and there are many — are of a similar level of soulful engagement.

Yet another room contains many pieces that are made either of leather (like collections of horse reins twisted arbitrarily together and hung from one wall) or wood and metal (randomly sized, square or rectangular pieces of detritus strewn across the floor). There is an evident wish for order, it appears, in the way these pieces are strewn. But the wood and metal in each piece could be arranged differently than they are, and few viewers would be aware that a change had been made. For that matter, pieces from one piece could be exchanged with pieces from another, and the whole thing could be re-strewn, and little would come of it.

I could find no particular meaning in any of these pieces.

There is one, though, that does strain for meaning. It's entitled Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Benghasi, and it is from 1986. The inspirational source of the piece, according to Serra, lies in two military attacks. The first was that on Guernica, a city in Spain that was bombed by the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937 in support of Francisco Franco’s fascist overthrow of the democratically-elected Second Spanish Republic. A painting done by Pablo Picasso was based on this atrocity and exhibited at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and it is probably the most famous piece of political art of the twentieth century.

The second military engagement was the bombing of Benghasi, Libya by the United States Air Force in 1986, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The piece Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Benghasi is made up of four pieces of steel, each about nine inches thick. Two are squares, five feet by five feet. The other two are rectangles, five feet by about fifteen feet. They are all set parallel to each other on their sides (the rectangles on their longer sides). At one end of the room, the square is outside the rectangle while, on the other side of the room, the square is inside the rectangle. Between the two settings of two pieces each, there is an open space of about twenty-five feet.

I think the important artistic decision here was based upon on which side of the long pieces to place the short pieces.

This work is meaningless also, but it does have that inspiration and that title. The trouble is that, without Serra's insistence on the title, no one would ever guess that the piece has anything to do with Picasso, the Libyan people, the Spanish Civil War or anything. I guess Serra hopes that the title will give the piece narrative meaning, a historical reference. But it doesn't. Any of the pieces in this show could be given this same title, and it would make no sense in those cases either.

Maybe the explanation for the title lies in the fact that the piece was commissioned by the Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia in Spain, Picasso's birthplace and, of course, the setting for the Spanish Civil War. But that's irrelevant to any narrative sense the piece itself actually makes. The piece and its title are not connected in any way at all.

In the 1990s, Serra made some pieces that signaled his attempt at a new emotional framework, a place from which all of the hum-bug of his earlier work began to disappear. A few of these pieces are in this show, both of them in the outdoor Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Intersection II and Torqued Eclipse IV both feature curves, so that suddenly grace and eroticism become major elements in his work. You walk through these and, although they are made of the same sorts of industrial metals of which so much of his other work is constructed, their angled, elliptical imbalance — or so it seems imbalanced — gives them a kind of lovely liquidity. They feel like they're floating around you, even holding you … perhaps maternally, certainly sensually.

Upstairs, on the second floor, there are three pieces that are a culmination of this new idea, and it's with these, I think, that Richard Serra leaves the world of contemporary art marketing and its self-serving insistence and enters a place in which some nascent sense of elemental beauty and emotional release propels him to greatness.

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Torqued Torus Inversion, 2006

Band, Torqued Torus Inversion, and Sequence, all from 2006 and shown in this exhibition for the first time, are ribbon-like constructions between twelve and eighteen feet high, in which the ribbon is circled back upon itself, joined together here and there, and opened up from time to time so that the viewer can walk from one piece to another as though in a giant, sensuous maze. The walls of these ribbons move up at different curving angles from the floor. You feel your equilibrium faltering, but pleasantly so, as though the monumentality of the pieces is yet here to comfort you, to — dare I say — please you, to make you happy.

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Band, 2006

After having thought and written so disparagingly of Serra's earlier work, I went back to view these pieces with even greater care. I wanted to be sure that I wasn't being fooled … by the museum or by myself. But I saw again, even more profoundly, that they allow for endless views of curving metal, beautiful red-brown, that change and change again as you walk around them and through them, looking back and forth, each time struck by the subtlety of the curves, by their variety, by their very size and, most of all, by the obvious emotional richness of the consciousness that made them. I was utterly surprised. They are simply — marvelously — beautiful in their very surfaces and turns, and in the empty, curved spaces they provide in between for viewing.

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Sequence, 2006

With these, in the end, Richard Serra somehow, against the great odds established by almost all of his earlier work, has found a depth of emotional expression afforded almost never … to very, very few.

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About Terence Clarke

  • Having recently been blessed by a site specific sculpture by Richard Serra here at the MOCA in San Diego, “numbingly boring,” I find myself largely in agreement with the notion that “not every work that a great artist makes is great” – but very much in disagreement with your assessment of Serra’s earlier works.

    A lot of the earlier pieces are just that, “site-specific” meaning that the content and the context were essential to its “reading” by the viewer. Does this mean that the work is weak or incoherent or that it cannot live outside its specific context, no, it just means that times have changed and so have museums, artist’s studios, galleries and the like. What do I mean by this?, I’ll use “Delineator” to explain. All you have to do is look at the surrounding in which the piece has been installed – pristine white walls, hardwood floors, track lighting (notice how the lighting rail in the ceiling mimics the dimensions of the steel plaque), large expansive space and glass double doors that empty out directly onto the piece. It is nothing but interference for a work that was never intended to compete with a global standardization of un-questioned un-thoughtful exhibition space. And how about the height of the ceiling in relationship to the floor? Would it not make a difference to your perception of the piece had it been installed in a setting with only 8ft ceilings compared what looks like to be 20ft or more? I wonder how you would perceive “Delineator” if you did not have the luxury of walking around it or not having the option to engage the piece or not. You can’t forget that a lot of the minimalist and land art works being made in the 60’s and into the late 70’s was about ideas and concepts – about “hand’s off” from any physical intervention by the artist – no mark making, no trace of the artist, no color just the brutal stark material of the manufactured piece. Look to Donald Judd as a prime example of this working methodology.

    The irony for lack of a better word is that Serra’s “newer” works in my opinion are made for a museum, meaning made for the interior. They can be nothing more than pleasing, lacking the raw energy and thought of his earlier works.

  • Hello Kevin:

    Thanks for your remarks about Richard Serra’s earlier works . . . and his new work as well. Especially your reminder of his importance to the minimalist period of the sixties and seventies. You probably caught from my piece that I have a visceral dislike of Serra’s early work, and I think you supplied me with a new reason for that dislike, an explanation for his work that I believe is right on the mark. You write that a lot of the minimalist urge in art asks for an attitude of “’hand’s off’ from any physical intervention by the artist – no mark making, no trace of the artist, no color just the brutal stark material of the manufactured piece.” I believe you’re right about that, which is why I find so much of the work from that period so uninteresting.

    I cannot imagine a worthwhile piece of art that does not include physical intervention by the artist . . . i.e. his or her thoughtfulness, ideas, heart, emotional intensities and so on. I think those “marks” are essential to the making of any art of any kind, and do exist even if the artist intently believes that they should not. No matter the medium, the artist cannot negate himself from the piece. So, his wish that his own mark not appear in it hobbles the piece’s emotional effect, and causes it to be dull.

    It might be that my attitude comes from my own primary work as a novelist. I write about the human heart seeking knowledge within a community of conflicting feelings and ideas . . . i.e. a family, a tribe, a strange country. That vein is still the richest one of all despite the thousands of novels that have mined it over the centuries. The brutal stark material of the manufactured piece interests me the least of all those things from which art can be made.

    I hope you’ll look at a review I wrote of the recent Brice Marden exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, dated April 28, 2007. You can find it at http://www.terenceclarke.org.

    Thanks again for your comments. Much valued.

    Terry Clarke

  • Katie

    Dear Terrence,

    I had a very different interaction with the Guernica-Benghasi piece at the MoMA exhibition last summer. I went to the museum with a friend on a whim, had never heard of Richard Serra…I really don’t have much knowledge about modern art; I usually just get frustrated, because modern art to me often seems to require a sort of intellectualization, or explaining-away, of the piece and its elements in a way that, I think, rewards artists for being inaccessible and confusing.

    But to get back to the story, my friend and I wandered through the room with the large brown steel pieces, walking alongside the curves and remarking idly to one another how they were reminiscent of canyons, or polished wood, and how it might be cool to have a swimming pool shaped like one of these sculptures. (Sorry– )

    Then, when we arrived at the smaller room with the darker steel pieces, I looked around nonchalantly, and approached the two identical upright slabs of dark steel for a closer look. My visceral reaction to the piece was, “Okay, this totally reminds me of the bombings in World War II…creepy.” My friend chuckled, “Random,” but as I forced myself to walk between the two [what I could now, having voiced my concern, only see as destroyed walls], he had found the nameplate for it and said, “Wait, this piece is called ‘Guernica’–That’s the Spanish city that was bombed by the Nazis, and there’s also a Picasso painting of that same name.”

    I was shocked, and a little bit frightened. But my faith in [modern] art’s ability to quickly communicate a message was restored in that moment. Although the piece certainly does not have the monumental scope of the series of brown, curvy, room-size installments, my interaction with Guernica-Benghasi seemed as all-encompassing and universal as it was instantaneous…which is why I was so surprised by your review that I was provoked into writing this reaction.

    What was it about that piece that affected me so greatly? Was there something in the bleak coloring of the steel that sparked a subconscious association to the monochromatic chaos depicted in the Picasso painting (subequently researched) of the same name that I may have vaguely recalled from postcard or television images? Well, no, for most of the other sculptures in that room were made of steel treated in the same way… True, I definitely missed the reference to Libya, but (at the risk of doing some ‘explaining-away’ of my own) the very blankness and simplicity of the piece somehow conveyed to me the universality of desolation within massive-scale destruction; I had correctly picked up the reference to WWII, but it was just a metaphor, a paradigmatic example of a more universale human experience.

    Is it really mere coincidence that two “meaningless”, “ho-hum” slabs of steel could pinpoint, out of all the millions of things that I (not much of a MoMA enthusiast, though I’ve tried) could have thought of, the hopelessness that pervaded World War II and Nazi Germany– or should we perhaps give the artist some due credit? Can a piece really have failed if, even though most people may not be affected by it, just one person interacting with it can be transported to the correct mindframe, time period, political regime, or conflict that an empassioned mind was translating into his work with his hands? If so, shall we take a majority vote on what constitutes and does not constitute art? How then shall we define art, its meaning, and its purpose within the Western Liberal tradition that prizes the individual spirit and thought?

    I did not mean to ramble…but it is interesting to see how we two reacted so differently to the same piece…perhaps that justifies/necessitates all the ‘explaining-away’ modern art seems to require…i.e perhaps the ‘intellectualizing’ of modern art that I find so annoying is simply a reflection of the shift in placement of individualism from artist, to subject, and finally, to the viewer.


  • Hello Katie:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my piece and to Richard Serra’s sculpture. No, I don’t think the sculpture fails if one person sees in it the kinds of intensities you saw in Serra’s. As someone once said, there’s no accounting for taste, and for me the most valuable responses to art are those that are the most emotional. I can see how important the Guernica is to you. You express it very clearly, and my hat’s off to you for finding things in it that I did not.

    I still don’t care for the piece myself very much, but my reaction is visceral and emotional also, like yours. One of the reasons I look at so much art is that I want to be shaken by it, positively or negatively, and then to figure out why I reacted the way I did. In the end, I can explain it only with my emotions and, I hope, with some good writing.

    Many thanks,