Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Richard Serra the Mensch?

Michael Kimmelman goes to great lengths in his review of the new exhibition at the Guggenheim in Bilbao to reframe the public perception of superstar sculptor Richard Serra.
The installation is one of the great works of the past half-century, the culmination of a remarkable fruition in Mr. Serra's career. It rejuvenates and pushes abstraction to a fresh level. And it is deeply humane, not least because it counts on individual perception, individual discovery.
Humane? Serra? Really?

Look up any bio of Serra, even a very short one, and you'll see noted the fact that he so misunderstood the location (and people who live/work there) of his lower Manhattan behemoth outdoor sculpture Tilted Arc (1981) that he was forced to remove it quite unceremoniously. What's surprising about that episode is how Serra's resentment got so much press and support among art world types. The rightful (IMO) resentment of the public was pooh-poohed.

Kimmelman argues that since then Serra has perfected his visual language (and downplays the difference context makes to viewers...that what they're willing to tolerate in a museum is vastly different from what they're willing to tolerate in their daily commute) and that his newest pieces are no longer about mountains of raw steel or the artist's ego, but rather about the individual interacting with them:
Mr. Serra's sculptures are massive, but their materiality is subordinated to intangibles of perception. [...] You might say that they shift the focus from sculpture as object to the viewer as subject.
You might, but I won't. Serra remains for me, along side di Suervo and even Smithson and to some sense Judd et al., the most offensive sort of artist. When I saw the Serra room at Dia:Beacon, sure I enjoyed, in a "when in Vegas, get into the spirit of it" sort of way, wandering through the maze of cavernous leaning walls, feeling dwarfed by all that cold metal, but all the while my most urgent question was finding out how the hell they got them in there. Eventually I made my way to the end of the hangar-sized room and found the giagantic garage doors...ahh, I thought...so that's how. And, sadly, little more.

The feeling was similar to watching a blockbuster movie and being so bored by the narrative your mind wanders to how much it cost them to shut down that section of Manhattan long enough to film there. At the point, whatever the medium, the piece fails. Serra's work has yet to transcend that impression for me. There were other works at Dia whose installation required just as much engineering, now that I think about it, but I was so swept away by their presence when faced with them, it was the furthest thing from my mind.

I could go on, but it's still possible one day Serra's work will "click" for me and I'll want to take all this back. Until then, by all means, wander through them...they're a wonderful feat of installation, wherever they may be.


Anonymous bambino said...

I really enjoyed all of the works that I saw in Beacon. Thanks :) It was a great trip.

6/07/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon said...

It was at the Dia: Beacon that I recovered some interest in Serra. There was something about the tweaked angles of the semi-spirals, something about being enclosed in almost-rusting iron, that really overwhelmed me. I still remember the smell of that installation--dark, cold, oxidizing, and very specific. It's not necessarily the kind of sculpture I'd like to live with in the local park or on the sidewalk outside my apartment building, but there was something to that Beacon installation that did move me.

(It might have something to do with the fact that I was left cold by so many of the other pieces at Beacon, but that's another matter...)

6/08/2005 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I do agree with Kimmelman that Serra's perfecting his language, but I was not impressed enough at Dia to stop wondering about the logistics of moving those pieces into place.

6/08/2005 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Serra has hinted, if not outright proclaimed, that the means in which he creates his sculpture are an integral part of it. In the context of his earlier work in so called "process art", such as his lead works that are more aimed at exemplifying the act of pushing, pulling, smashing as they are objects in themselves, this makes perfect sense. Although, in the steel sculptures, he says that he intends to create a space for people to walk around in, yet remain entirely non-functional. That's the unique thing about it. It's a nudge in a bit of a different direction for sculpture. Whether anyone who isn't a sculptor cares about that sort of thing is another issue entirely.

It's basically the issue surrounding the whole tilted arc thing. The idea is that we can't have government sponsored art if the government has much say in what is produced, because they will then have the control and their perceptions will unbalance the system. However, all modern famous art is produced under such a system, whether colleges, governments, galleries, or other entities are the backers, the result is the same. They decide who their favorite artists are and give them the money to create more, larger, or more prominently displayed pieces that in-turn influence how popular the artist is.

I don't mean to say that these artists have hoodwinked the public. It would be fairly hard for them to become famous among their peers as well as the public without having some redeeming qualities. Just that their voices are being heard in place of others that may be just as worthy, or more so.

Either way, somewhere along the way, someone should have said, "well, we appreciate your vision Mr. Serra, but we have to consider the foot traffic." I mean, would the tilted arc be appropriate in the middle of the interstate? Personally, I think that would be hilarious, moving even, but the government has the unhilarious duty to decide that that just wouldn't be ideal.

7/27/2006 04:31:00 AM  

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