by Pamela Popeson
â€œWork out of your work. Donâ€™t work out of anybody elseâ€™s work,â€ is Richard Serraâ€™s counsel to artist/interviewer Mark Simmons in the Coagula Contemporary Art Journal. Sound, supportable, and credible advice as we come to see in a new retrospective of his work currently showing at MoMA: Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years.
Serra also likes to say that work comes out of work, that you donâ€™t just wake up one day with an idea; ideas come from the work and from working, though he credits outside events, like participating in Yvonne Rainerâ€™s performance art and reading Thoreau, with having led him further. He names the experience of walking in the shipyards with his father as a child and visiting Borrominiâ€™s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane with having informed his sculpture, though in the case of Borromini he says he arrived there having already formulated a set of questions regarding his own explorations. Serra has admired Donatelloâ€™s ability to express volume, and while living in Florence he made daily visits to his bronze â€œDavidâ€ and to Masaccioâ€™s Brancacci Chapel frescoes.
The artists of the Renaissance did the same. Donatello worked with Brunelleschi, and the two visited Rome together to view and study the ruins. They both knew and worked with Ghiberti. Bernini was Borrominiâ€™s supervisor at the Palazzo Barberini and took him under his wing, recommending him for other projects, though the two later competed for the same commissions. They all crossed disciplines; besides vying for and receiving architectural competitions, they studied mathematics and science.
And like the Florentines, Serra studied and trained under other masters and worked side by side with the other young art lions of his (and our) time. He studied literature at UC Santa Barbara with Huxley and, as a painting student at Yale, worked with and for Josef Albers. He knew Phillip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella in the early 60â€™s. His New York friends included Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson. Philip Glass and Jasper Johns helped him install his pieces, and Serra speaks of Donald Judd taking him under his wing because â€œhe liked what he was up to.â€ What Serra and these other artists were up to, like the Florentines before them, was extending the language of art beyond anything known or imagined.
In 1967 Serra made a (now famous) list of transitive verbs and began experimenting with his materials — industrial rubber and lead for the most part — as physical manifestations of those verbs. The first on the list is â€œto rollâ€; the last is â€œto continue.â€ Transitive verbs are those that need a direct object to complete their meaning, and there are several pieces in the exhibit directly relating to those explorations. The most exquisite example is â€œTo Liftâ€ (1967). By lifting a sheet of vulcanized rubber (from one point), Serra completely reinvented it and the space it inhabits. And he continues to challenge and reinvent objects and forms and space. Before our very eyes.
The big bonus of a retrospective is that you can see the development of an artistâ€™s body of work, see how one series of explorations or experiments might lead to another, see exactly what â€œworking out of your workâ€ looks like. There are 27 pieces in the exhibition, installed throughout the museum in two main galleries (6th and 2nd floors) and the outdoor Sculpture Garden. The earliest are selections from his series in rubber dating from 1966, and the most recent — three large rolled steel installations entitled â€œBandâ€, â€œTorqued Torus Inversionâ€, and â€œSequenceâ€ (2006) — were made specifically for this show, or rather specifically for the museumâ€™s 2nd floor Contemporary Galleries.
The exhibit begins on the 6th floor, and as you enter the first gallery you also â€œenterâ€ Serraâ€™s sculpture â€œDelineatorâ€ (1974 -75). The piece consists of two large hot-rolled steel plates each 1â€ X 10â€™ X 26â€™, one placed directly on the floor in the center of the room and the other positioned on the ceiling, centered above and perpendicular to the one on the floor. Whether you choose to walk onto and across the floor plate, placing yourself under the one suspended on the ceiling, or around the perimeter of the plates, the room is completely reordered by their presence. Perceptions of form, mass, gravity, and space are called into question. And thatâ€™s just the beginning. With the large steel works on the 2nd floor and in the garden, Serra continues pushing the bounds of our knowledge and understanding of mass and our relationship to space geometrically. Everything changed when sculpture first came off the pedestal and into the same space as the viewer. Now Serra has moved things much further along by implicating the viewer.
John Adams said â€œWhen a great question is first started there are very few, even of the greatest minds, which suddenly and instinctively comprehend it in all its consequences.â€ Perhaps that was the issue with â€œTilted Arcâ€ (1981), Serraâ€™s 120â€™ x 12â€™ steel sculpture commissioned by the Arts-in-Architecture program of the U.S. General Services Administration and installed in downtown Manhattan in Federal Plaza, only to be removed and destroyed by the government.
The main objection, as I recall from reading the paper at the time, was that â€œTilted Arcâ€ was a nuisance to workers in the building because they liked to walk directly across the plaza and now had to walk around the sculpture to cross it. The other objection was that litter collected along the base of sculpture, when before it could blow across the plaza. The number of people in favor of keeping the sculpture who testified at the public hearing (other artists, curators, art critics, and art historians) was twice the number in favor of its removal. Nevertheless, the jury of five voted 4 to 1 to remove the work. Serra appealed, unsuccessfully, and on March 15, 1989 (under the cloak of darkness) federal workers cut the piece into three sections and hauled it off to a scrap-metal yard. Itâ€™s still unclear (at least to me) how and why this happened and exactly who was behind it. What is clear is that they were unable to comprehend what he was up to.
Serraâ€™s sculpture may bear the distinction of being the only work destroyed by the government but he is certainly not alone in the â€œthey were unable to comprehendâ€ department. In the documentary film â€œMondrian, Mr. Boogie-Woogie Manâ€, Piet Mondrian tells us that he almost gave up painting because the only pieces he could sell were flower illustrations. (We also discover Mondrian was a jazz fan and serious dancer, with actual footage of him cutting a â€œboogie-woogieâ€ rug.) For Mondrian to have quit would be unfathomable. The consequences would have been staggering, too frightening to consider. Luckily he persevered.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Serra said that â€œin order to persevere you have to be obstinate, be marginalized, and, depending upon your personality, stay away from the sociability of the art world.â€ Fortunately for us, Serra is all that and more, and he continued — and continues — to work from his own work.
â€œOne rejoices that these men felt no embarrassment at being persistently, at times awkwardly serious, according to their natures,â€ writes Catherine Drinker Bowen in â€œMiracle at Philadelphiaâ€, her narrative about the framers of the Constitution. She reminds us that the Constitutional Convention proceedings were constantly in danger of being shut down because resistance to forming a Union was so great. Another close call, perhaps of a different stripe, but a powerful illustration of the importance of working from your own work.
Serra also tells Rose that he â€œis not here to teach you.â€ Nevertheless, he does teach us about space and form and gravity and mass, and, perhaps more importantly because his work involves us directly in the experience of the restructuring of sculptural perceptions, we learn about our own relationship to space and form and gravity and mass. We also learn by the authenticity of his actions through his work the value of being true to your nature. One rejoices.
Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years is up until September 10, 2007. Visit www.moma.org for hours, etc.
To view the “online exhibit”: www.moma.org/exhibitions/2007/serra/
The exceptional exhibition catalogue includes interviews with Serra and the exhibition co-curators, Kynaston McShine, MoMAâ€™s Curator at Large, and Lynne Cooke, curator at the Dia Art Foundation, both of whom have had longstanding relationships with Serra.
Video walk-throughs of the galleries at MoMA with curatorial commentary and time-lapse footage of the exhibition installation can be found online at youtube. Video downloads of the Charlie Rose interviews can easily be found online, as can Serraâ€™s verb list and numerous print and video interviews with the artist. The Coagula Interview by Mark Simmons is at www.coagula.com/serra.html.
“Band” 2006, weatherproof steel Overall: 12′ 9″ x 36′ 5″ x 71′ 9 1/2″ (3.9 x 11.1 x 21.9 m), plate: 2″ (5.1 cm) thick. Photo: Lorenz Kienzle”
“1-1-1-1″, 1969, Lead antimony, four plates, each: 48 x
48″ (121.9 x 121.9 cm), pole: 7′ (2.1 m) long. Photo: Jenny Oku
“To Lift”, 1967 Vulcanized rubber 36″ x 6′ 8″ (91.4 x 200cm). Photo: Peter Moore
“Sequence” 2006, installation view. Shown: “Torqued Torus Inversion”, 2006, weatherproof steel; “Band”, 2006, weatherproof steel. Photo: Lorenz Kienzle.
“Sequence” 2006, installation view. Shown: Sequence, 2006, Weatherproof steel; “Torqued Torus Inversion”, 2006, weatherproof steel; “Band”, 2006, weatherproof steel. Photo: Lorenz Kienzle