Richard Serra—that rare artist whose ambition, though colossal, still stands in the shadow of his achievement—needs no introduction. At least that’s what the curators of this monumental retrospective have decided. On the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, no measly, piddling words, framed by mere mortals adept at critical thinking, interfere with our unmediated experience of the work itself.
Instead, as we enter the exhibition, Delineator (1974–75) extends before us, an immense sheet of hot-rolled steel, laid out upon the floor like a red carpet before impending royalty. We’re invited to walk upon it, though at our own risk, for looking up we notice another enormous plate hanging crosswise from the ceiling.
Here, from the outset, is the implied threat of Serra’s art (how thin a sandwich I’d make, I thought, pressed between those two pieces of metal) and also its promise. Look no further, the sculptor seems to be saying-—heaven and earth, an entire universe of feeling, lie within these gallery walls.
Big claims. The surprise is how much Serra’s work actually delivers. Yes, it’s “guy” art, the last, beautiful gasp of the machine age, its hulking, rusted forms recalling any number of industrial ruins. The four nearly parallel, 13-foot-tall, two-inch-thick curved walls of Intersection II (1992–93), for example, list this way and that in MOMA’s garden (where the exhibition continues), like the beached hull of an abandoned ship. Engineers and crane operators calculated with minute precision, men with large forearms heaved and grunted, to put in place sculptures whose effects are largely immaterial: stretching out our perception of the work through time and narrative suspension; reordering, through shifts in our visual field, our relationship to our own bodies.
This paradoxical art (at once physical and conceptual) has its roots in the relentless experimentation of the 1960s, when artists sat around doing strange things in the cold-water lofts of Lower Manhattan. There, Richard Serra—born in San Francisco to a Russian-Jewish mother and a Spanish father who became a factory foreman—arrived in 1966, after a stint studying painting at Yale Graduate School and a long detour in Europe.
The MOMA retrospective includes his early works, sculptures leaning against the wall or posed on the floor, made of materials that have an alchemical ring to them, like vulcanized rubber and lead. Artists (including dancers and musicians) at the time were focusing on process, so Serra made a list of verbs—”to roll, to crease, etc.”—and began exploring the sculptural effects of each act. He lifted the edge of a heavy piece of rubber, for example, and found it falling in a soft fold that resembled a king’s mantle, a clerical garment, or a tallit. His spectacular investigations of the verb “to prop” consisted of enormous lead slabs and pipes poised precariously against each other, as if the gods were amusing themselves by building one-ton houses of cards.
And his works kept getting bigger. MOMA’s exhibition concludes dramatically in its vast, second-floor galleries, with the installation of three huge pieces in steel, all created within the last year. Band, a 71-foot-long, curvilinear ribbon, snakes along one end, beside Sequence, a set of unevenly rotated spirals coiling into each other, and Torqued Torus Inversion, a mirrored pair of twisted conical sections that you enter like chapels. Each of these works is over12 feet high; from within, only the tops of the gallery walls and the ceiling are visible.
Moving through them is, like good sex, a dizzying experience—at once sensual and psychological; triggering, in the intimate recesses of bodily awareness, unconscious memories and rare emotions (awe, wonder, gratitude); deeply satisfy- ing and yet also inspiring a yearning for that which remains ungraspable through mere perception.
The disorientation they provoke invites communion. Winding along the narrow corridors of Sequence, we forget, for a moment, who we are, finding our only sure reference points in the strangers who are our provisional companions. About two-thirds of the way through, panicking, the labyrinth seems endless; finally, released into the spiral’s center, our palpable relief is accompanied by a disquieting sense of déjà vu. We cannot map the journey we’ve just taken, and that fact is both unnerving and profoundly liberating.
Serra wasn’t always the go-to person for feel-good art, however complex. (One senses he would bristle mightily at that description.) His Tilted Arc, installed more than two decades ago at Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, was accused of everything from spoiling office workers’ lunch hours to potentially abetting terrorism; it was finally destroyed (after a notorious legal battle) by the federal government. The shift that’s occurred since then has something to do with changes in architectural practice, where the curved line is now part of every designer’s vocabulary. It’s also a testament to the way new art educates the public eye.
In fact, more than one museum of contemporary art has recently been constructed with Serra’s work in mind. I’m not certain this is entirely a good thing. When I visited Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for example, I wondered what other art its main exhibition hall, stretching just over a football field in length, might comfortably house. (It turns out that an exhibit of Serra’s works, installed there last year, will occupy the gallery for the next quarter-century.) I’d hate to see a spate of Serra imitators, for example, with ever-expanding museums built to shelter their overblown art. Size, after all, is not really what matters. Brilliance and intensity (as he’s shown us) comes in all dimensions.