In the late ’80s, towering curves of steel wedged into Leo Castelli’s old space on Greene Street dared us to walk between them. They were Serras, of course, and I took my folks, visiting from Lancaster farm country, to see them. They didn’t know much about art—when my wife once mentioned seeing a Cézanne show, my mother asked if he was a friend of ours. But my father was deeply impressed with the energy frozen in those hulking slabs, their improbable equipoise, like an armor-plated ballet. We were all startled when we descended to the basement to see the drawings and encountered massive timber balks rigged to support the artwork above. At this MOMA retrospective, you won’t see any such backstage underpinnings; no doubt the renovation took into account the load-bearing necessities of work such as Serra’s. (He’s reached such prominence that museum architects everywhere must contemplate the massive elements, and elemental masses, of his art.) What other sculpture can get you thinking about Manhattan schist, the deep, primordial rock that makes New York’s skyscrapers possible? Walk amid the four arcs of steel swerving through MOMA’s garden and the connection is evident: On one side, the walls close in; on the other, they open to the sky and your body senses gravity pulling the off-kilter bases to the center of the earth. The steel billows like the sails of a clipper ship, even as the rusted surface places you in a rowboat about to be swamped by an oil tanker. Indoors, early pieces reveal Serra finding his footing: Bolts of neon feel arbitrary, lifted from other ’60s artists with more instinct for color, while pendulous belts of rubber have a flabbiness the sculptor soon expunged. The “Prop Pieces”—tons of precariously balanced plates and rolls of lead—are where Serra hits his stride: You sense that a hearty push of your finger would bring them down like a fatal house of cards. This danger manifests bluntly in 1975’s Delineator, one colossal slab of steel on the ceiling, another laid perpendicularly on the floor, waiting for someone to walk between them—a single engineering miscalculation away from being squashed flat as a pancake. Such matter-of-fact brutishness gives way to elegance on the second floor, in the canyons of the most recent works, Sequence, Band, and Torqued Torus Inversion (all from 2006). You don’t look at these ribbonlike walls as much as you experience them, very like slaloming down a ski slope—they bend toward or away from you, then cut off your exit as the path in front continuously unfurls, urging you on. What an oddball joy to stand amid these soaring behemoths and feel the crushing tonnage evaporate into ephemeral grace. The show’s closing soon, to justifiably great reviews, so do yourself a favor: Go and take a load off.
Susan Meiselas: ‘Pandora’s Box’
In 1995, this Magnum photographer—known for documenting human-rights issues in Latin America—switched gears with a series shot at the high-end Manhattan s&m club Pandora’s Box, which styled itself the “Disneyland of Domination.” Piggybacking on the lighting supplied by a film crew working the same turf, Meiselas took 35mm shots that feel as saturated as movie stills. Men kneel or stand at attention, buckles dangling from their leather corsets; one client wears a black hood studded with a mohawk made of .50-caliber bullets, his mistress lounging in front of an ersatz Titian Venus. A video monitor displays a balding customer being led down an elegant corridor, the head of his high-booted dominatrix obscured by dark-gray scan lines. As the workers take a cigarette break, one gazes desultorily at her reflection in a mirror—everyone here is an object, the bodies on both sides of the transaction as commodified as the slaughtered cattle that supplied all the leather getups. Cohen Amador, 41 E 57th, 212-759-6740. Through September 15.
Richard Sexton: ‘Terra Incognita’
The beautiful duotones in this book, subtitled Photographs of America’s Third Coast, reveal a photographer with a painter’s patience—the desolation in these views along the Gulf Coast imply a long trek before the tripod is even set down. Nothing in these extremely fine-grained prints remotely resembles a “snapshot.” Black branches of dead trees scribble across luminously gray skies; humps of white sand scoured by the wind contrast with frazzled skeins of vegetation darkening their lee sides; Spanish moss drips down like the turpentine drizzles in an abstract-expressionist painting; distant shorelines are as soft and gray as charcoal smudges. Sexton’s spare compositions coalesce into a portrait of nature as the ultimate abstractionist. 128 pp., $50, chroniclebooks.com
Whether it’s rotting tomatoes hyper-realistically fabricated from thermoset plastic, vitrines filled with polymer fungus, or a sandblasting “Erosion Machine” that sculpts desolate tableaux from a slab of red sandstone, Paine gives us artificial nature with a vengeance. Now come welded, stainless-steel trees in Madison Square Park: The 42-foot-high trunk of Defunct sprouts bare, broken limbs and is studded with shelf fungi, big as dinner plates, ostensibly feasting on the decaying wood. Conjoined features two trees leaning into each other, their lithe branches entwined like a cat’s cradle, bright and jagged as lightning. It will be fascinating, as winter grinds on, to watch the park’s real trees begin to look more like Paine’s. The battered steel welds of his seven-foot-high boulder, Erratic, reinforce its title, a geologic term for a massive rock that has ridden a glacier far from its native turf; it’s from somewhere else, like so many of the strolling folk around it. Madison Square Park, Fifth Avenue and 23rd. Through December 31.