Tuesday was the press preview for the Richard Serra show at MoMA (up through September 10). First, of course, I had to go to the MoMA Design Store, but they were out of the key chains I wanted. Anyway, I got to the museum in time to witness Serra being introduced as one of the greatest sculptors of our time, which he undoubtedly is—if not the greatest—and I must grudgingly go along with that assessment.
I used to hate Serra’s work, finding it ego-driven and misanthropic in the extreme. He’d set up four heavy metal plates and lean them against one another so they formed a cube that looked as if it might collapse at any moment; it seemed to be all about very heavy stuff that could possibly fall on you. Then a piece did kill a rigger who was installing it--and that Serra would later make drawings entitled Dead Weight and show them in the same gallery space where that tragedy occurred seemed the height of insensitivity, not to speak of bad taste. In the Tilted Arc controversy in the eighties, I agreed with the government workers who wanted the sculpture removed from the plaza in front of the building in which they worked. Who wants to have lunch in the shadow of a big metal plate that looks if it could fall any minute? And since when does the term “site-specific” refer only the physical aspects of the place and not take into account the wellbeing of the people who use it? Art is important, but not that important.
However just as I believe it shouldn’t make any difference if an artist has Alzheimer’s (see Something to look forward to below), I also don’t think the personality of the artist—whether he’s anti-Semitic like Richard Wagner or just a hard s.o.b. like Serra--has any place in the evaluation of the work. The work is the work. So when Serra began to make pieces that really spoke to me—the Torqued Elipses in the nineties—I had to make myself forget all that other stuff. Where the earlier sculpture underscored what we already know about steel—that it’s heavy, flat, and solid and can kill you—the many-tonned Torqued Elipses work against the material’s innate qualities to become lyrical, pliable, curving, soaring and, like Gehry’s architecture, solidly grounded as much as they are unbalanced and unpredictable. When the Torqued Elipses were shown at the Dia Foundation they were a revelation. And the pieces in the sculpture garden at MoMA are wonderfully sited—the steel plays off the marble garden floor, the foliage, the sky, and the vast cityscape. However Serra’s monsters loose their vitality when they’re incarcerated in the white windowless rectangles of the interior galleries and lit with generic track lighting (really, with a gazillion dollars to play with, can’t MoMA come up with anything better?) so that they ultimately end up looking like so many caged hippos. In an effort to avoid creating a context that wouldn't compete with the sculpture, the museum setting has drained them of all life.
Like the government workers in the Federal Building, they need a place to breathe.