Richard Serra takes up a lot of space. Which is not to say that he’s a big guy—only about five-five, with a wiry build—but that he expands to fill the available room: pacing, gesturing, reaching for pencil and paper, and picking up, with swift strokes of graphite, where his words trail off.
His sculptures take up even more space, space that MoMA has never afforded them, until now. This month, three new works, incorporating several hundred tons of Cor-Ten steel, were hauled into the museum’s contemporary galleries in preparation for the retrospective “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years,” opening June 3. Two more were hoisted by crane over the wall of the sculpture garden, and earlier works—smaller and lighter, but still formidable, made of lead and vulcanized rubber—will be shown on the sixth floor. The late curator Kirk Varnedoe specified, before MoMA’s renovation, that the floors in the contemporary galleries had to be built to support Serra’s art. He’s actually engineered into the building.
New York hasn’t always been so accommodating. In 1981, Serra’s notorious Tilted Arc, a 120-foot steel curve commissioned by the federal government, was installed at Federal Plaza. Workers complained that the sculpture blocked their view and shielded muggers; security personnel said it could serve as a blast wall for terrorist bombs; a judge claimed that it was exacerbating a rat problem. Serra insisted that the sculpture was site-specific and couldn’t be moved. After a public hearing and a legal battle, Tilted Arc was cut up in 1989 and carted off to a warehouse, where it remains. If he learned anything from the experience, Serra says, it’s that “the government has no use for art or artists.” He pauses. “I don’t think I helped myself, in terms of my personality. I didn’t understand the media.” (For a vintage example, take a look at Television Delivers People, a 1973 anti-corporate video screed now available on YouTube.) Certainly statements like “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people” rankled many New Yorkers, even as artists and critics rose to Serra’s defense. It didn’t help that his art had, indirectly, killed someone (a rigger, crushed to death in the early seventies). Sculpture was supposed to be an object in a gallery, something to be politely circumnavigated; Serra’s art swallowed you whole.
With this retrospective, the disconnect between the Serra loathed by the public and the Serra lauded by the art world may, finally, be history. It’s not that the combative artist has become softer or less difficult. But, in the past decade, our relationship to contemporary art has shifted. As Miami-Basel party crashers and MoMA’s many corporate sponsors can attest, work that used to be seen as an elitist diversion now counts as mass entertainment. (Think of Jeff Koons’s Puppy at Rockefeller Center.) Museums, in the midst of a steroidal building boom, are making room for Serra; two of the three new sculptures in the show are likely to go to a new wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Just as important, Serra developed an unusually rich body of work during the nineties, beginning with a series called “Torqued Ellipses”—a rare second act for a mature artist, especially for a sculptor of Serra’s generation. Successful peers Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark died young, and many others simply faded away.
Serra, born in San Francisco in 1939, came to New York in 1966, after attending UC Santa Barbara and Yale (he paid his tuition by working at steel mills). In New Haven, he was once kicked out of class for parodying Robert Rauschenberg with a live chicken on a pedestal. Living in a Greenwich Street loft, he thrived on the experimental scene. At one point, he started a moving company with Chuck Close, Philip Glass, Spalding Gray, and others. As he recently explained, “In those days, when someone sold out a show, they would say ‘too bad—the client knows what you’re doing.’ ”
By most accounts, Serra’s first big breakthrough was a 1969 performance-sculpture made with molten lead in a Harlem warehouse, sponsored by Leo Castelli. Critics called his splashings “ejaculations against the wall,” even though they were made painstakingly, by building up the lead gradually, spoonful by spoonful. Serra occupied an important niche between the sleek, inert minimalism of Donald Judd and Smithson’s messy earth art. The influential critics in the October gang hailed him for expanding the field of sculpture, taking it off the pedestal and making the viewer’s movement part of the experience.
It took decades for ordinary New Yorkers to recognize Serra’s contribution to sculpture, even after the Tilted Arc fiasco. The turning point was a 1997 exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea, showcasing a new body of work called the “Torqued Ellipses.” The forms, Serra says, were inspired by a misreading of the floor-and-ceiling ellipses in Borromini’s church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. Staring up at the ceiling from a side entrance, he wondered if an elliptical volume could be made to twist in elevation without changing its radius from top to bottom—without, that is, narrowing at one end like a flowerpot. Frank Gehry’s engineer told him it probably couldn’t be done, at least not in steel. Serra figured out a way, first making wobbly plywood models and rolling them up in sheets of lead. That’s typical of Serra’s weird relationship to architects: friendly, competitive, and occasionally disdainful. “Museums have to be as fluid as they can,” he says. “One of the problems is that architects are not.”