The first “Torqued Ellipse” took three years to make. By the time he was done, Dia had gained a new chairman, Leonard Riggio, who was sufficiently wowed to push for acquiring all three. (You can see them at Dia:Beacon.) Serra says that their warm reception surprised him. “I thought the first lead prop pieces I did were a breakthrough; I thought the splash piece was a breakthrough. But I think because people could enter into these pieces, my work became more accessible. They could walk in and find something that wasn’t in nature and wasn’t in architecture.”
Not in nature, not in architecture. Serra often uses these words to describe his art, defining it by what it isn’t, but after 9/11 the phrase acquired special resonance. That fall, Serra’s solo exhibition at Gagosian opened on October 18 (rescheduled from a month earlier, because the truckers had gone to work at ground zero). It was impossible to walk through his “Torqued Spirals” series without being reminded of that other twisted steel sculpture a few blocks down West Street. After negotiating a curved, narrowing passage, you suddenly found yourself in an open chamber, a metallic tang in the air.
For most of this decade, Gagosian and Dia were the only places in the city where you could see Serra’s large-scale sculptures. The largest and most significant site of his work is in Bilbao, Spain, where the Guggenheim mounted a permanent installation in 2005. Even against the flashy topology of Gehry’s architecture, Serra’s forms held their own; Robert Hughes said the work “dominates Gehry’s space like a rhinoceros in a parlour.” Serra might disagree. “Frank was a close friend of mine for about 25 years,” the artist says carefully, but the past tense is deliberate—the two had a big falling-out in 2001, after Serra told Charlie Rose, “I draw better in my sculpture than he draws in his architecture. Frank is parading right now, and so are all of these mouthpiece critics that, you know, support him as ‘The Artist.’ … Hogwash. Don’t believe it.” Today, Serra says of Gehry’s Guggenheim, “He built a very large shed that you couldn’t really partition. It didn’t function too well for other works of art; paintings kind of disappeared, or people just passed them by. People go there to see the building; if they happen to see my work, fine.”
MoMA’s retrospective was supposed to have been a joint project with Dia, before the foundation lost its space in Manhattan. “When Dia lost its real estate, I assumed I was just going to show three new pieces in the sculpture garden and that’s it,” says Serra. “[MoMA director Glenn] Lowry stepped up and said, We’ll take over.” The show is entirely devoted to sculpture; while sketching is a constant for Serra—during our talk, he reached for a pencil at least three times—he thinks of his drawings as “an autonomous body of work.” One, made with muscular strokes of black oil stick and depicting a hooded Abu Ghraib detainee below a scrawled STOP BUSH, was shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and spawned posters, and even a “Stop Serra” parody. “I didn’t think of that as an artwork. I was just pissed off,” he says. “And I’ll do it for the next election—probably for Obama and against Giuliani.”
Serra is still trying to make steel do things unprecedented in nature or architecture. “I actually taught the steel-producing industry to make forms they’d never dealt with before, and build machines they’d never built before to make them, which has helped them receive jobs in the aerospace industry,” he says. “We’ve come up together.” Band, a 72-foot serpentine ribbon, and the smaller and more subtle Torqued Torus Inversion, look simple enough in Serra’s quick sketches but become impossible to size up in elevation, the walls appearing to slant backward or forward with the minutest shift in the viewer’s position. The effect is especially spectacular in Sequence, a curlicued S that you enter on one side, emerging from another after negotiating a dizzying double spiral. “It’s almost like walking a Möbius strip—you get confused about what’s inside and outside,” the artist says.
Later, in the sculpture garden, Serra surveys the outdoor portion of the retrospective, and in the sun’s glare the brown steel looks almost like crushed velvet. “Cor-Ten steel is a time capsule. It oxidizes over eight to ten years, forms a skin, and then is permanent,” Serra says. You can see the difference between the two sculptures in the garden: Torqued Ellipse IV (1998) is younger than Intersection II (1992–1993), but it has a more uniform ruddiness; it was exposed to the elements while the older piece sat in storage. There’s a sign warning viewers not to touch, but not because the works are at risk of vandalism. Apparently, says Serra, small children running through the sculptures just can’t keep their hands off them.