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Buona Serra

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The show explodes on the second floor with three supercolossal new steel pieces. Each curvaceous piece is as big as a barge; two conical shapes look like heavy-metal blancmanges or nuclear-plant cooling towers; together all three sculptures weigh more than a million pounds. Allegedly about the twisting ellipses and soaring forms of the Baroque, these works feel mouthwateringly lyrical. Walking around these undulating sidewinders is like being around a herd of otherworldly elephants, or seeing steel skirts blowing in the breeze. Here you understand that Serra’s foes are right: His work is not about looking. These sculptures are so huge that they blind you. This work takes you on a sensuous trip beyond language and optics to a place where physical sensations replace sight. You don’t see a Serra with your eyes; you see it with your whole body. Sheer excess disarms sight. You walk around and through a Serra, brushing very close to it—closer than to any art I can think of—taking in its weight, texture, temperature, mass, and volume with parts of you you didn’t know you had. Flow, fullness, and rhythm become ways of knowing. It’s like being very close to another person; vision is useless as it’s subsumed into other parts of your body; you experience a loss of control. Surprise, entrancement, and enchantment mingle, and you become a walking nerve ending.

A famous female curator I know disparages Serra’s sculptures as “big dick art.” It sure is macho, but the particulars are anything but male, especially in the flesh. Serra’s ruddy, overlapping plica and pleats of swelling steel collapse gender and describe a kind of labial interface with space. His shapes and configurations are vulvalike, surfaces are silky and puckered, outside and inside merge, folds envelop folds, and the sculptures become embarrassingly erotic. As Fred Astaire sang, “It’s romancing out loud.” These sculptures are so open they exhibit an almost animalistic state of sexual presenting. They reveal themselves, yet they preserve their wholeness and mystery. They’re like Manet’s Olympia, posing unashamedly while also concealing her sex.

After all this juiciness, before you head out into the garden to see the two behemoths, pause before Rodin’s great phallic Balzac and think about how the processes and materiality you’ve experienced in the Serra show began here. Seeing two huge Serras just inches from Matisse’s four great black sculptures is also revelatory. Matisse was trying to merge skin and material, surface and figure, support and illusion—he wanted to blur your perception with abundance. Serra wants all this, too. Like Matisse’s work, his is savage, decorative, and enticing. Like Malevich’s, it’s unrelenting. Eva Hesse said she was trying to make “nothings.” Serra is trying to make all-or-nothing somethings. Sometimes that can turn obnoxious or boring. Much of the time, however, you can delight in sculptures that are a combination of cave walls, the circus’s coming to town, fortresses, flowers, and a force of nature.

Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years
The Museum of Modern Art. Through September 10.

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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