Buona Serra

Serra's Intersection II (1992–93), at MoMA.Photo: Lorenz Kienzle/© 2007 Richard Serra/ARS/Courtesy of MoMA

Mission accomplished. The Museum of Modern Art’s wide-open, tall-ceilinged, super-reinforced second floor was for all intents and purposes built to accommodate monumental installations and gigantic sculptures, should the need arise. It has arisen.

The artist everyone assumed MoMA was thinking of was the raja of weight and steel, Richard Serra. Sundry MoMA muckety-mucks, including the late great curator Kirk Varnedoe, said the new building was designed with Serra in mind. At Serra’s opening dinner, the president of MoMA’s board of trustees, Marie-Josée Kravis, mused to a crowd of more than 500, “Richard, we built this for you.” It’s as if they’re all saying, Never mind all the rest of you artistic dwarfs.

Well, MoMA wanted a mighty Serra show, and not, say, a mighty Eva Hesse or Hélio Oiticica show—to name two artists of Serra’s generation—or even, for that matter, a complete Serra survey. So despite the seeming preordination of it all, and the fact that the work sometimes feels decorative, inert, or like a fun house, and the prop pieces—protected, as they have to be, within a Plexiglas pen—look like they’re in a petting zoo, it’s only fair to say that a mighty Serra show is what MoMA got. “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years” is gutsy and perception-altering. Call it Sculpture Maximus. As I left, the world seemed to transform into oscillating wave patterns and semisolid biological influxes and entities.

Given all this adulation, what, exactly, is the art world celebrating? Claims of Serra’s preeminence and universality are widely sounded by theoreticians, academics, and critics. Museums revere him. Not only is “Forty Years” the roomiest exhibition the Modern has ever devoted to a living artist, it’s the second retrospective the museum has devoted to Serra (the first was in 1986), which makes him MoMA’s current Picasso. Architects venerate and emulate him. The Guggenheim Bilbao (which has eight Serras permanently installed in its ridiculously oversize main gallery) owes so much of its design to Serra that he could conceivably sue Frank Gehry for intellectual-property theft. If not for Serra, there would be no Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, as effective as it is, is essentially a Serra with names on it. Yet Serra’s master-of-the-universe grandiosity and space-eating megalomania are off-putting. His sculpture is the apotheosis of a public art. By this I don’t mean it’s meant for outdoor spaces—where it often loses scale—but that it involves lots of money, power, heft, connections, space, and large audiences. These are not attributes usually associated with the private transaction between one artist and one viewer, to say nothing of inner life and intense looking.

But it turns out that “Forty Years,” as organized by MoMA chief curator-at-large Kynaston McShine and guest curator Lynne Cooke, shows that Serra’s art is more inner, intense, intimate, and available than one might think. More than any artist, Serra makes abstract art that people who hate abstraction can like. His sculptures speak to lay audiences and the art world alike. “Forty Years” is a no-nonsense primer on an artist who wanted to explore the ways sculpture might be more than simply a “specific object.” Like so many of his mid-sixties generation, Serra wanted to make sculpture entail time, movement, and process, and exist in was then called “the extended field.”

“Forty Years” shows just how extended that field has become, in 27 works spread out over two floors and the sculpture garden. To sense the art-historical pendulum swinging away from the object toward something else, view the show chronologically. Starting on the sixth floor, in addition to early process works and smaller “prop pieces” (“smaller” meaning “as big as a Prius”), there are three huge steel-plate sculptures. One involves four ten-by-twenty-foot plates jutting toward the center of the room from the corners; another consists of regularly placed rectangular slabs. My favorite, Delineator, initially seems to be a heavy rectangular plate on the floor. First you think it’s a rip-off of Carl Andre. Then your attention is drawn upward to an identical slab, flat on the ceiling directly overhead, turned crosswise to the floor plate. The electromagnetic field of the gallery goes berserk when you grasp that Serra has turned the museum itself into a pedestal—or maybe the sculpture is a pedestal for the museum? Either way, it’s diabolical. Another up-and-down mental flip-flop, and you perceive that you’re inside Delineator’s volume.

This sculpture is attached to the Modern the way an organism attaches itself to a host, or like some giant abstract mutant spider looming over you. Delineator’s cross configuration, its charcoal monochrome steel, and its obdurate nonobjectivity recall the take-no-prisoners abstraction of the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich, who said he wanted to reduce art to “the zero of form” and destroy villages. Serra pulls form apart, but so far as I know he hasn’t destroyed any villages, although he has been known to wear a T-shirt that says FUCK YOU.

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.

After the Serra show is over and the sculptural circus has been dismantled, we’ll all have to face up to the sad fact that, in its earnest effort to accommodate sculpture like Serra’s, MoMA blundered. The museum’s new spaces aren’t friendly to most other art. MoMA failed to build any permanent project galleries at all; it didn’t provide nearly enough space for the magnificent permanent collection of painting and sculpture from 1879 to 1969, and it created no space whatsoever—none—for the permanent display of contemporary art. The Serra show is good. But these gaffes are so limiting that, if not remedied, they will eventually diminish the importance of the museum, and maybe even of modernism itself. Heckuva job, MoMA.

Jerry Saltz’s Five Favorite Public Artworks

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

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.

Buona Serra