Man of Steel: Richard Serra @ MoMA



 

New Yorkers have been treated to imposing and important steel structures (beyond sculpture) by Richard Serra for decades. Recent memories include several massive installations at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. A 50-mile excursion up the Hudson to the DIA center in Beacon, NY rewards viewers with several of his signature torqued ellipses in a grand, refurbished factory space with gorgeous natural light.

New Yorkers with longer memories remember the furor created by the audacious steel dividing wall “Tilted Arc” that had to be removed (and later destroyed by the Feds) from the Federal Plaza downtown. It is testament to his iron will that Serra survived that debacle to emerge stronger than ever.

Now comes a forty year retrospective at the newly refurbished MoMA; the first event that justifies the expense and expansion of the museum to accommodate works of this scale. These structures are as imposing as the museum itself. Steel pieces by Serra exude an explicit defiance of nature that resonates in Manhattan. Like nearby midtown skyscrapers, these pieces are quintessentially urban in aspect, attitude and arrogance.

Mr. Serra is the new Man of Steel: able to leap past categorization, push boundaries and defy convention like no other.

Mr. Serra did not exactly come unbidden unto the Earth from the planet Krypton but comes at the tail end of a line of steel and iron welding harking back to Julio Gonzalez, Picasso, David Smith, Carl Andre and others but his achievement is entirely of a different order of magnitude. These structures don’t exactly sit on a table or “in” a gallery but rather engulf the space to create an architectural/acoustical environment that surrounds, confounds and conflates the viewer. When walking through the interstitial spaces created by these walls of steel, I was reminded of several peak experiences: easing through Granite cliffs at a famous rock climbing haunt called the ‘lemon squeeze’ in upstate New York or swimming in between coral cliffs of the outer reefs in .

It is a rare art that can transport me to such distant and enticing vistas and Richard Serra is the rare shaman that can conjure infinite space with a deft and hard-won expression of the ineffable using such Earth-bound materials. In painting, only Pollack and maybe Clifford Still evoke similar infinity with apparent ease.

While the highlight of this exhibit is the recent walk-through steel show-stoppers, we see in “To Lift” a vulcanized rubber piece from 1967 that the concerns of Richard Serra are consistent and have propelled him to his current stature as the crowned king of rust.

It can be difficult to achieve a transcendent experience at MoMA as it is often filled with tourists and toddlers. I solve this with an iPod and a careful selection of music: “Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” by Bach, Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Steve Reich’s “Drumming” each provided a compelling and appropriate sound-space; no Acoustiguides for me, thank you.

Links:

Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years

http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2007/serra/

Even though Serra was philosophically opposed to ‘stand-ins” for the real thing, this is an excellent online guide to the exhibit. The videos will provide anyone unable to visit the exhibit to appreciate the color, scale and texture of the pieces.

Art Houses: The New Yorker

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/13/030113crat_atlarge

Why a white shoebox in Munich succeeds as a museum by Peter Schjeldahl : “rambunctious tour groups, patronizing curatorial wall texts, the babble of Acoustiguides”

 

 


Al Doyle is an artist/critic living in Brooklyn.  studio827@yahoo.com

 

 

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