Born to a Spanish father and a Russian Jewish mother, Serra grew up in San Francisco. His father worked in a shipyard during World War II, and Serra frequently invokes those initial experiences of working at the yard, believing them to be formative to his development as an artist engaged outside the studio walls. As a child, Richard’s mother always introduced him as an artist, and was deeply supportive of his ambitions, regardless of their turn. An oft told story is when Richard’s mother first visited her son in his New York apartment in 1966. The room was barren but for a mattress and a window looking out towards the Hudson River. She peered through the window and said to her son, “Richard, it’s marvelous.”
There is indeed a bizarre sense of fantasy that laces Serra’s life. The fact that right next door was the Di Suvero family is just one of the many spectacular coincidences of his charmed biography. Of course the two budding artists did not become decisive influences on one another since it was far too early to tell which paths they would take. By college, however, Serra had developed his theories on art with a steadfastness that raised him to levels of notoriety among friends and colleagues. Serra was further blessed to have artists like Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and Brice Marden as his compatriots and sparring partners at Yale. Even his decision to apply to Yale comes with a famous encounter. For it was not Serra’s decision alone, but thanks to the advice of the great Modernist scholar Hugh Kenner, that he changed his mind from pursuing a Ph.D in English to getting an MFA.
The incredible list of celebrities seems never-ending. With college through, Serra went to Paris on a fellowship and would regularly stake out a café where he would wait for his idol, Alberto Giacometti . On most of these occasions, he was accompanied by his newfound friend, Philip Glass. The two would remain close friends even after their Parisian adventures. In fact, Glass would later become Serra’s studio assistant, allowing him to give up his previous job as a plumber. Among others who helped Richard in his practice were Chuck Close, musician Steve Reich, and Spalding Gray. To hark back to this list of names and personalities is meant to make a different story for Serra, far away from the wretched conflicts of Tilted Arc or alternatively controversial moments in Serra’s early career. It is to find the sculptor in a lighter place, however weighty it once seemed. In retrospect, much of Serra’s life was all so very light.
Serra’s lifelong negotiations with gravity arrives at the Museum of Modern Art this month and have been received by a public that only seems to warm to the artist’s work, though it was certainly a long time coming. His Retrospective had been scheduled even before the Museum’s reconstruction, therefore those involved in the rebuilding took into consideration the remarkable stress such a show would inflict and responded with a museum that is fully “Serra-ready.” New York, and the public at large, are deeply indebted to the Museum’s former director, the late Kirk Varnedoe, for his leadership and prescience.
The exhibition begins on the second floor with a monumental beckoning curve. The sculpture is a twisted ribbon of two inch steel, richly crusted with cocoa-colored rust, billowing back and forth, like a sheet of rubber repeatedly folded on itself. As such, the metal sequentially pinches, creating alternating vessels for viewers to explore. The piece is appropriately named Band. Like any recent Serra exhibition, watching initial reactions is half the fun. Superlatives flow almost instantaneously along with Cheshire grins or slack jaws. We owe these reactions to the fact that walking through the sculpture does not guarantee any schematic revelation. Though not impossible to decipher the piece’s aerial workings, especially when this very perspective is featured on the Catalogue’s cover, there still remains a disjunct between the aerial and the grounded experience. Serra’s career can be summarized as a forceful widening of this divide. He avoids the “pictorial” at all costs, not wanting to deal with the frame, as much as subjecting space to a chain of transitive processes. The result is a space involving his spectator into a lived, temporal experience. All the surrounding discourse on Serra’s works can therefore be considered a slight kind of vanity. The sculptures’ primary existence and explication occur through one’s physical experience of each. That, of course, has not stopped anyone from writing. Notably, a whole family of critics, recognizable through their mutual association with the art journal October, was smitten by Serra early in his career. Thankfully, those who have written on Serra’s work have been remarkably insightful into the artist’s practice and what the sculptures have to offer.
Serra has also been the subject of dozens of newspaper articles, where it is interesting to chronicle his ascent from pariah to godfather. We can simultaneously track Serra’s own feelings about his work throughout. As late as 1989, he would harshly deny any psychological content in his sculptures. Aside from working with weight, gravity, pointloads, and compressions, Serra did not see, or refused to see, what else there was to talk about, calling any possible musings on death and life with relation to his work “literary claptrap!” Only after his Torqued Ellipses show in 1997 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York did he acknowledge the psychological as playing a larger role in his work. Serra’s acceptance came not from a change of heart, but because the content was a mere byproduct of the same process of analyzing and working through sculptural problems. He suggests that the psychological import of the ellipses derives from their vessel-like quality. This unforeseen increase in the psychological – though one can argue that all of Serra’s sculptures are deeply psychological – problematizes a list of terms in Serra’s artistic practice. Most important to this discussion is Serra’s engagement with transitivity and abstraction.
Serra’s earliest work broke sculptural ground for a number of reasons, but primarily because of its focus on process rather than a finished sculptural object. His list of verbs has become iconic and functions as a key to his early lead works. Cutting Devise: Base Plate Measure succinctly demonstrates the kind of transitivity Serra first engaged. Sheets of lead have been rolled, cut, sheared, placed, and layered to make a scattering of forms across the floor. It is an index of a past performatives, or a representation of past performatives. Though abstraction seems to be what Serra routinely considers, thinking about his early work ought to be reformulated. Can we say that strips of splashed lead are abstract? Is a sheet of lead an abstraction? Drawing the line between representation and abstraction in this case is a tricky endeavor. The most obvious claim in defense of naming these pieces abstract is that they do not represent anything. However, one must ask then: when do we name an object, and when do we see it as an abstraction? It is possible to view these pieces not as abstract forms, but simply as what they are – strips and plates of lead. Even more laboriously worked pieces, such as One Ton Prop, are not works of abstract sculpture, per se. They are constructions, sheets of lead antimony leaning against one another to create a work that depends on its own inner stability. Serra’s early works were concrete objects. Theo Van Doesberg, of the De Stijl movement, made this distinction when he began down his own path of synthetic abstraction. Abstract Art was separate from Concrete Art. When painting removed all symbolic meaning and was stripped down to color and line, it became a thoroughly synthetic object, a reality, and therefore a renunciation of abstraction. Malevich’s famous Black Square therefore paradoxically now stands as an emblem to abstraction renounced. For Malevich succeeded in making an object that had its own reality. Simply put, it became the reality of a black square in a frame. It is a matter of defining what precisely one means when saying “abstract”, “abstraction”, or “abstracting.” Because of the wide semantic variety these words provide, the domain of abstract sculpture has borders of surprising obscurity. However, before transforming this into a treatise on abstraction, I’ll narrow my questioning down to a few key points that are bound to Serra’s practice.
The main concern in defining Serra’s works as abstract or not derives from their process oriented origin and end, in contrast to, for example, the work of both Brancusi and David Smith. They formed “finished” sculptural works, making it easier to define them as abstract sculptures. (Again, I reserve the right to evade the pitfalls regarding “finish” or “finality” to works of art for the sake of avoiding interminable analysis.) The initial nature of abstraction in Serra’s works is tentative at best. It can of course be asserted that formally they are abstract, but these works go beyond formal concerns, not simply because of intent but because of the surrounding discourse that Serra created for himself. His list of verbs clearly situates his sculptures into a different field of inquiry than historically abstract sculpture. This list also determines Serra’s early commitment to transitivity; it is a transitivity of past participles. This all would begin to shift by 1971.
While working on a splashed lead piece for Jasper Johns, Serra realized that the plate he was using to fling his molten lead against could be supported by the corner of two walls without any structural additions. A natural extension from One Ton Prop – which also sought a precarious internal stability – Strike was then conceived. Out of the corner jutted out a thick sheet of steel, partly bisecting the room, staking out its own authoritative space. Thus, transitivity is pulled from the past tense to the present. The viewer is now engaged in his own transitive acts alongside the sculpture’s. He must walk, stretch, and gaze as the sculpture cuts, shifts, and disorients his space. No longer a one sided set of verbs, this is the moment when Serra became to most everyone, a phenomenological sculptor.
His output of bending steel works would increase and vary depending on their site and the problems he set out to confront. He became increasingly interested in the contingencies of space and how he could engage with environmental and architectural space, often serving to critique the architecture that his pieces were inserted into. The results were magnificent, but none so much as his Torqued Ellipses. This is where I see the most decisive shift is Serra’s vocabulary of abstraction, and where I will return to the space of the exhibition.
Four sculptures sit side by side on the Museum’s second floor. Separately, they have their own pace and rhythm, together they become symphonic. Relentlessly, they push and pull space and time and do so in a variety of ways. Most often, the sculptures are described as cutting and sculpting space, interruptions with passages that reveal. Yet one’s pace determines this kind of revelatory travel. An alternative method of experience is to slow down – slow down to the point of making even Beckett cringe. The oddness of one’s appearance aside, a snail’s pace will open an entirely different experience. The sculptures do not so much reveal themselves as they draw or make themselves. When turning through Sequence – diagrammatically described as one S inside another – each bend becomes an edge and every contour becomes a line, constantly extending itself, drawing itself in space. What is most surprising is how the metal becomes even more malleable – as you slow down, these two inch walls of steel actually bend their way for you. They sculpt your route as you continue upon it. You have now unlocked the movements of the animal.
Movement that almost ceases to be is what makes Serra’s sculptures come alive. I approached a concave wall of steel, closer, and closer still, until my nose was near touching. The steel darkened, lurched, and loomed over my head. My heart beat quickened as I noticed a beat besides my own. It was then that I could feel the breath of the animal.
Outside, in the sculpture garden, another sense is initiated. As you walk along the exterior edges of the two sculptures residing there, you can feel the heat of the animal. Inside, you can only sense its cold restlessness. And if you look below onto the edges touching the marble of the garden, there are rusty excretions oozing from beneath.
Yes, merely a metaphorical animality, but one that takes Serra’s sculpture into an entirely different zone of existence, where the problematics of abstraction cannot necessarily be teased apart, but can be seen in happy contradiction. For what Serra’s later sculpture demonstrates with sheer brilliance is abstraction’s necessary infidelity to itself to remain strictly faithful to its concept. In other words, abstraction must court narrative, figuration, the pictorial, anything that is not abstract, to actually remain within abstraction. In this way, it refuses objecthood, and any synthetic reality. Serra’s ellipses remind one of forgotten dusty paths, of the organs of an animal, of the passage of a lifespan where all the photographs of memory lie waiting, tacked underneath a soil of rust. John Rajchman addressed the nature of the pictorial in his essay on Serra found in the Catalogue: “Their invention is attained through a struggle with the ‘pictorial’ in sculpture – with the idea not simply of pictures of objects but also of collages of elements or montages of viewpoints.” Despite Serra’s aversion to the pictorial, the sculptures remain undecided in this endless struggle. They can constantly slip into the pictorial, fragmented as the picture may be, but pictorial nevertheless. In the same way, narrative and figuration, images and memories collide and slide into the walls of Serra’s sculptures ultimately creating abstract sculpture that has yet to be surpassed in our time.
Yet the exhibition is not perfect. The sixth floor continues the Retrospective and shows Serra’s earlier work that I have already described. The first main room is innocuous enough, an effort in historicizing Serra and his place within Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, with process art and the baggage of past movements, like hints of neon. Yet the second and more dominant room is absolutely unapproachable. Each work sits behind a barrier sculpted of wood and plexiglass, partitioning the works into a playpen of sorts. The sculptures have been effectively neutered, causing not the least bit of consternation nor the least bit of interest. They seem small and didactic in comparison to Serra’s later work. Under different circumstances these pieces could still easily hold their own and maintain their relevance, but with such a ridiculous barrier, one feels as if in a French garden – pictorial par excellence. From what I could gather, the decision was actually Serra’s, to make sure there was no threat of injury, but perhaps a different method could have been found to allay his worries.
Despite this error in judgment, overall the Retrospective rises above it. It is a triumph nevertheless and ought to be seen by anyone who can afford it. I will never forget the first time I saw a sculpture by Richard Serra in person. He had a show at Gagosian Gallery – possibly the only gallery space in New York which could house such massive works – and whatever stereotypes followed Gagosian and his gallery, this show instantly put them to rest. There was no corporate smog or dour receptionists in sight. It was a joyous show where kids zigzagged, stomped, and squealed, and adults ambulated contently, breathing deeply. The constant waiting of the art world had come to a full stop. There was finally nothing to wait for – this was it. This was Richard Serra.
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Ajay Kurian is an artist and writer living in New York City.