November 2007

Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years
Museum of Modern Art, New York
June 3 - September 24, 2007

Richard Serra's Fun House at MoMA

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

If you did not see this retrospective but are a regular Charlie Rose viewer or a reader of publications such as The New Yorker, the New York Times, and New York magazine, you may think that you've missed something really important. A "titan of sculpture," "our greatest sculptor," "the apotheosis of a public art," are just a few of the epithets that have been lavished on Richard Serra and his work. Time magazine calls him "one of the greatest living American artists."

Ranging from such early items as his 1960s "Prop Pieces" (large slabs of lead propped against the wall by rolls of lead) and Belts (tangled strips of discarded rubber hung on the wall--which, Serra claims, were "extending the notion of drawing") to his more recent behemoths fabricated from humongous sheets of rusty steel weighing some 20 tons each, Serra's oeuvre may well constitute one of the biggest artworld cons of all time--if only by its sheer scale. Not only is this exhibition the most spacious ever devoted by MoMA to the work of a living "artist," the museum's fabulously costly recent expansion and renovation was itself designed in large measure to accommodate Serra's works.

Despite their unprecedented physical mass, however, the works are remarkably lightweight in significance, even if one were to grant them the status of sculpture (I do not). Consider One Ton Prop (House of Cards), for example. The MoMA exhibition brochure quotes Serra's explanation that the piece's "aesthetic" derives solely from the "solution of the [practical] problem [of balancing four four plates of lead]." But is that art or physical engineering?

Regarding his much more recent Torqued Ellipses, Serra breathlessly confided to Charlie Rose his chance discovery that "when they rise in elevation, the radius doesn't change" (something to be celebrated, he suggested, as a remarkable first "in the history of form making"). But is that art or geometry?

Then there is Delineator--one of the show's "great work[s]" in the view of Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times. True, it is "great" in one obvious sense: it consists of two enormous plates of steel (one resting on the gallery floor, the other installed at a right angle to it on the ceiling). But what does it signify? According to Kimmelman, it "forces you to move around it to take in its whole." According to Serra himself (as told to Charlie Rose), it "forces you to the center" and "makes you think about the axis of the floor to the ceiling and how you see the whole room." I somehow managed to elude either of those forces, though I did stub my toe on the floor plate as I entered the gallery. Nor did I catch the "dialogue . . . established between ceiling and floor" cited in the exhibition brochure.

When asked to pin down "the defining idea of what [his work] is about," Serra says that it is simply the body's "movement through space--how the body registers space, through movement and time." Kimmelman declares that Serra's "art is about the basic stuff of sculpture, . . . mass, weight, volume material. What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the [large steel] sculptures, . . . the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning." Into those Rorschachs fanciful critics have read things ranging from "swooning lovers" to "anguish, awe and desire."

But the image that Serra's overblown work most tellingly evokes in me (as well as in many of its adulatory reviewers, I might add) is that of a fun house. For viewers who, like me, expect more of art, however--especially of work by our purportedly greatest sculptor--Richard Serra's output and the hype surrounding it are a sure indication of the utter vacuity of today's artworld elite.

On the controversy over Serra's Tilted Arc two decades ago, see my article "Today's 'Public Art'--Rarely Public, Rarely Art" (Aristos, May 1988).