Richard Serra's
Richard Serra's "Band" is on display at the Museum of Modern Art.
Jin Lee/Bloomberg News

The Search for Serra Firma

The exhibition shows how Serra changed our ideas about what great sculpture is, then he regrettably changed his.
The exhibition shows how Serra changed our ideas about what great sculpture is, then he regrettably changed his. (By Jin Lee -- Bloomberg News)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

NEW YORK -- Richard Serra, it's said, is America's greatest living sculptor. It's not only critics, collectors and curators who have been saying this of late. For a decade or more now, the works themselves have been trumpeting it.

"Look at me!," say his hulking steel spirals, heavy as a locomotive, "I am Big, Important art!" His very latest steel twists, like curled potato peelings as long as a basketball court, shout, "I am weighty. I matter. Be impressed. Be very impressed."

A show called "Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years" is now drawing summer crowds to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The revolutionary early pieces in it are powerful but reticent. It's only the works that have come recently that seem to beat their chests.

The first time I saw those later sculptures, I fell for them. Though I'm a pretty unsentimental art lover, I actually found myself tearing up when I saw Serra's first few "Torqued Ellipses." They were unveiled at the Dia Art Foundation in 1997, in an ancient New York warehouse whose ranks of struts and braces gave it a cathedral feel. Serra's complex curves of steel, rolled from plates two inches thick, seemed to fill that gorgeous span almost to overflowing. It's hard to recapture now, but the space was so thoroughly changed by Serra's works that it felt as though your life might be changed by them, too.

And now, having seen those works, or their near clones, plopped down again and again in galleries around the world, I feel as though I may have been had. Was that strong emotion really just facile sentiment, provoked by an easily repeated trick? Had I taken Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" for a Passion aria by Bach?

Or not even that. Somehow, with the dilution that always comes from repetition -- what would the Grand Canyon be, if there were one in every state? -- Serra's managed to drain almost any strong emotion from his recent art. It's still fun to walk through and among his towering curves of steel. (Kids love playing tag in them.) They still compress and expand space in exciting ways. But now the thrill feels like what you get from fun-house mirrors. These sculptures feel as though they've been made because they can be, by an artist proud of the technology and funds he now commands for producing big, impressive art.

In the end, Serra's latest works are not much more than Dale Chihuly's glass baubles, blown up big for the heavy-metal set. The funny thing is, the MoMA survey shows that once upon a time Serra really was this country's greatest sculptor, or something very close.

Beginning in the late 1960s, he made art that profoundly rethought what sculpture could be and how it could work.

The first piece you encounter on the top level of the show (Serra's survey is the first to claim space on two floors of MoMA as well as in the garden) is "Delineator," from 1975. It consists of a rectangular plate of steel, 10 feet by 26 and a solid inch thick, lying on the floor in front of you and stretching almost the full length of the room. An identical steel rectangle is stuck flat to the ceiling, but stretching side-to-side at right angles to the first. The whole thing's like a giant cross or plus sign, pulled apart across the height of the gallery. Sculpture, it argues, doesn't have to be a single object meant to be taken in at once, like a figure drawn onto a ground. Unlike drawing, or any easel painting, it can occupy the air around it by taking up positions in two places at once.

Stand in the middle of Serra's bottom plate -- another novelty: You're supposed to walk on this art -- and you can almost feel the pressure, psychic if not actual, exerted by the one above.

And then there's the strange difference in perception that you have of the two identical plates. The bottom one seems heavy, gravity-filled and gravity-bound as it hugs the ground with you on top of it. And yet it's the top, "floating" plate that paradoxically asserts its weight most fully: The threat of all that metal hanging overhead inevitably conjures images of its crashing descent to earth.

At first, these early Serras might seem like purely conceptual art. They seem to be built around an idea -- "take two steel plates; put one on the floor and one on the ceiling" -- that could stand on its own. But when that immaterial idea is realized, it turns out that it is also deeply material: That as matter, the apparently simple starting point has complex, impressive consequences. Unlike Serra's recent works, which are all big, all the time (except when they're in the MoMA garden, where surrounding skyscrapers mock any attempt at monumentalism), this early piece feels modest and impressive at once. It is about minimal means used to achieve maximal effects, but also maximal materials employed to flesh out a minimum of pure idea. It doesn't say "Look how much I can do," the way Serra's latest pieces do. It says, "Look how little I can do, and still achieve so much."

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