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The Search for Serra Firma
At MoMA, Earlier Pieces Carry the Weight With Quiet Power

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."

That's true of other pieces Serra got made in those pioneering years. (When you work on Serra's scale, you don't do all the cutting and hefting yourself. You're the idea guy behind a team of metalworkers and movers, sometimes with engineers and computer geeks thrown in.) "One Ton Prop (House of Cards)," from 1969, consists of four squares of inch-thick lead plate, simply leaning up against one another so they define the sides of a four-foot cube. As the title indicates, the plates are about their impressive mass, and about the way it can define a block of emptiness. They are also about the risk implied in their materiality. A house-of-cards collapse is in fact made less likely by their weight -- a ton of steel has so much inertia that it would take more to get it moving than to topple, say, four sheets of plywood. But the risk to life and limb is so great if it were to fall that the sense of threat is magnified. (People have in fact been badly hurt by falling Serras. That has led MoMA to put plexiglass barriers around many of these works, diminishing some to the point that they're barely worth showing.) Other Serras also play with issues of weight, pressure, stasis and threat.

In an earlier piece simply called "Prop," a thick square of lead, five feet a side, is held onto the wall at picture-height only by the pressure of the hugely heavy roll of lead that Serra leans against it.

Weight is one of Serra's subjects, almost the medium he works in. Look down at the solid oak floorboards of MoMA's galleries, and you can trace the twisting grooves that each work left as it got to where it is: hard wood will show a dent from even the best trolley wheels, when they are moving tons of lead and steel.

Then there is "Strike," a breakthrough work from 1971 that consisted of nothing more than a huge plate of steel, 8 by 24 feet and 1 1/2 inches thick, which stands upright on its long edge and sticks out from the corner of a room into its middle. The plate remains standing only because one end of it has been wedged into that corner. This simple act of bisection takes on all kinds of meaning because of how the sculpture forces you to move around the space to take it in, and because at the same time it makes you hesitate to get too close.

Or at least, that's how I imagine it might work, judging from photos and accounts I've read.

"Strike," like many of Serra's most important and aggressive works, is nowhere to be seen at MoMA.

There's not a hint or reference to his first truly experimental project, a wild one from 1966 in which the then-26-year-old artist displayed caged animals as works of art. The show doesn't include his "Verb List," a pioneering text piece that defined sculpture as a set of actions and situations: "to roll," "to drop," "of inertia," "of mapping."

Not a single one of his films, which include one famous work that shows a hand grasping at dropping chunks of lead, thereby taking sculpture's most basic definition -- an artist's hand taking hold of materials -- and working it out in moving pictures.

There aren't any of his very influential "splash" pieces, either, in which Serra tossed ladlefuls of molten lead into the corner between a wall and a floor, and then peeled off the results to stand free as a new kind of sculpture.

Most importantly, there's nary a reference to the crucial outdoor pieces, done in the landscape and in city squares, that first put Serra in the public eye. (Remember the huge outcry over "Tilted Arc," the 120-foot Serra in Federal Plaza in New York? Photos of it now come captioned "destroyed by the United States Government in 1989," one of the sadder phrases in the history of art.)

The definition of "sculpture" in this MoMA show is in fact so narrow -- so geared to the plop-art Serra has gone on to make -- that it can't allow for any of the works mentioned above, even though all of them were part of the expanded definition that Serra helped bring to his discipline. Though Serra is an artist whose materials matter, you actually get a better sense of his work by looking at the exhibition catalogue, which includes weighty essays by some of the best thinkers in the field -- some of whom have chosen to more or less ignore much of the recent sculpture -- than by heading to MoMA.

The entire survey feels as though it's a long preamble to Serra's latest bestsellers. It crowds its earlier pieces into too small a space so that the new pieces can get bigger play. Whereas I'd say that the current pieces deserve to be treated, at best, as an understandable narrowing of scope in what had once been a truly great, wide-ranging career.

Richard Serra Sculpture: 40 Years runs through Sept. 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York. Call 212-708-9400 or visit http://www.moma.org/.

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