The latest addition to Glenstone Museum is a 4,000-square-foot concrete building dedicated to a single, but four-part, artwork: Richard Serra’s 2017 “Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure.” It’s not the first Serra sculpture to enter the museum’s collection. In fact, visitors who undertake the half-mile stroll to the new structure will probably encounter a Serra whichever way they go.
“Four Rounds” is on the opposite side of the nearly 300-acre campus from the museum’s arrival hall. From the entrance, two meandering paths lead to the new attraction. Walkers who take the hillier route to the left will pass Serra’s “Contour 290,” a towering 2004 steel twist that curves around a grove of trees. (“290” refers to its height in feet above sea level.) Those who bear right will probably encounter 2001’s “Sylvester,” a massive torqued steel spiral with canted walls through which people can walk a slightly unsettling path to the askew but calm center.
“Four Rounds” has much in common with these earlier pieces. All three are large and burly yet seemingly battered, with rusty patinas that evoke abandoned industrial objects. (One influence on the 83-year-old Serra’s rugged aesthetic is the work his father did at a California shipyard.) But where “Contour 290” is softened by its placement in nature and “Sylvester” has a playful funhouse quality, “Four Rounds” is regular, austere and detached.
Its four steel cylinders sit inside a box of cast-in-place concrete designed in collaboration with Serra by Thomas Phifer (also the architect of Glenstone’s four-year-old Pavilions). While the building is just off the museum’s bucolic Woodland Trail — where a black snake could be seen sunning itself on a boardwalk two days after the Serra structure’s June 23 opening — it’s connected to the landscape only by a single entrance and white glass skylights that diffuse the sunlight. “Four Rounds” was weathered outside to produce its rusted red-black surfaces, but it’s meant to be seen inside.
Like other recent pieces in Serra’s “Equal Weight, Unequal Measure” series, “Four Rounds” can be seen as a return to the sculptor’s roots in process art, a movement of artists who valued the procedures of making objects over the final result. “The significance of the work is in its effort, not its intentions,” the sculptor once said.
Each of the solid rounds is 82 tons, which is not an arbitrary number. It’s the maximum weight possible at the foundry that fabricated the pieces, and thus an essential limitation of the process. The cylinders are literally as big as they can be.
Despite weighing the same and having the same shape, each one of the four fabrications is a different height and circumference. The totality is a study in solid geometry, demonstrating the various ways an almost-identical thing can be made different. More than a quartet could have been devised, but four is a sufficient illustration of the principle. Each one is unlike the others, yet equivalent.
This theoretical point is intriguing, if less engaging than the pockmarked patinas that also differentiate the four rounded forms. As arranged here, the cylinders can be walked through and around. But they don’t offer as complex a spatial experience as “Sylvester” or others of Serra’s spiraling ellipses. Perhaps that’s why the artist specified that “Four Rounds” be exhibited inside; the relatively small amount of space around the pieces adds drama to the gallery-goer’s encounter with them.
Whatever the importance of process to Serra, arranging and defining space is clearly central to the sculptor’s work. In the 1970s, he studied Zen Buddhist temples and gardens in Kyoto, and the interiors of his spiraling pieces have a meditative quality. This affinity makes Serra an ideal artist for Glenstone, whose buildings and paths are so carefully integrated into the landscape. At this nature-oriented museum, Serra’s sculptures are machinelike hulks in the garden.
If you go
Richard Serra: Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure
Glenstone Museum, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac. 301-983-5001. glenstone.org. The Serra pavilion is open Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dates: On permanent view.
Admission: Free, but advance reservations generally required. Visitors must be over 12. Those who arrive via the Ride On bus No. 301 do not need reservations.