Richard Serra was never burdened with the Minimalist strictures offered up by Donald Judd (or Dan Flavin or that old devil Ad Reinhardt) and certainly not by the lesser lights of Minimalism, who, let’s face it, did not even have beauty, strength, or expression on their side.
Serra has never been one to kowtow to good taste. His anti-form rubber-and-neon wall pieces and his molten-lead splash pieces beguiled, and so did the few films he made. The one I like best is of his hand trying to catch falling pieces of lead — Hand Catching Lead (1968). Shocking too, it was. The artist’s hand? What do hands have to do with sculpture? But then the prop pieces came along — e.g., a metal rectangle held up on the wall by a singular, angled “buttress.” Gravity rather than gravitas was his theme, although as was his proclivity there was plenty of the latter to go around. Serra is always tough.
Not even the Tilted Arc (1981-1989) fracas stopped him. The sculpture was a COR-TEN steel demonstration of a lovely curve that supposedly ruined Federal Plaza in downtown NYC — a mingy, windswept place in front of an ugly modern office building that, I thought, cried out to be ruined. Was this an example of artistic hubris or of public stupidity? Office workers in the building were whipped into a frenzy. It blocked their view! Of what? Taxi cabs? If it looked like an anti-tank fortification, it was ahead of its time.
What would the judges, lawyers, and clerks have preferred? A statue? Benches? When was good public art ever selected by plebiscite? After court battles, the piece was removed; i.e., destroyed. That’s what happens when a sculpture is site-specific and almost everyone hates it. However, it was the office building that should have been torn down.
Gigantic, torqued metal slabs became Serra’s signature. And eventually all bowed down to Serra’s greatness when a show of these heavy-duty works opened the newly expanded MoMA in 2007. Fortunately the floors had been designed for the load. Theatrical? Another nail in critic Clement Greenberg’s coffin!
Weight and gravity and those torqued curves. Subtle, but manly. And, of course, the dialogue with architecture. Not a joke in sight. And because Cubism has been finally been totally denied to sculpture, Serra’s sculpture are more Tony Smith than anything proposed by timid Anthony Caro, Greenberg’s fair-haired boy. Nothing wrong with Caro’s sprawling Cubist sculptures, but major they are not..
Uncle Clem, who saw sculpture only as a line from Picasso to David Smith to Caro, must still be turning over in his grave. Talk about linear thinking! Of course, the sad thing is that sculpture has been abandoned. Who thinks about abstract sculpture now? Instead, we delight in mockery — oh, yes, me too. We prefer giant balloon-dogs rather than blockades or cubes. And Serra is better off indoors or in front of museums, protected from uneducated, anti-art mobs and the demagogues that can so easily stir them up.
Serra: Tilted Arc (destroyed)
Never one to foist-off unearned surprises, Serra has just conquered the usually backward Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met is now a participant in The Game, in a way that their summer sculpture shows on the roof did not portend: Oldenburg, Koons, and the Starn Twins. Only the Koons jokes lived up to the potentially festive site.
Who can best Serra? After sealing off abstract sculpture and claiming ownership of its final phase, he now owns drawing — and destroys that, too. We don’t need such categories unless they are still useful to work against. Categories are for retrieval and nothing else. Classification is pacification.
In the meantime, here is a truism that is not true, this one from Shakespeare: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Wrong! If you call something a drawing it will not necessarily smell like a drawing. A sculpture by any other name is not a sculpture.
MoMA recently showcased a well-received exploration of drawing that expanded the usual definitions to include drawing in space (drawing as sculpture) and other novelties. Even dance. Drawing then might be defined by line, unless we are thinking of Seurat’s dots, or all the smudges on paper that are not really linear.
The only thing the curator left out was my thoughts, because my thoughts are drawings too: if I think before I act, those thoughts are drawings. Or maybe my neurons when they connect are drawings of a sort. And if you leave out intention, the Internet is a great big drawing; in a smaller scale, so are spider webs and snail and slug trails on the panes of my cold-frame. The latter are my favorites, along with worm trails on the underside of bark from Australian trees. Truly, drawings are not a closed category under one strict definition, demanding traits that are necessary and sufficient. Family resemblance is the key.
The MoMA show was fine, but it did not prepare us for the “retrospective” of Serra “drawings” (“Richard Serra: Drawing,” Metropolitan Museum, to Aug. 28, 2011). Note that the official title includes the word drawing without the s to emphasize the process nature of the work — as if process, visible or not, were not part and parcel of most artworks. Well, it’s all a matter of emphasis.
Nevertheless, Serra has made the Met safe for contemporary art. The space for his “drawing” is generous; the installation nearly perfect. You can’t stick contemporary art in a small gallery off a major corridor, which is what happened to the “Pictures Generation” survey last year. Of course, not even a bigger space and a better installation could have saved that show. The thesis was wrong. There really was no Pictures Generation, was there? Which I suppose the exhibition inadvertently proved. So we should be grateful for getting that bad idea out of the way at long last. There were a few good artists, and the category Neo-Pop would have served much better. No artist, however, really wants to be “neo” anything. “Neo” is so old hat. Even Pop didn’t come into it’s own until Brit critic Lawrence Alloway’s Pop Art triumphed over the term Neo-Dada, used for Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Not all of the gigantic Serra “drawings” on display are great, but most of them are. The all-black oil stick “drawings” or “drawing installations” are the ones that open your eyes. I liked that someone had the clever thought of including four of Serra’s early films. The hand, yes. But, to be super-critical for a moment, I was troubled by the term “retrospective,” which predetermined or justified less interesting works: those that look like standard drawings and relate more to the sculptures. Those include the drawing notebooks, which only experts might need to examine. And drawings of sculptures after the fact seem on the dull side. Serra, whether he is working on paper, linen or chunky handmade paper, is not very good at making curves on a flat surface. Curved sculptures, yes; curves on paper, no way.
These efforts could have been avoided if someone had had the sense to drop the term and the concept “retrospective.” But how else do you signal to the prospective customers that this is a big, important exhibition? An even bigger banner on the front of the museum? The smaller works are useful, but not particularly extraordinary, whereas the “installation drawings” on linen are indeed exceptional. The more traditional drawings would have found a market on their own. Would “Richard Serra: Installation Drawings” bring in the crowds?
The large linen rectangles sculpt the rooms. There, I said it. Although technically they are marks on a flat surface, those marks are not linear, and in fact are of such a density that they are only perceived subliminally as marks. Also, since linen is not paper, you could also say the “drawings” are unstretched paintings. Some of the artworks face each other; some go from floor to ceiling. They are attached directly to the walls; no frames, no fuss. The surfaces, having been done by hand, are deep and rich. The installation drawings play with the architectural integrity of the specially built rooms, which I suppose is a paradox. Do you build a room to adjust to the art or do you adjust the art to the room?
One large drawing early on seems to indicate that Serra is confronting Malevich not Reinhardt. Both artists presented black in one way or another; both were mystics of a sort. Malevich was taken with theosophy and Reinhardt harkened to Buddhism. Thus both are ultimately alien to Serra’s outlook, save perhaps in terms of the such-ness of things, as in Zen.
But the real secret, the most significant subtext, is the dialogue between Serra’s “installation drawings” and Sol LeWitt’s “wall-drawings.” LeWitt’s “drawings” are light and airy and have nothing to do with the artist’s touch or anyone else’s. What is most interesting about them now is how and when they made the transition from “wall drawings” to out-and-out murals (which, by the way, they are never called). Offhand, I would say when color trumped line.
In contrast, Serra’s “installation drawings” are heavy — but without being heavy-handed. You see black as weight, as a substance, certainly not as an illusionistic hole in the wall. Like the LeWitt’s they are all surface, but we either sense or imagine the artist’s own hand. Somehow the energy is encapsuled as aura. These are artworks, like Serra’s best sculptures, that you feel with your whole body.
Just as Serra has put an end to sculpture — if by sculpture we mean abstract, three-dimensional art — so he has put an end to drawing. The old categories no longer apply.
It’s about time.
Unlike a great deal of art, Serra’s sculptures and installation drawings can only be hinted at by the use of two-dimensional images. You can identify the artworks, but you cannot experience them this way, any more than you can experience a roller-coaster by looking at a picture of one. The sculptures, of course, are photogenic — which is now the bare minimum of what we demand of art — and artists. The installation drawings are also camera-ready, but the images that result have even less to do with the art. If there is to be any holdout against the digital, works such as these are precisely what the future demands: art that needs to be seen firsthand. In this regard, Serra’s installation drawings may be both the first and the last of their kind.
There will be little pockets of resistance, and we will have to reserve special tombs for the art that was actually meant to be directly perceived in physical space. Otherwise, we will want and will be allowed the art that has no scale, no place, no time. No texture, no weight, no mass, no space. And will be everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Where are the artists who will play that hand?
New! Interview with John Perreault, cover story of Art Experience N.Y.C.
New! Interview with John Perreault, cover story of Art Experience N.Y.C.
John Perreault Interviewed: Art, Social Criticism and Mass Media…
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