RICHARD SERRA has been the bad boy for forty years. His rugged demeanor and brutualist sculptures set him as the bully in the playground of the art world.
My first personal encounter with Serra was for an assignment to photograph him and his controversial sculpture, ‘Tilted Arc’ in the Federal Plaza, in lower Manhattan in the early eighties for TIME Magazine, which was despised by the employees of the building from day one. He declared to me then that if they chose to remove this site-specific sculpture that required the employees to walk the entire perimeter of the plaza to get to the street, he would renounce his citizenship and move to France. Of course, he never did and later the sculpture was removed and eventually cut up for scrap metal.
I have been fortunate to see many of his installations, as varied at the Guggenheim Bilbao, which in my mind is his most successful, to LA County Museum, to the GAP headquarters. I attended his retrospective at MoMA in the mid-seventies and viewed many of his exhibitions at Gagosian in Chelsea. The installations require closing streets, removing huge windows and massive equipment to place them in the gallery. It appears that he relishes this herculean effort and expense. After a time, they have begun to wear on me–not just for the repetitious aspect, but for the forceful brutal nature of the materials and the intended threatening design of the shapes with their perceived visual threat to personal safety. They are intended to dwarf the observer. The steel pieces are fabricated in Germany and installed by Budco Enterprises, a Long Island rigging company with which Serra has worked for more than 30 years as one generation rolled into another.
Richard Serra’s history growing up in California, where he worked at steel mills, and his father as pipe-fitter, gives credence to his preoccupation with Corten steel, which ages to a beautiful rusty warm brown. It is designed to acquire a dark, even patina of rust over time, the exterior steel sculptures go through an initial oxidation process, but after 8–10 years, the patina of the steel settles to one color (mostly brown) that will remain relatively stable over the piece’s life. The gross extravagance of creating these monstrous steel sculptures in Germany and shipping them, at great expense, to various locations wears thin in this era. There is a permanent installation at SF MoMA where he poured slag (molten lead) into as corner of the gallery and there it sits. Like Warhol, I believe one good art idea is sufficient for a career.
There is an elitist quality to Serra and his work. He travels in very upper echelons of the art circles. Attending Yale, Serra studied painting with Josef Albers at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture between 1961 and 1964, and meeting his masters there in the 1960’s included the painters, photographers, and sculptors Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, Gary Hudson and Robert Mangold. Serra claims to have taken much of his inspiration from the artists who taught there, most notably Philip Guston. His friends include more contemporary artist like Matthew Barney–appearing in his film Cremaster. Serra also performed in a Steve Reich piece, and is closely allied with Anselm Kiefer. His circles include the stars like Bruce Nauman, Carl Andrea, Eva Hess and Sol LeWitt. Even now deceased Spaulding Gray worked with Serra in a moving business along with Philip Glass. Love to have seen one of those moves! Richard is the brother of famed San Francisco trial attorney Tony Serra, who defended successfully the Black Panther leader, Huey Newton. Richard paid for the education of all of Tony’s five children.
Richard Serra’s drawings are a different matter. They display a more playful and magical character of his work. I own a Serra drawing which hangs above my mantle, I have cherished it for twenty years. He has taken the imposing will of his steel work to his drawings as well, with some hand-made papers that are completely black and inscrutable. There is a deep anger in his work, which is not a criticism but an observation. Like anyone with a single agenda, this wears thin and does not continue to draw in the viewer time and time again. He displayed bravado in the 2006 Whitney Biennial by a simple crayon drawing of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib with a caption “STOP BUSH.”
This work is a cross between ‘earthworks’ by Smithson, and the impenetrable work of Robert Ryman. You must take the work on Serra’s terms, there is no room for interpretation upon evaluation. Serra established the entire vocabulary of the work. When seen as earthworks, or outdoor sculptures, they are much more successful than when seen in an enclosed environment. Gaining distance from the monumental quality of the work enhances their appreciation. The only place, save from a small piece at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, to be able to view the work from above the piece is at the Guggenheim Bilbao and for that reason, it is my mind the most successful. Similar yet less successful is the piece ‘Wake’ (2003), installed at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, which can be viewed from a knoll.
There are a number of pieces in public places all over the world, we unknowingly drive by a Serra sculpture, like the piece ‘St. John’s Rotary Arc‘ that was removed from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, in New York, and moved to a storage yard in Brooklyn.
Serra was commissioned by Eli Broad to execute a piece for Cal Tech , similar to ‘Tilted Arc’, but the student body and professors severely objected, claiming it as, “derivative rehash of earlier works, and an arrogant piece the belied the Institute’s values.”
In an era of declining resources, radical climate change and a growing poverty population, does the work of Serra continue to hold up? Or is it an indulgence of the art elite and its high priests?