Richard Serra at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation of Richard Serra’s sculpture at MOMA

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We’ve all seen them: School groups in museums, attended to by their teachers and led by docents who dutifully introduce them to the world of art. This exposure is meant to encourage curiosity in culture and instill a sense of aesthetic awareness. But art is a hard, if not impossible, sell to children: A lot of its pleasures depend on and are deepened by experience. Plus, most art doesn’t move.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, would be an ideal pedagogical tool. It’s certainly kid-friendly. Mr. Serra has transformed the museum from a building full of stuff that’s good for you into a gargantuan playground of sloping corridors, towering hideaways and places to ditch your friends.

That the sculptures are kind of scary increases the fun. A commanding figure in the international scene, Mr. Serra has the pull and reputation to translate his ambitious vision into daunting realities. Anyone encountering his immense, undulating walls of Cor-Ten steel can’t deny the skill with which he draws spectators into the teetering parameters and hollows. Looping like Möbius strips, Mr. Serra’s “torques” engulf the viewer. We don’t look up at them; they look down at us.

Mr. Serra is probably best known for the Tilted Arc controversy. Bisecting Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, his 120-foot-long running steel wall was commissioned by the General Services Administration in 1979 for the sake of the greater good. But to hell with aesthetics: Workers considered it a traffic obstacle. (The sculpture was also accused of attracting rats.) Public art typically functions as a modest complement to a city space. Mr. Serra put the 800-ton gorilla in the town square. Tilted Arc didn’t withstand the notoriety: It was removed and destroyed.

The sculptor’s early efforts are part and parcel of the heady milieu of the late 1960’s. Experiments with rubber, lead and neon reflect the pretensions of Conceptualism, Minimalism and performance art. A title, Remnant(1966-67), a hanging slab of vulcanized rubber, encapsulates the chief characteristic of Mr. Serra’s works around that time: inertia. They’re not self-sustaining art objects, but merely leftovers from specific actions: cutting, for instance, or tearing and splashing. Mr. Serra, in a fleeting moment of humility, admits that the “residues … didn’t always qualify as art.”

Nonetheless, he trumpets their purpose and presence: “Some of [them] were so replete in their exploration of material and the simplicity and singularity of the process that they would go unquestioned.” Has it occurred to Mr. Serra that the questions (forget the answers) weren’t worth the trouble?

The Prop series, dating from the late 60’s and early 70’s, incorporated a much-needed sculptural dimension and an intimidating—because potentially dangerous—equipoise. Utilizing thick lead planks and poles, Mr. Serra employed a house-of-cards logic. (One of the pieces is even subtitled House of Cards.) Precarious balance holds the props together. Four-foot-square sheets of lead touch, lean and balance with alarming necessity. In 2-2-1: To Dickie and Tina (1969-94), a pole glances lightly off a quintet of lead slabs, holding it all together and preventing collapse, disaster and lawsuits. A glass wall cordons the audience away from theProps, presumably because the slightest elbow bump would send them toppling. Threat is vital to Mr. Serra.

He’s a consummate showman, and an unforgiving one. Entering the sixth-floor galleries, visitors come upon Delineator (1974-75). A 10-by-26-foot sheet of steel lies on the floor: just another exercise in unadulterated material, you might think—until you look up. Affixed to the ceiling is another sheet of steel the same size. Mr. Serra’s shtick is to diminish the viewer, making him subservient to art and the artist’s will. Theatrical domination leads to awe—of a sort, anyway. Practicality becomes a focus: Gee, you think, it must’ve been a bitch to get that up on the ceiling.

From the mid-70’s on, Mr. Serra’s sculptures increasingly rely on engineering; the “how” outstrips “why.” This is especially true of Mr. Serra’s three-ring circus on the second floor: a parade of humongous funnels of steel, their surfaces burnished rich and ruddy with rust. Art often feels abandoned in MoMA’s cold and cavernous spaces, but the ebb-and-flow created by Mr. Serra’s edifices does much to remedy the shopping-mall ambiance. They’re great conversation starters: After the novelty of scale and size has lessened, museum-goers can mosey through the torques, squeezing around their edges and taking pleasure in Mr. Serra’s chutzpah and ingenuity. And again, we wonder how the installation crew dealt with these monsters.

Ultimately, Mr. Serra’s tremendous skill is overpowered by hubris. Aesthetics take a backseat to haughty spectacle. Responding to the Tilted Arcimbroglio, Mr. Serra stated that “art is not democratic. It is not for the people.” Engagement with the people? Creating objects that enrich our experience? Mr. Serra is above such mundane matters. He’d rather bully the audience than transfix them.

Perhaps it does take a 7-year-old’s sense of wonder to get around Mr. Serra’s heaving machinations. By the time I got to Torqued Ellipse IV(1998) and Intersection II (1992-93), both ensconced in the sculpture garden, I couldn’t help but smile at how Manhattan’s lofty buildings humanized the sculptures, effectively putting Mr. Serra’s overweening art in its place. The trees peeking over the top of each piece provide a lovely grace note.

Once outside, kids can run around and enjoy themselves without guards shushing them. Adults can inhale deeply and relish the sunlight. No one should have to withstand art for too long.

(c) 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 4, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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