By Joselit, David
Artforum International , Vol. 46, No. 2
RICHARD SERRA HAS BEEN HEADLINED in recent years by both the New York Times and the New Yorker as a "Man of Steel," and indeed, like Superman, he seems to be everything to everyone. The most eminent art historians have brilliantly analyzed his art; he enjoys major commercial success; his work is in demand at museums worldwide; and his thrilling, architecturally scaled curvilinear sculptures have at least for the past decade been enormously popular among general audiences. Few contemporary artists have succeeded so well on so many fronts. Why Serra? The Museum of Modern Art's "Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years," which closed last month--and which, incidentally, made the New York museum's new building look better than it ever has--afforded a welcome occasion to consider this question.
The show's curators, Kynaston McShine and Lynne Cooke, mounted what were essentially two separate exhibitions: a retrospective of Serra's 1960s post-Minimalist sculptures, famous for their simple operations on materials such as rubber and lead, which dominated the temporary exhibition galleries on the sixth floor, and an installation of three enormous interrelated torqued steel sculptures, all completed last year, that occupied the second-floor spaces for contemporary art. Forming a transition between these presentations of two distinct phases of Serra's career were the last three galleries on the museum's sixth floor, each of which contained one spare and powerful sculpture--Delineator, 1974-75, Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi, 1986, and Circuit II, 1972-86. Two additional pieces, Intersection II, 1992-93, and Torqued Elipse IV, 1998, were wedged uncomfortably and unsuccessfully into the museum's Sculpture Garden.
With the exhibition arranged in this way, the artist's middle period was marginalized--hidden, as it were, in plain sight--suggesting that the curators wished to draw a direct line from the historically significant post-Minimalist Serra of the '60s to the fun-house Serra of recent years, thereby establishing a genealogy for the artist's monumentalization of virtual space at the expense of other aspects of his practice. The works in the last of the sixth-floor galleries--especially Delineator, which consists of two massive steel plates orthogonal to each other, one lying on the floor and the other ominously attached to the ceiling--seemed an almost reluctant admission that there had once been a controversial and dangerous Serra too, one who barely featured in the rest of the exhibition, least of all in the torqued steel constructions on the second floor (which could as easily have been in a gallery show at Gagosian).
Many of Serra's most insightful critics, including John Rajchman in the exhibition catalogue, Peter Eisenman, and Yve-Alain Bois, have called attention to the quasi-filmic quality of the architecturally scaled arcs, ellipses, and ribbons he has made since the '80s, in which a viewer must circumnavigate a work in order to produce a composite image retrospectively by means of a mnemonic montage of different vantage points. While I agree with this interpretation, I think there is as much of cyberspace as there is of cinema in the artist's recent sculptures: One's sense of volume and physical orientation is manipulated through an infinite play of surface experienced at different speeds. Indeed, Serra's sculptures frequently disorient viewers as their unfurling surfaces waver unexpectedly through subtle torque. In Sequence, 2006, for instance, a huge involuted and double-skinned figure eight, the viewer is doubly perplexed--first physically overwhelmed, almost to the point of losing her balance or experiencing nausea through the torque of curving walls, and, second, spatially confused about where in the galleries she will exit from her serpentine ambulation. (This disorientation persists even on repeated experience of the piece. …