Art; Richard Serra

Article excerpt


Richard Serra

The dominating link of hostorical explanation that recommends itself to art historians is that of influence; no doubt this is so because influence defines that posture of expert appreciation known as connoisseurship, which consists in seeing in the works of X the signs and traces of Y, naturally invisible to the layman. But the dense network of historical causation has many subterranean passageways, and the Museum of Modern Art's overlapping exhibitions of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (until April 15) and Richard Serra (until May 13) provide a good example of a historical link invisible to connoisseurship. They connect the two artists through the materials of their respective projects, and the differential esthetics of oxidation.

Cor-Ten steel has become an emblem of Serra's sculptural persona; it is, for example, what his most notorious work, Tilted Arc, is made of. As a so-called weathering steel, Col-Ten has become the standard material for a certain genre of outdoor sculpture, for reasons the moody commuter might appreciate as he or she inches past the parking garage at La Guardia Airport and casts a grateful eye on the rich, chocolaty coloration of its exposed post and girders. Cor-Ten was designed to weather graciously, to use the processes of rust against itself, transforming that sign of decay and neglect into something rich and strange. It needs no painting, is self-maintaining, and the rate at which it oxidizes, growing more beautiful as it does so, is fractionally slower than that of ordinary steel. It is a triumph of metallurgy, and it was the steel industry's brilliant response to the exorbitant cost of bronze cladding, of which Mies made such extravagant use in the Seagram Building. That breathless masterpiece, which was to define urban architecture through the succeeding decades, was also far too expensive to emulate. The trick was to find a material that would, at a distance, look just like the bronze of the Seagram Building but be within the budget of your ordinary steel-and-glass box in Hamtramck or Des Moines. And Cor-Ten steel was the elegant answer to that esthetic-economic prayer.

So Mies and Serra, museum mates for the moment, are dialectically connected through the material substance in which their work was realized. It is interesting to ponder differences in their response to Cor-Ten's singularities. Mies had a weakness for austere opulence, and a philosophy of material integrity. My one encounter with him was at the Farnsworth House, built in 1945, which a pal of mine, a student of Mies's, drove me out to see. I was curious that he had used travertine marble for the floor of that glass-and-steel country retreat which Dr. Farnsworth, to her sorrow, had commissioned him to design. Well, I recall Mies saying, what is it but four walls and a roof? It's got to have something extra. A man who insists on travertine marble for a weekend house is unlikely to consider using rusted steel because it is cheaper than bronze cladding: it would be like suggesting artificial marbleizing, or formica. On the other hand, there is a certain aggressiveness to Serra's sculptural approach that suggests to me that Cor-Ten's propensity to bronzify in six or seven years would not be a recommendation. Nor do I recall as an argument in the controversy over Tilted Arc that at some point in its eternal tenure at Federal Plaza it would be transfigured by the elements into a thing of beauty. The usual thought was that with time and education we would come to appreciate Tilted Arc more and more for its uncompromising esthetic, not that it would meet us halfway by turning into something gratifying to an esthetic it set out to challenge.

Ashes, dust, moths and rust have, since biblical times, been natural symbols of the decay of earthly things, and rust most particularly afflicts those items of daily life that embody our deepest sense of adequacy and prosperity. …