Serra at MoMA: Approaching the religious

Boy howdy, I cannot wait for the Richard Serra retrospective opening at MoMA in a little over a month. Serra is very probably my favorite sculptor: his work never fails to provide me with moments of awe, peace, and stillness – even, and this is the real trick, while overrun by gleeful, shouting kids, or uncomprehending tourists. (Perhaps surprisingly, given the uncompromising brutalism of his work, children seem to have some special affinity for Serra. I’ve seen the selfsame uncomplicated pleasure at Dia:Beacon, at the Bilbao Guggenheim, and now at MoMA.)

Through their monumentality and mass, through the way they inscribe space with crisp gradients of sound volume and ambient temperature, Serra’s sculptures do what very few other works of art I’ve seen can: they create environments all their own. They’re at least as much assertions of architecture as they are anything else.

And for me, anyway, these assertions are never neutral. I always feel somehow holy inside a Serra, where by “holy” I mean richly called to contemplation, to reflection, to being-in-the-moment. Whatever it is that the man does to these slabs of shipbuilding steel, it consistently and reliably takes me to the best place that’s in me. (In some obscure way, too, this feeling is informed by my knowledge that Serra shares with the Christos the unwanted distinction that a piece of his has collapsed on a bystander with fatal results. There is some element of risk attendant on walking through a Serra piece, however attenuated: matter matters.)

The two pieces already in the Sculpture Garden – Intersection II (1992-3) and Torqued Ellipse IV (1998) – epitomize all of this. You can experience them for yourself, even before the show proper kicks off.

As placed here, Torqued Ellipse even manages something I didn’t think anything or -one could pull off: it redeems the single most wretched thing on Manhattan’s skyline, the Chippendale crenelation on the pediment of Philip Johnson’s atrocious AT&T Building. When you stand just so in Ellipse, in the hour before dusk, the two circles rhyme, the enclosing curve of the sculpture coming neatly into alignment with the egregious Johnson. It’s a moment of grace that I very much doubt is accidental.

It’s true that the two Serras kind of overwhelm the carefully proportioned garden – the Taniguchi redesign apparently didn’t countenance the idea that objects of this scale would take up residence here, even temporarily. It has to be conceded that this is not the ideal environment for these pieces, nor are they ideal for this environment – if nothing else, those rust streaks look like they’ll be a pain in the ass to remove. Nevertheless, what a treat it is to have them right here in Manhattan for a little while, a walk or at most a subway ride away.

A footnote: as it happens, we weren’t even at MoMA to see the Serras in the first place. What drew us was “Fifty Years of Helvetica,” and as wonderful as it is that my favorite font is celebrated in this way, to call the actual show a disappointment would be an understatement.

For starters, this is more an installation than it is an exhibition: one paltry vitrine, a few paragraphs of curatorial copy and a mere handful of (admittedly fabulous) examples do not a proper explanation make. The most important font of the twentieth century deserves more and better than the few pieces you can see here, a plurality of which aren’t even set in Helvetica – you know I love me some Akzidenz Grotesk, but come on. The whole thing stinks of missed opportunity.

5 responses to “Serra at MoMA: Approaching the religious”

  1. Desktopjunk says :

    Thanks, always good posts on your blog!

  2. Rob says :

    Sigh. How I long to see that Johnson/Serra alignment.

    http://www.tropolism.com/2007/04/serra_installation_at_moma.php

  3. Christopher Fahey says :

    I think fear has always been a major intended effect of Serra’s work, regardless of the veiwer’s knowledge of the work’s proven lethality. The work has a remarkable resemblance, sometimes, with architectures of power.

    Just look at that word: power. In that word, as in Serra’s work, there is a fine line between the internal will to contemplation and the external demand for submission.

  4. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Not accidental indeed … especially when you take into account Johnson’s curatorial role in the creation of the first ever department of architecture and design affiliated with a museum. Only a couple of days ago, some of my classmates and I got a private gallery tour with Barry Bergdoll (the current Philiip Johnson Chair of Architecture and Design at MoMA), who gave us a nice, intimate look at some items from the Mies van der Rohe collection. We looked at a couple of drawings that had these weird, blobby, squiggly things. They were indeed Mies’ concept drawings for the sculptures to be in front of the Seagram building. To wit: Mies was subtly telling Henry Moore what to put in front of his and Philip Johnson’s building. Yet another case in point where, in historian Jean-Louis Cohen’s words, “the ideal principles and forms” of architectural modernism “were borrowed, distorted, and weakened to serve commercial ends or to become slaves of the politics of the state” (in Taisto Makela, ed. Architecture and Modernity: Wars of Classification [New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988]: 63).

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