The Richard Serra exhibition which has come to the Museum of Modern Art this spring is an event bound to disturb—perhaps even infuriate—a great many more people than it pleases.[1] In this respect, as in others, the exhibition is completely faithful to the spirit of Mr. Serra’s work, which from the outset of his career—some twenty years ago—has been conceived of as a series of provocations. Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to allow this posture of provocation to set the terms of our response to the sculpture which we encounter in the MOMA exhibition. It would also, alas, be a mistake to discount it entirely. For the element of provocation is an integral part of Mr. Serra’s artistic program. It would therefore be absurd to ignore it.

The problem, in Mr. Serra’s case, is to determine exactly what artistic role the artist’s posture of provocation plays in the creation of his sculpture. This is not an easy task, however, for the artist himself has done much to obscure the issue, and his many "activist" champions—no doubt taking their warrant from the artist’s own attitudes and then raising the ante, so to speak, in their own political interests—have done even more. We need to be reminded, then, that it is as an artist—and not as something else—that Mr. Serra’s primary claim on our attention rests. To see what that claim really amounts to, it is therefore essential that we separate the art from the artist’s reputation. And this, in turn, means that on the occasion of the present exhibition at MOMA, we must separate the art from the texts describing it in the catalogue accompanying the show—texts which MOMA itself, in an extraordinary disclaimer, has all but disavowed but which it has obviously deemed politic to publish without interference.[2]

There is no mystery, of course, as to how this unusual situation, in which the museum finds itself publicly at odds with its own publication, has come about. The museum had apparently intended for some time to devote an exhibition to Mr. Serra’s work. Before much headway could be made in that endeavor, however, Mr. Serra suddenly emerged as a figure of considerable controversy. The large outdoor sculpture called Tilted Arc, which he created for the plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan on a commission from the General Services Administration, became the focus of a fierce debate. A great many people who work in the Javits building—people who have to live with the sculpture every working day—strongly objected to it. (The sculpture consists of a Cor-Ten steel wall, measuring one hundred and twenty feet in length and twelve feet in height, which bisects the building’s plaza.) This led to a hearing on the suitability of the work. As a result of the hearing, a decision was made to order the removal of Tilted Arc to another site, and this prompted further debate. (It did not cause the work to be removed, by the way. At this writing, it remains in place.) Naturally, given the current climate of opinion, the whole episode made of Mr. Serra something of an artist-hero and, owing to the fact that Tilted Arc was a government commission, something of a political martyr as well.

As I have elsewhere given my opinion on this work and the controversy surrounding it, I do not propose to go into the matter again in any detail here.[3] Suffice to say that I was not one of those who succumbed to the charms of Tilted Arc, nor was I persuaded that the decision to order its removal from the Javits plaza constituted a crime against art, society, or anything else. On the contrary, it seems to me that there are legitimate reasons for objecting to the work and that the entire controversy has done much to illuminate the deeply problematic nature of the project which has come to be called public art—a vast and expensive program upon which the government embarked with a great deal of naïveté and a woeful paucity of serious thought about its implications or indeed its essential purposes.

What is of more direct concern here, however, is the role which the Titled Arc affair has played in the presentation of the MOMA exhibition. By its very nature, of course, Tilted Arc could not be included in the exhibition. There is, to be sure, a photograph of the work in the show, as there are of the artist’s many other immense public sculptures both here and abroad. But photographs are not sculpture, and the photographs in question are in many cases extremely misleading. This is certainly the case with the photograph of Tilted Arc. It does not in any sense suggest what it is actually like to experience the sculpture in situ, which is what the controversy is really about. Tilted Arc is by no means the only work photographically misrepresented in this way in the MOMA show. A sculpture I very much admire—the construction called Carnegie, which was erected last fall outside the entrance of the Museum of Art at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg—is similarly misrepresented by an aerial view of a kind which is vouchsafed to almost no one but the birds (and professional photographers seeking bird’s-eye views). We can hardly be surprised, then, that it is one of these aesthetically sanitized photographs of Tilted Arc which adorns the cover of the MOMA publication, which is not really a catalogue of the exhibition but a propaganda offering wholly devoted to exalting Mr. Serra in his role as artist-hero and political martyr.

The question which therefore most urgently needs to be asked about the sculpture of Richard Serra at this juncture is this: What is it we are left with when all the controversy and role-playing is put aside? With this question in mind, the MOMA exhibition turns out to be an event of exceptional artistic interest. By no means is everything in the exhibition an unqualified artistic success, in my opinion. But there is much that is. And there can be no question, I think, but that Mr. Serra has taken sculpture in a direction that is new, however much his work may owe to the ideas of his contemporaries. What is original in his work may not always to be to our liking, perhaps—but it nonetheless leaves the art of sculpture significantly altered.

Every artist is shaped to one degree or another by his moment of entry into the art scene, and Mr. Serra has proved to be no exception to the rule. His moment of entry came in the turmoil of the Sixties, and in his work there is still to be discerned some of the characteristic forms of that period and some of its characteristic attitudes, too (not all of which found their way directly into art at the time.) Much of the new art of that period—especially the new abstract art—was not only highly formalistic in spirit but cool and impersonal in feeling. Elementary shapes —geometric or at least straight-edged—predominated, and in sculpture there was a distinct preference for outsize scale and for an industrial or fabricated look in the finish of the work. Such were the established characteristics of Minimal sculpture when Mr. Serra arrived on the scene in the Sixties, and he very quickly made them his own. Minimalism became the “tradition” to which he attached himself.

To this tradition, however, was added something else: the notion that both the process by means of which the sculpture is executed and the specific space in which it is created must henceforth be regarded not merely as the circumstantial conditions of the work’s realization but as essential, defining aspects of its artistic existence. Hence the emergence of so-called process art and site-specific sculpture, in both of which Mr. Serra played a much publicized role.

Not all of the influences which shaped Mr. Serra’s outlook in the Sixties were strictly aesthetic, of course. There was also the révolté ethos of the counterculture, which called for a programmatic resistance to whatever could then be regarded as established social practice. The innovations inherent in both process art and site-specific sculpture were born of this spirit of resistance, but in themselves they proved to be feeble as well as temporary challenges to the artistic status quo—and no challenge whatever to the established social order. With few exceptions, they were easily assimilated into the patronage system they were ostensibly designed to challenge, and have remained a permanent feature of an expanded art world ever since. What began as a radical attack on established artistic conventions was very quickly embraced as a new artistic orthodoxy. Which is why a “radical” artist like Mr. Serra could so swiftly become the darling of cultural bureaucrats, bourgeois collectors, and highly placed academics throughout the Western world. It was not that he had failed to produce something new, but that within a decade of his debut he was clearly seen to be taking sculpture in a direction which, although new and in some respects startling, was nonetheless consistent with what prior modernist practice had prepared the way for.

I have already observed that Minimalism was the tradition to which Mr. Serra attached himself at the outset of his career, and he remains very much a Minimalist sculptor today—but a Minimalist with a difference. To the purely formalistic attributes of Minimalism he has added something odd and unexpected—an element of dread, or what might even be called fear, which I do not recall ever before encountering in a sculptural work in quite the same way. In much of Minimalist sculpture, no matter how elephantine the scale of the work may be, the highly simplified forms together with their impersonal surfaces and rigorously logical structures tend to have a rather benign, if not indeed a sedative, effect on any reasonably knowledgeable spectator. Just about the last thing in the world we expect to experience in the presence of these works is a sensation of dread. Far from posing either a physical or theoretical threat to our existence, Minimalist sculpture tends for the most part to relax the spirit and offer us the visual equivalent of nirvana—which is to say, deliverance from all sense of pain, anxiety, or trauma.

This is distinctly not the case with many of the steel constructions we encounter in the Serra exhibition at MOMA. For one thing, these sculptures occupy the museum’s spaces with an authority which is all but indistinguishable from a certain mode of aggression. Their outsize forms tend either to impede or direct our movements in or around them; to take an interest in these works is, to some extent, to surrender to their scale, which is not so much a human scale as a scale designed to diminish our sense of autonomy and volition. I speak particularly of the room-size constructions which, by means of immense steel slabs, divide space in such a way as to hold us captive, direct our vision, and control our movements as a condition of seeing the work at all. I cannot speak for others, of course, but I doubt if I am the only spectator to find the experience of such works vaguely threatening. Enclosed in the vaultlike spaces which the sculptor has created, one naturally wonders—not continuously, but from time to time—what would happen if one of these weighty steel members were suddenly to topple. Or rather, one doesn’t wonder—one knows for certain that in such an event one would be crushed to death. Of course nothing does topple. Everything remains securely in place, and one is free to explore the work in perfect safety. And yet the implied threat is there—and it persists in remaining a constituent element in the experience of seeing Mr. Serra’s work for as long as one lingers in its presence. Even with the constructions which one cannot enter— which are roped off from the viewer and which we therefore see from a space we do not share with the work itself—the delicate balances sustained by the huge steel plates give the impression of a precariousness that reinforces this sense of an implied threat and thus surrounds us with an atmosphere of dread.

I at least know of nothing quite like this in the history of sculpture. As Dr. Johnson famously said of the prospect of hanging, it is an experience that concentrates the mind. We leave this exhibition with a very vivid sense of having seen something and felt something we have never seen or felt before, and the memory of it is not soon dissipated. It remains fixed and unforgettable. Whether we like it or not—whether, indeed, we are meant to like it—is another question, and I very much doubt if this question of our “liking” the work is of compelling interest to Mr. Serra. I rather think he would believe he had failed in his mission if we were found to like it too quickly. (Which, if true, must make his current popularity among cultural bureaucrats something of a problem for him.) His primary aim {I gather) is to affect and manipulate our response, to impose a certain control on our perceptions, and thus to shatter our complacency in the face of the art experience, and in this he certainly succeeds. The marriage of Minimalist form and existential dread turns out to be a potent combination.

I note with interest, by the way, that neither of the two sculptures which MOMA has acquired for its permanent collection—Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure (1969), which is the first work we see on entering the exhibition, and Modern Garden Arc (1986), which reposes in the museum’s elegant sculpture garden—can be said to generate this sense of dread. They belong to Mr. Serra’s more purely formalistic works. Which is entirely understandable. Vastly more space would be required for one of Mr. Serra’s room-size constructions than MOMA has, or will ever have, available in its permanent collection. And there are probably other reasons why the museum has settled for what is, in truth, only a token representation of the artist’s work in its permanent collection. Mr. Serra is not, after all, primarily a museum artist. As that wall of photographs documenting Mr. Serra’s many public commissions reminds us, his major works have mainly been created for large outdoor sites, and I very much doubt if MOMA is ever going to turn over its beautiful garden to something akin to the Tilted Arc. Were it ever to do so, the uproar likely to ensue would make the whole controversy which has raged over the commission for the Javits plaza look like a pastoral idyll.

Instead of this unpleasant and indeed unthinkable prospect, the museum has turned over its book on Richard Serra to two authors—Rosalind E. Krauss and Douglas Crimp, co-editor and managing editor, respectively, of October magazine—who, for the most part, completely ignore the exhibition which MOMA has mounted on this occasion and offer the museum’s public absolutely nothing in the way of an intelligible guide to the artist’s work. In the customary October manner, the one gives us a post-structuralist disquisition of insurmountable opacity while the other rides his political hobbyhorse for a replay of the Tilted Arc melodrama, grandly announcing that we have now, as a result of this controversy, witnessed “the redefinition of the site of the work of art as the site of political struggle.” No wonder, then, that William Rubin, the director of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, felt obliged in his preface to this publication to declare that “The Museum of Modern Art disagrees with the rhetorical tone and historical polemic of much that has been written about Tilted Arc here as elsewhere.” We can assume that Mr. Serra got the publication he wanted and that getting it was one of the conditions he laid down for agreeing to this exhibition. That is the way it usually goes nowadays with artist-heroes, especially those honored few who have also been elevated to the status of political martyrs. They get everything they ask for. But the fact remains that this MOMA exhibition is itself in no sense a “site of political struggle,” nor is Mr. Serra himself of any outstanding interest as a political figure. He is of great interest as a sculptor, however, and it is a pity that an institution of MOMA’s stature could not bring itself to offer its public even a hint about what the real nature of that interest might be. Its abject surrender in this matter has surely set a precedent it will live to regret, for the next time around the ante will be raised to a degree guaranteed to be even more unpleasant than anything the museum might have faced on this occasion.

  1. “Richard Serra/Sculpture,” organized by Laura Rosenstock and Rosalind E. Krauss, opened at the Museum of Modern Art on February 27 and doses on May 13. Go back to the text.
  2. Richard Serra/Sculpture by Rosalind E. Krauss. Edited and with an Introduction by Laura Rosen-stock. Essay by Douglas Crimp. The Museum of Modern Art (clothbound, $40; paperback, $22.50). Go back to the text.
  3. See “Art Since the War: Who Will Write Its History?” in The New Criterion, Summer 1985, pages 7-8. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 9, on page 1
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