Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still Moving: Richard Serra



It's tempting, in thinking about the Richard Serra show at MoMA, to talk about the pieces in terms of risk. Some works foreground their own toxicity, even if not as explicitly as does Gutter Corner Splash: Late Shift, and even though this foregrounding may not be intrinsic to the work, but rather to SFMOMA's warning signs. Others loom ominously over — and, in one case, directly above — the museum-goer, threatening a terrifying noise and even more devastating loss of limb and life. And in each case, there's a temptation, at once offset and encouraged by plexiglass partitions, not only to touch, but to push, perhaps as part of an investigation into their sturdiness and monumentality, both of which are offset by the sense of a more fragile equipose and balance upon which the sculptures are built.

In the large-scale pieces, this interplay of temptation and risk manifests itself as attraction and repulsion, where I mean these terms not in their merely aesthetic senses (i.e., desire and disgust), but in terms of physics. I am drawn closer to those corners where steel arcs overhead, but seem to be forced back. Where Serra's tendency to foreground experience seems to demand a personal, rather than objective response, this "forcing back" seems, paradoxically, not to be rooted in subjective fears, but in the physical property of magnetic repulsion, as inexorable as the earthward pull of gravity that allows for the carefully balanced dialectical synthesis of weightlessness and mass that allows for the work's existence.

Or, to put it another way, the experience of Serra's sculptures is an experience of activity, of interaction among and between objects.


Serra's "Verb List Compilation" reminds us that the art object exists as the result of actions performed on materials — a simple truth of any work of art, but rendered in the sculptures at simplicity's extreme, even if their scale comes, in turn, to complicate the notion of simplicity. The list, especially when drawn in relation to static objects, recalls the assertion made by Adam Smith and reiterated by Noah Webster, that all nouns were born as verbs. "[T]he verb," the lexicographer asserts, "is primarily the root of most words, probably of all — from the verb are formed nouns; and from these nouns are formed verbs." Elsewhere, he writes: "Motion, action, is, beyond all controversy, the principal source of words." Put into practice, this shows the lexicographer to figure action as meaning's foundation:
The human body is named from shaping, that is, setting, fixing, or extending, and hence sometimes, the general name of the human race. The arm is a shoot, a push, as is the branch of a tree. A board, a table, a floor, is from spreading, or expanding, extending. Skin, and bark are from peeling, stripping, &c.

This theory of language, which opens possibilities for thinking things otherwise, is especially relevant to the experience of Serra's art. And his list of verbs should have been printed, in a font as large as the pieces' scale, on the wall of one of the galleries. To recall the list is to foreground not only the pieces' genesis, but their presence. To see these works — and especially the larger ones — is to experience mass as energy, as force.

That is to say that Serra's pieces are not "action sculptures" in the way that Pollock's are "action paintings" — not the result of action, but actions performed and ongoing in the moment of their viewing. For their stability is rooted not in movement's opposite, but in its equipose, in tensions carefully set one against the other, such that the museum's title for the survey of its film collection, Still Moving, might have been better applied to these sculptures.



19 comments:

Steven Fama said...

Bravo for putting the notion of "risk" in the work of Richard Serra in the first sentence of your post.

Serra claims (on NPR, google it up) that his crews take no chances given the fatal accident circa 1970 in Minneapolis involving one of his works.

Yet here's the lead from a NY Times article, October 27, 1988:

"Two workers were injured, one seriously, when a 16-ton steel sculpture toppled on them in a SoHo art gallery yesterday morning, pinning the men for several minutes. Two workers were injured, one seriously, when a 16-ton steel sculpture toppled on them in a SoHo art gallery yesterday morning, ..."

Yep, it was another Richard Serra work that hurt people.

Serra's vision and work, while presumably not so intended, do directly put real people at real risk. Serra has been quoted as saying there's no need to go into the accidents -- at least the Minneapolist one -- but I do think about them, and think others should too, in thinking about his contribution to our world.

I mean, the idea of moving in and setting up a 16-ton piece of steel in an art gallery strikes me as inherently dangerous, and an artist (and gallery owner) who insists it be done ask for trouble. And trouble is what Serra and Leo Castelli got. I think there's blood on their hands.

steve roberts said...

I think your view of Serra is right on. Did I tell you the anecdote about the photographer at MoMa taking stills for the borchures? He had to get up in a dangerously unsafe rig to get above all the works. Everyone was worried he was going to fall, but he didn't. Then, leaving the MoMa and getting into a cab, another cab sped by and clipped off his thumb.

lepeep said...

Steve,
I think the term "risk" in this context is about risk in making art (the risk of “failure”) - not physical risk (being squashed)...

It's a fantastic blog / post all in all - a great critique of the concepts - I've been a fan of the "list of verbs" for a long time now - it always excites me to think of the simple and infinite possibility the situation affords...

egypt-panorama.com said...

I think your view of Serra is right on.
Thanks!

Egyptian forum said...

Did I tell you the anecdote about the photographer at MoMa taking stills for the borchures? He had to get up in a dangerously unsafe rig to get above all the works.

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