Some Thoughts About Richard Serra and Martin Puryear (Part 1: Serra)

Richard Serra, “Inside Out” (exterior view) (2013), weatherproof steel, 2 inches thick, overall dimensions: 13’ 2” x 80’ 9” x 40’ 2” (all photographs by Thomas Micchelli for Hyperallergic, unless otherwise stated)

“I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got.”
Ed Roberson

“Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”
Richard Serra

It is easy to forget that Richard Serra (b. 1939) and Martin Puryear (b. 1941) were born only two years apart. The different relationships that they developed toward craft and materials makes it all too easy to overlook that they are nearly contemporaries. If anything, critics tend to focus on the formal differences between them, with the emphasis on Serra’s reliance on prefabricated industrial materials and manufacturing processes to assemble his large scale, site-specific installations, while Puryear uses different varieties of wood for non-monumental pieces that require the knowledge of joinery and other aspects of non-art craftsmanship.

Serra is honored for his aptitude at making immense works that dwarf human beings, in which the sheer size of the piece can transmit to the viewer a sense of danger and, in his “Torqued Ellipses,” which he began making in 1996, a feeling of vertigo. Their impact upon the viewer is direct, both physically and optically. By focusing on his formalist innovations, beginning with “Prop” (1968), which was made with gravity-balanced pieces of lead, critics have framed the historical importance of his distrust and rejection of skill as forward looking, and celebrated his contribution to what Rosalind Krauss defined in her historically significant essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), as “the possibilities of architecture plus not- architecture.” Moreover, within the domain of the art world in which Krauss is widely regarded as a defining figure, and where “deskilling” as defined by her colleague, Benjamin Buchloh is judged as influential, Martin Puryear might be considered (and I suspect is regarded as such in many circles) a throwback, his devotion to craft and a certain kind of work ethic deemed old-fashioned.

I remember a well-known artist, who shall remain nameless, saying to me in all earnestness that Puryear had betrayed both sculpture and modern art because he had brought the hand back into the work. Getting rid of the hand and craft were things that this artist (coincidentally born the same year as Puryear) and others of his generation had spent their entire careers working hard to do. Not that this artist was jealous of Puryear’s success — he has been, in fact, the subject of dozens upon dozens of museum shows throughout America and Europe, as well as the focus of numerous monographs, many of which I own — rather, he was angry and disappointed. He felt let down. While this is one rather obvious way to underscore the difference between Serra and Puryear, I don’t think it identifies the deeper rifts separating them, particularly in their understanding of the self, power, ownership, memory, migration and survival.

Serra is associated with the Minimalism of his slightly older colleagues, Donald Judd (1928–1994), Dan Flavin (1933–1996), Robert Morris (b. 1931) and Carl Andre (b. 1935), who turned away from craft and the handmade in favor of prefabricated, industrial materials and various means of manufacturing to make what Kynaston McShine, former curator of painting and sculpture at the Jewish Museum, New York, defined as “primary structures” in the historically important exhibition, Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors (April 27–June 12, 1966). (Tony Smith, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Ann Truitt, Robert Smithson, Douglas Huebler, and Anthony Caro were among the forty-two artists included in the exhibition.)

Initially identified with process art, Serra rose to prominence in the late-1960s. In 1968, he began working with lead. In “Thirty-five feet of Lead Rolled Up” (1968), he took advantage of the material’s malleability to roll up a long sheet of it. In “Folded, Unfolded” (1969), Serra folded a flat sheet of lead into quarters and then unfolded it. It lay on the floor, like a blanket, except for the creases that remained as a physical record of the action the artist took. It was also in 1968 that Serra made “Prop” (1968), the first of a series, which joined two of his previous forms, a rolled sheet of lead and a flattened sheet of lead. This joining coincided with a list of actions to undertake with lead: “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself” (1967–1968). Here are the first twelve actions on Serra’s list of a little over one-hundred:

to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist, to dapple, to crumple, to shave, to tear, to chip.

All the actions are basic and require no special skill or knowledge of craft.

In 1970, Serra moved from the confining interiors of galleries and museums, and began working outdoors. In “Shift” (1970–72), he worked with concrete, but soon moved on to Cor-Ten steel plates, which can be manipulated more easily than concrete, and, unlike lead, won’t sag. Since Serra began working with Cor-Ten steel and breaking new ground with his massive, highly engineered installations of carefully calibrated, curving sheets of steel, he has come to be regarded by many as the most important sculptor of his generation and, indeed, of the last fifty years.

Over the past forty-five years Serra has had numerous, large-scale, site-specific installations mounted throughout Europe and America. These include “Carnegie” (1984–85), situated outside the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the three sinuous walls of “Snake” (1994-1997), permanently installed in a huge gallery of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; the first torqued spiral, “Joe” (2000), which is in an enclosed, outdoor area of the Pulitzer Foundation, St. Louis, Missouri; the 80-foot- high “Sculpture 7,” which was unveiled in Doha, Qatar, in 2011.

Speaking about “Sculpture 7,” Serra stated:

The content of the work is not the work. The meaning of the work is your experience inside the work. Or when you see it from far away, it has another meaning. But if all those things mean nothing to you, then it’s meaningless.

Richard Serra, “Inside Out” (interior view) (2013), weatherproof steel, 2 inches thick, overall dimensions: 13’ 2” x 80’ 9” x 40’ 2”
Richard Serra, “Inside Out” (interior view) (2013), weatherproof steel, 2 inches thick, overall dimensions: 13’ 2” x 80’ 9” x 40’ 2”

Here, Serra seems to agree with Frank Stella’s famous dictum about painting: “What you see is what you see.” Though, I would add that Serra most likely would include the sensations of the body, “What you physically feel is what you physically feel.” By framing the nature of his work so clearly and starkly, as well as narrowly defining what you are supposed to experience, is Serra being authoritarian? Does it mean that you are stupid or uninformed if you don’t have the right experience? What about the artist’s insistent separation of body and mind–that the work is a purely bodily experience in which the mind seems like extra baggage? What is it about this stance that so many find appealing?

In her 1986 essay for Serra’s first American retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (February 27–May 13, 1986), Rosalind Krauss cited Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological categorization of perceptual data in her description of Serra “strip[ping] the work of art of all possible illusionism.” Such a stripping away of illusion impels the viewer to discover and experience the space “physically rather than optically.” Krauss’ description locates Serra within the zone of essentialist preoccupations which many consider synonymous with the high modernist tradition that emphasizes formalist innovation while downplaying content and the philosophical problems embedded within art making. For Krauss and her colleagues, art has to do with producing acceptable solutions and being objective, rather than meditating on the nature of human creativity, which has been variously defined as a romantic gesture, an arrogant egotistical act, a dead end or an obsolete possibility.

At the same time, beginning in the mid-1990s, with his “Torqued Ellipses”, Serra appears to go in another, less confrontational direction; he shapes a seemingly unsteady curved space the viewers enter, where they are likely to experience vertigo and, paradoxically, feel protected. Still dwarfing human scale, his “Torqued Ellipses” are looked upon as being more viewer-friendly, even inviting. One wants to go inside them. It is an uncanny experience.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In 1981, Serra installed “Tilted Arc”, which was 120 feet long and twelve feet high, in the Foley Federal Plaza, an area in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from City Hall, which was surrounded by federal buildings and offices. The only reasons people went to this part of town were to work or make a court appearance. Because “Tilted Arc” bisected the only open area of the property, obstructing the view from the wooden benches in the plaza’s already unwelcoming park, where people gathered during their lunch hour, as well as altering the paths that pedestrians could take to move efficiently from one place to another, the controversy it raised was immediate

Richard Serra, "Tilted Arc" (1981) (via Wikipedia)
Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc” (1981) (via Wikipedia)

The hullabaloo eventually led to a lengthy trial in which over 100 experts from the art world testified in favor of keeping “Tilted Arc” exactly where it was. Serra, who was understandably uncompromising, famously stated: “it is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.” It seemed that Serra believed that the physical bond between structure and site was unalterable: that he, through his work, “Tilted Arc,” effectively owned and defined that plot of Manhattan real estate.

At the court case, after each side made its lengthy and often eloquent argument, a jury of five voted 4–1 to take away or, in Serra’s words, destroy the sculpture. After several years of litigation initiated by the artist, “Tilted Arc” was cut into separate pieces (or annihilated) and put in storage by federal workers on the night of March 15, 1989, where it has remained ever since. That was twenty-five years ago.

In the quarter-century that has passed since the trial, Serra seems to have attained his avowed goal, which is to establish site-specific installations, where the relationship between his work and the surrounding circumstances is seemingly permanent. At the same time, his colossal installations are remarkable achievements of both engineering and labor. So what is it about his work that bothers me? Did he maintain his artistic freedom or did he compromise it in order to complete his hugely expensive pieces? I don’t know how to answer that question so I won’t try.

I do have an innate distrust of artists whose works get increasingly expensive to make as they become more successful (Frank Stella and Jeff Koons belong in this category), but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad artists. Stella and Koons know how to adapt to the commodification of aesthetics, which is driven to make anything worthless worthwhile, so that it becomes a brand for them. For all of the affinities his elaborate fabrication process — as well as the fetishization of his work — have with Stella and Koons, I think Serra belongs in a different class. For one thing, he has remained intensely focused on gravity, weight, mass, passage, and the shaping of the viewer’s space and experience of them, which is to say that he hasn’t lost sight of his formalist roots.

Still, there is something about the supposed purity of Serra’s aesthetic disposition and the presumptions behind it, as well as the whole machinery of support that has championed his work, which bothers me, and which I am trying to understand. Serra’s unadorned monumental, architectonic works are incredibly imposing. Without a doubt, they are triumphs of entrepreneurial and artistic thinking, financial might, engineering knowhow, and human will. In a statement included in the press release of his first American retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Serra stated:

My sculptures are not objects for the viewer to stop and stare at. The historical purpose of placing sculpture on a pedestal was to establish a separation between the sculpture and the viewer. I am interested in creating a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.

The often large behavioral space that Serra creates is architectural; it directs the viewer through, around and between massive concrete, lead and steel plate walls. The experience can be exhilarating, threatening, vertiginous, lonely, isolating, apocalyptic and pleasurable. I remember once thinking this might have been what it felt like to be a lowly Greek foot soldier commanded to approach the impregnable walls of Troy. Serra deserves all the credit due him for making this experience possible.

Richard Serra, “7 Plates, 6 Angles” (detail) (2013), 7 plates, weatherproof steel, each plate: 8′ x 40′ x 8″; overall dimensions: 8′ x 44′ x 81′
Richard Serra, “7 Plates, 6 Angles” (detail) (2013), 7 plates, weatherproof steel, each plate: 8′ x 40′ x 8″; overall dimensions: 8′ x 44′ x 81′

It is not the behavioral space that Serra creates that bothers me. Rather, it is the assumption behind it. Donald Judd, in response to what he felt was the mistreatment of his work by museums and galleries, bought a former bank building in Marfa, Texas, in 1989. Eventually, he bought a total of fifteen buildings, which he renovated, and established the Judd Foundation, which has become a destination point to view not only Judd’s work, but that of many different artists, bathed in natural light and given plenty of space. Serra didn’t choose this route, which is his right. However, this leaves me with the following questions: What does it mean to believe that you have a right to use your art to define how others must negotiate a particular space? What does this say about your sense of entitlement, supposition of authority and belief in ownership?

comments (0)