Serra and Stella: Big Boys in Big Spaces

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There’s a unique experience to be had in New York right now. Two big-name sculptors are showing big work in big spaces. Richard Serra is at the Modern; Frank Stella is at the Met. The museums' large indoor galleries are not enough to contain the enormous metal sculptures, so both artists have the primo outdoor space as well.

Serra’s solid steel sculptures (Intersection 2, above) stake a muscular claim on cubic space, yet they’re also about the interior spaces they define. Stella’s sculptures (Memantra, below) are so open, you see their positive and negative spaces as a whole. One’s a bodybuilder, the other a dancer.

At MoMA: View of the Sculpture Garden and Serra's Intersection 2

Serra in the Garden at MoMA

The images in this post are of Serra’s work in the sculpture garden because it’s what I could photograph (no picture taking allowed inside), but my comments are also informed by the installation of the large works on the upper floors.

In the Sculpture Garden, above and below: Views of Intersection 2 from opposite vantage points

With their curved and torqued planes, Serra’s sculptures are physically as well as visually compelling: part cavern, part vessel (as in ship, basin, silo), part funhouse. Each sculpture simultaneously closes in, opens out, sucks you down and lifts you up. I’m not overstating here. I felt a heady mix of vertigo, claustrophobia, levitation, and a kind of stoned giddiness. And mystery. Unless you see the work from an elevated viewpoint, you don’t know how large it is or exactly what its shape and proportions are. Like love, you plunge in and see where it goes, trusting you won’t get lost or crushed in the process.

And speaking of getting crushed, one sculpture on the second floor, Torqued Torus Inversion, resembled the bow of a ship—or the blade of a leviathan knife. To stand between it and the wall, which was maybe ten feet away, gives you a visceral understanding of the overused phrase, "between a rock and a hard place." But maybe that’s the funhouse part of it. It won’t really press forward and mash you into tartare. It won’t, right?

Curvilinear layers, set within the geometry of the museum

There’s also a lot of energy around the work. Maybe it’s all that iron and rust—connections to magnetism and hemoglobin. These are formidably visceral works. Sure physics and brute force were needed to make them, but the thoughts that resonated for me were earth, blood, womb. Hmm. Richard Serra as Earth Mother?Because it was hot the day I went to the museum, I waited until later in the afternoon to enter the garden where Intersection 2 and Torqued Ellipse IV were installed. The works feel just as enormous outdoors as they are indoors. With daylight, the surfaces of the work are more compelling, all scraped and pocked and surprisingly subtle in coloration (more on this, next post). Experiencing the work in MoMA’s courtyard was the physical equivalent of a mystery wrapped in an enigma: you’re surrounded by a large enclosure, which is itself surrounded by a large enclosure.

By the time I entered the sculpture garden, the crowds has thinned and the day had cooled considerably. There was no touching the work, of course. But the sculpture did something unexpected. All the heat that the metal had absorbed during the day was emanating from the surface as I walked around and through the work. So though I couldn’t touch the sculpture, it reached out and touched me.

Unexpected warmth at the end of the day
Images above: views of Intersection 2, 1992-93
Images below: Torqued Ellipse IV, 1998

More info, with pics, captions and comments by the artist:

Stella on the Roof
"The roof" is the Met's al fresco gallery, a glorious space to see art and nature and marvel at both.

Before I made my way there, I stopped into the large first-floor gallery for Painting Into Architecture where a couple dozen of Stella’s paintings, sculptures and architectural maquettes were on exhibition. Two views from Painting Into Architecture, a survey of Stella's work from the Sixties to the present

I was able to shoot the two images above before a guard came over and told me to stop. The larger works were too big for the space—true, too, of Serra’s sculptures in MoMA’s galleries—and all that Stella color and patterning, really did make it feel like a funhouse. I have always been a fan of his more minimal, geometric paintings, so I threaded my way through the crowded installation to see works like Sunapee II.

Frank Stella, Sunapee II, 1966, oil on canvas, 127.5 x 120 x 4 inchesMetropolitan Museum of Art

Frank Stella Severinda, 1995, mixed media on fiberglass, 9' 10" x 27'. 7" x 12' Photo by Steven Sloman, New York © 2007

Then I escaped to the roof.

My response to Stella’s work is more visual, less visceral than to Serra’s. And except for the occasion of these dual shows, I wouldn’t think to write about them in the same piece.

Chinese Pavilion, 2007, carbon epoxy composite; 14' 9.5" x 33' 8.5" x 30' 3.5"

In particular I responded to a large, open black piece, Chinese Pavilion, that seems to have wafted onto supporting pylons. In bits of overheard conversation, I picked up words like, "Darth Vader," "spaceship," and "skeletal grasshopper." To me the piece suggested nothing so much as a large cloud, though "pavilion" in the title suggests a more architectural intent. I like this open sculpture as much for its shadows as for its structure, so I wonder if I would have responded in the same way if I’d seen it indoors without the ephemeral lattice of a positive-negative of the positive-negative. Here, it appeared to float, as if we were at the altitude of, say, Machu Picchu.

Detail views of Chinese Pavilion, above and below

Chinese Pavilion demands 360-degree inspection, unlike the the other large works, Memantra and Adjoeman, which seem more oriented in one direction. Of these latter two, I preferred Memantra, which has a large fabric-like square that makes it appear poised to fly off the roof; indeed the square's torque suggests that it has begun to catch the wind. The sculpture's weight obviates any possibility of takeoff, of course, but the tension between rootedness and skywardness is exquisite. And I love how the pattern of Stella's early black paintings reasserts here as a spiralic mandala in low relief.

Memantra, 2005, stainless steel and carbon fiber; 14' x 20' 7" x15'4". Photograph above: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Anna Marie Kellen. My photo is below.

If you follow my blog, you know I like word connections, so indulge me here for a moment: Both sculptors are Italian Americans (first-generation, I’m guessing) and their names are particularly suited to their work at the moment. Serra means greenhouse, an architecturally closed-in space that nonetheless offers views into and beyond its walls. Stella means star, and the artist’s work is right up there under a celestial canopy.

Next post: Serra on the Surface: Looking at the Sculpture with a Painter's Eye

1 comment:

Steve Roach said...

Thanks for the pictures...they're great for someone who's not based in New York to actually see what everyone writes about!