Serra on the Surface: Looking at the Sculpture with a Painter’s Eye

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In my previous post, Serra and Stella: Big Boys in Big Spaces, I talked about walking around and through the massive works. You can talk about the sculptures in formal terms: the sinuousness of their line opposed to the muscularity of the material; and of the torques, which define the exterior and interior spaces, sometimes simultaneously, with a different shape at the bottom than at the top.
A painterly surface and....color!

Exterior view of Intersection 2, in the MoMA courtyard. To me, the work is as much painting as sculpture

You can also talk about the achievement of the artist in mathematically wresting the material into shape so that the huge machines used in shipbuilding could roll and forge the metal to deliver the work physically.

Another view of Intersection 2 showing three of the four slabs that make up the work, each with a distinct surface
I've already talked about my physical experience, which had me pleasantly disoriented, lightheaded and, to be honest, a little fearful. Gravity is anchoring these bent and twisted slabs; couldn't it also pull them down? But there is no experiencing this work if you don't get past that--so, er, que sera, sera; you take a breath, set aside what may or may not be an irrational fear, and enter the work. My emotional experience of the work was that these muscular slabs of metal were almost maternal in the way they enveloped the body.

And how can you not make the connection between iron oxide and blood? Indeed, in some places the iron has bled onto the marble of the courtyard, so that when the sculptures are removed, a physical trace of their presence will remain permanently. (I hope the museum won’t replace the pavement.) So the work is all very First Chakra and earth centered.

Above: A view from inside Intersection 2. This stretch of slab is particularly topographic, so I composed the detail shots (three shown below) to suggest maps of uncharted territory

In this post I want to talk about the surface. I’ve seen several Serra installations at Gagosian and the permanent installation of the big basin-like shapes at Dia Beacon, but indoor lighting—including the glaring overhead illumination at MoMA—does not prepare you for the experience of seeing his work out of doors in full daylight. The mottled and scratched surface texture, always interesting, reveals itself in daylight to be something more like skin: thick here, thin there, pocked, shiny, flaky, smooth. Or skins, plural: human, animal, mammalian, amphibian. Or planetary: a sandy strand, a lunar crust, a Martian landscape. There are red-orange tracks formed by liquid (rain?), and deep gouges, perhaps wrought in installation. Wherever the treated surface of the metal is rent, there is rust—pits, scars, scabs, craters.
Still inside Intersection 2, above, this stretch of metal is pitted, scabbed, scarred. Two details are below
Then there is color. The vibrant spectrum of rust is richly satisfying, from yellow-orange through coral (!) to ocher and brick red. But the surprise--the shock, really--is in the other hues: lavender, pale pink, gray-blue, even blue-green. I’ve used the parable of the blind men and the elephant before in describing the experience of Basel Miami and its satellite fairs, but it’s more apt here. Depending on where you (visually) touch these mammoths, you will perceive a different creature.

This stretch of Intersection 2 is marked by a dramatic counterpoint of granulated rust and a smooth gray-blue surface where the surface treatment had not been broken. Along the bottom curve of the slab you can see where the rust has bled into the marble pavement.What I found surprising was the particularly lovely coloration--note the light blue, below-- and the delicate scrim traced by the path of bleeding metal. Like watercolors, no? The brick hue and matte surface of Torqued Ellipse IV, the second sculpture in the garden, held a different surprise when you passed through the spiral slot. . . . . . an inner surface whose cascading waterfall of color might have come from the brush of Pat Steir. . .

. . . and calligraphic markings as light as anything you might see on rice paper.

What I haven't read anywhere is how much of this stupefylingly beautiful surface patination is the result of planning. Surely there was a decision to rupture the weatherproof coating. So are we seeing unintended consequences or simply the painterly passage of time? What will the work look like a decade from now? A century from now?


Vincent Romaniello said...

On one of the interviews Charlie Rose did with Serra, he says that in 10 years the surfaces will darken into a single dark color. I think that's too bad because they look great now.

Pretty Lady said...

Hi, honey! I am so glad that you reviewed this exhibition in this earnestly observant way. Confidentially, I completely agree with you, and experienced the pieces in much the same way you did. However, when I attempted to write about it, it somehow came out all snarky. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Beautifully observed. Thank you!