April 13, 2024

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When Richard Serra's steel curves became a monument

When Richard Serra's steel curves became a monument

After hijinks, hearings, lawsuits, and breakups, Richard Serra entered the last decade of the last century with his mind directed toward the classics.

He was happy to see the 1980s end. The American sculptor, who died on Tuesday at age 85, was caught in the middle of the Reagan-era culture wars with his “Leaning Arch,” a 120-foot-tall slab of curved Cor-Ten steel that sliced ​​across Manhattan’s Federal Plaza. The system sparked outrage as soon as it was installed in 1981. His fellow New Yorkers shouted at him in the street. People called his upstairs on Duane Street and threatened to kill him. (This newspaper wasn't always kind, either.) The work was finally removed – in Serra's estimation, destroyed – in March 1989. And you can see the appeal of the trip to Italy.

In Rome he visited San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: A small church designed by Francesco Borromini, one of the prizes of Baroque architecture, topped with an oval dome. “The central space is just a regular oval, and the walls around it are vertical,” he later recalled. “I went in and thought: What if I ran this model on itself?”

Returning to New York, after consulting with engineers and experimenting with new computer-aided design software, he created a sculptural form that had never existed before: free-standing panels of weathered steel whose upper and lower edges formed two identical, skewed ovals. The rolled steel weighed about 20 tons, but had a finesse that belied its mass. They had a confidence beyond that of an artist who saw Borromini as his counterpart, but they were more inviting than Serra's earlier steely works, inviting you to explore their warmly veiled spaces.

The sinuous ellipses have, quite literally, shifted the focus of Serra's career: from solid matter to space, from process to perception, and from the artist's actions to the viewer's physical experience. Their accompanying volumes provided this controversial, always abrasive artist with an unexpectedly cohesive third act; The ovals at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, NY, have become a trusted spot for second dates, and the perfect backdrop for cultural flirtation. As for me, over the past decades, the ellipses have remained like empty tombs, linked in my mind to another site of distorted steel, and to the life of an artist who lived the events of September 11, 2001, in a terrible, immediate way.

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The first three curved ovals were shown at the Zia galleries in Chelsea in 1997. Engineering the curved panels to stand upright turned out to be the easy move; The most difficult thing is to manufacture them. One submarine manufacturer told Serra that was impossible. A shipyard in Maryland tried, failed, and was discovered, but then closed. It took years before he found a German steel mill specializing in building turbines and boilers that could do the job. Transporting them across the Atlantic to showrooms was a heavy-handed engineering feat.

I should point out that the phrase “rounded ellipse” is a misnomer. The oval that the steel describes on the floor is a perfectly symmetrical oval, having exactly the same shape and size as the oval above your head when you walk into the panels. It's the Walls Of the sculpture that is torqued. It looks simple, and the geometric conceit is obvious if you look at the bird's eye image. And yet, to this day, when I walk around the convex walls of each sinuous oval at Beacon, I'm still never sure whether the steel wall will start to move away from me or lean toward my head. (1997 also saw the opening of another metal-bending engineering feat: guggenheim Bilbao, Titanium is worn by Serra's teammate and rival Frank Gehry. Many of the ellipses live permanently in that Spanish museum, and both the building and the sculptures can seem like time capsules from that silly decade, left over from the Cold War and unexpected new wars.)

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Can abstract sculpture be baroque? Can a shipyard produce a chapel? After all the hype of the 1980s, Serra had astonished audiences in 1997 with his implausible geometry and mysterious curvature. They are seduced by their crimson surfaces that have oxidized in the intervening decades to a dark brown colour. She seemed indifferent to gravity, like the propped-up lead panels and cera scrolls of the 1960s, although the newer works had a greater baroque insouciance. They are dissolved like salted saints in Rubens' altarpiece. Like the dancers Serra saw frequently at Judson's church. Or like a collapsed structure; Maybe like two.

In September 2001, Serra had completed preparations for his first exhibition in New York since the inaugural show of Zigzag Ellipses. he will be late. “I saw it right out the window,” he told Charlie Rose that fall, talking about the first plane he saw from his apartment on Duane Street. “I saw the plane stop and then it went toward the middle of the building, in the middle of the upper building. I saw the explosion. I saw the fireball. I saw the fire being absorbed back. I saw the black cave. I saw the tail section still burning to ash. And then I went down the street, you know, I saw people jumping…

He had witnessed the Minoru Yamasaki Towers collapse that morning, and he would remember how their stainless steel cladding crushed the buildings, spiraling into the sky. One of Serra's assistants arrived at his apartment covered in white ash. Trucking crews that were scheduled to transport his sculptures went to Gagosian to volunteer at ground zero. Serra stayed downtown as well. “I live here,” he said from Duane Street a week after the attack. “To watch the fire brigades march and know they're not going to quit, you're trying to live a normal life, you can get back into it. Otherwise they'll beat you twice.”

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Somehow his exhibition happened. Six new sculptures, including two crooked ellipses, were shown at Gagosian on October 18, 2001. Tourism had evaporated, but thousands of New Yorkers flocked to Serra's hedgerows and wheels. Steel, distorted into previously unimaginable shapes, can cause confusion when you first see it, and perhaps even fear; Then I stepped inside, discovered its interiors, and felt something approaching awe. Heavy metal, which Serra haters in Federal Plaza likened to a prison wall, became a site of mourning and mourning. However, the ellipses, abstract as ever, took on the functions of the church that inspired them: contemplation, consecration, glory, and sorrow.

I was only 18 that fall. I registered for the potential military draft at the post office on my birthday, while the young administration of President George W. Bush was planning the “War on Terror” that Cera would later protest in Angry oil stick drawing For the masked prisoner in Abu Ghraib. I returned to New York in October, looked at the missing persons posters in Union Square, and looked down Sixth Avenue to where the towers had been. I had only just begun to learn about sculpture, but I knew what everyone knew when I saw Serra's troubled steel: that artists could speak in ways politicians never could, and that aesthetic freedom was a freedom worth fighting for. Decades later, I still feel that way when I'm in Beacon, moved by those unintended memorials to his hometown's dead, heavy as history, as inescapable as rust.