Friday, July 06, 2007

Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years. At MoMA

Prop, 1968, Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Harry Shunk
Image from this article by Jerry Saltz on Artnet.

What Saltz doesn't tell you, though I think he probably knows, is that the piece in the exhibition is not the piece in the photograph. Serra has been having his old work returned to him and has had them remade with new materials, often with new chemical compounds. The original Prop was made of lead. The new version -and that's what it is- is made of an amalgam more likely to keep it's shape; the original piece was destroyed. Most of the oldest pieces in the show are in fact the newest. There were some protests at the Whitney but the decision was treated as a fait accompli. He's been doing this over the past few years with both private and public collections. As far as I know, nobody's turned him down. Serra gets what he wants.

It's a good show. That is to say he's one of the most important artists of the post-war era and he's likely to stay that way. It's interesting that the brute materiality of his early work has transformed into high style; he's rewriting his own history to make the transformation less obvious but it's still there. For years I'd walked through his shows getting my hands dirty but the new pieces have a carefully manufactured and uniform coating of orange rust and you're not allowed to touch them, while the compound curves that new technology has allowed him to make over the past 10 years are developing the grace of haute couture. A couple of years ago a few of the pieces had the vulgarity of broadway choreography, but that's gone.

In reference to this and the last few posts, it makes sense, since I have the opportunity, to oppose the example of Serra and of art as methodology to the pseudo-science of naturalized epistemology. We follow Serra's work not because it leads but because it follows: it mirrors the transformations of culture as a whole. And if it maintains its dynamism as it changes that allows us to follow the larger narrative more closely.

"...the materiality of his early work has transformed into high style."

So now Serra and Frank Stella fit alongside Frank Gehry. Stella began as a Greenbergian idealist and Serra began with low materials kept as they were, not elevated. But the works of both have moved towards a form of baroque post-enlightenment if not necessarily post-humanist sensibility. Serra's work has moved into the conservatism of Haute Couture, Stella's into a free-form and visually narrative abstraction closer to Gehry. What's interesting about Gehry's work over the years is its empirical and experiential anti-idealism. There's no truth, but there's a rigor. Gehry and Stella have a more democratic sensibility, Serra's is explicitly aristocratic.

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