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An Ironclad Visionary

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

As Richard Serra and his team installed the last of his “Torqued Ellipses” at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, the husky men looked like dwarfs engaged in a herculean effort. Forklifts and a T-lift did the heavy work and suspended 40-ton steel slabs while they were guided into place, but even the motorized equipment resembled toys in comparison to the huge sculptures.

When the final piece was slowly lowered to the floor, then raised a few inches and lowered again to form a perfect seam, Serra, a physically fit, chunky man with short gray hair, soft blue eyes and an intense demeanor, leaned against it while an assistant eased the curved panel into place with a crowbar. “That’s it. That’s it,” the artist said as he stepped back and surveyed the show, clearly showing a sense of satisfaction.

Call him a macho Minimalist, an aggressive purist or a brainy steelworker and you’ll have the stereotypes of Richard Serra about right. Although the 58-year-old, New York-based artist is an internationally acclaimed abstract sculptor who commands enormous respect in American art circles, he is often characterized as a one-dimensional figure whose work is unfriendly, if not gut-wrenchingly dangerous, and who defends his turf with all the grace of a pit bull.

In person, Serra is something much different. He speaks frankly and openly about his past and the evolution of his current work, occasionally taking out a pad and pencil to draw a diagram while explaining how his ideas have taken physical form. Businesslike but warm and friendly, he displays no resentment or rancor--making his popular image look like so much Hollywood overstatement.

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Yet this is the guy whose 77-ton steel sculpture “Tilted Arc” set off a raging battle over public art in the late 1980s. The 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high slab of curved steel was commissioned by the federal General Services Administration--which oversees construction of government buildings and uses half a percent of their cost to purchase art--and installed in 1981 at Federal Plaza on Foley Square in Lower Manhattan.

The work became a symbol of artistic arrogance in the press when some workers in the adjacent building objected to the towering sculpture because, they said, it blocked their view, impeded foot traffic and looked ugly. In 1989, after an acrimonious debate pitting the fiercely outspoken artist and his supporters against federal authorities and public opinion, the sculpture was dismantled and put into storage.

Serra emerged from the fray with the image of a stubborn egotist who not only fought the work’s removal but insisted that it was designed specifically for the site and could not be relocated without destroying its integrity. In the wake of the storm, the New York Times dubbed him “the most notorious sculptor in America.”

At first glance, a major exhibition of unbelievably big and weighty steel sculptures--opening Sept. 20 at the Geffen--seems to present Serra as the public knows him. There are only nine works in the show, but--together with a room of models--they fill the entire 55,000-square-foot space of MOCA’s warehouse-like facility in Little Tokyo. Towering way above mere human beings, leaning in and out at dizzying angles and looming so large that they can’t be comprehended without walking inside them, they pull off amazing feats of artistry and engineering.

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But as soon as you suck in your breath and venture inside one of the seven curved enclosures called “Torqued Ellipses,” which form the centerpiece of the exhibition, you suddenly realize that Serra has married his customary brute force and massive scale with surprisingly elusive, liquid space in this new body of work. Instead of the sense of being overwhelmed and intimidated by the works, the spiraling, upward sweep of the curved steel provokes an unexpected rush of emotional release as the forms open to the ceiling.

Minimal and industrial as they are, it’s even more astonishing--though logical after experiencing the works--to learn that the “Torqued Ellipses” were inspired by the soaring space of an early 17th century Baroque church in Rome: San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Francesco Borromini. What isn’t surprising is that the “Ellipses” are being viewed as an exhilarating breakthrough for the artist.

“I can never anticipate what the reaction to my work is going to be, and I’ve been at this for over 30 years now,” Serra said during an interview at the museum. “I just know that people who haven’t responded to my work in the past, or to me, respond to these works. Maybe they are more accessible; maybe there’s something about making a vessel in and of itself that’s more sheltering.”

The show was organized by MOCA director Richard Koshalek and Julia Brown, curator of special exhibitions for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and is scheduled to travel to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain in the spring. The seven “Torqued Ellipses,” which rise to about 13 feet in height and extend to nearly 30 feet in depth, lean in and out from oval footprints in the main gallery. Five of these works are single-walled enclosures; the other two are “doubles,” consisting of one elliptical form set inside another.

“Pickhan’s Progress,” an 11-foot-high, 86-foot-long serpentine piece consisting of three roughly parallel, undulating walls, occupies the long gallery on the south side of the building. The third major section of the show, on the mezzanine, is “58 X 64 X 70.” It’s composed of six forged blocks of steel that weigh 37 tons apiece.

The enormous size and dangerous look of Serra’s work may precipitate the artist’s tough-guy image, as does his uncompromising aesthetic vision. But popular perceptions are also darkly colored by both the “Tilted Arc” debacle and another incident in his past: In 1971, a worker who failed to read instructions on how to install one of Serra’s works was crushed to death when a 2-ton piece of steel fell on him.

“You get a reputation,” Serra said. “Without really following the work, people kind of pull a skin over you, and it’s very, very hard to outgrow that skin. You get branded in terms of whether your work is aggressive or heavy or your personality is mean-spirited or whatever, and it’s very, very hard to dissuade people.

“The accident was very unfortunate,” he said. “But once something like that happens, people have a very knee-jerk reaction to whatever the work is. Every piece I build is engineered down to the last millimeter. So it’s not that I don’t take every precaution I can take. But if you are building with big material like this, it’s the same as if you were constructing a bridge or a building. There is that potential [for accidents].”

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The specter of “Tilted Arc” has been even more difficult to shake. “For years, all people wanted to talk to me about was ‘Tilted Arc.’ I thought, ‘Am I going to deal with this albatross the rest of my life? Why bother?’ That’s what people want to talk about because that’s what they know. I find it irrelevant. It’s not my problem.”

Anyone who visits the exhibition at MOCA can see that Serra has moved on with his professional life, even if the public hasn’t caught up with him. But that’s not to say his work is any less imposing or unwieldy. A large section of the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary had to be removed to bring in the steel components of his sculpture, which arrived by ship from Germany and by truck from the East Coast.

It took a full month to do the installation, which was completed in early August so the show could be photographed for the catalog. While the sculptures on view were made in 1996-98, the publication covers 170 works created since 1985. Earlier works are documented in the catalog published in conjunction with his 1986 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by the sheer mass of Serra’s art and the exacting skill required to fabricate and install it. But there’s much more to the “Torqued Ellipses” than muscle and detail, and Serra doesn’t mind explaining what he went through to turn his idea into sculpture.

“I had been working on pieces that were basically conical sections,” he said. “But I had a desire to see if I could complete the interior space almost as a vessel. On a trip to Rome, I saw Borromini’s church.” Entering from an aisle on one side he saw “an ellipse that rises vertically to the sky. It doesn’t change in its upward thrust, but I looked at it and thought, ‘What if I could torque this piece on itself? What if I could take the top space and twist it?’ ”

When he returned home, he tried to fashion a twisted ellipse with a small steel bender and came close to what he wanted, but couldn’t get it quite right. He called the Santa Monica office of his old friend architect Frank O. Gehry and talked to engineer Rick Smith. A veteran of the aerospace industry, Smith has adapted the Catia software program--designed by the French for the Mirage jet--to Gehry’s architecture. “It’s really allowed Frank to make a quantum leap forward in the last several years,” Serra said.

Smith thought Serra’s problem could be solved by computer, but he was too busy helping Gehry finish the Guggenheim in Bilbao to try. Determined to figure it out, Serra and an assistant cut two identical ellipses out of wood, connected them with a dowel and rotated one ellipse so that it was at a right angle to the other. Then they rolled a sheet of lead around the space between the two ellipses.

“This isn’t a flowerpot; it isn’t a lampshade,” he said, walking into one of the “Torqued Ellipses.” Unlike cone-shaped objects, the walls of his sculptural enclosures do not taper inward or outward from top to bottom, he said. Instead, they are are forced to lean in or out as they connect the space between two identical ellipses.

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Once they had a pattern, they sent it to Smith and asked if they were close to what he could do on the computer program. Intrigued that the artist was able to achieve what he did without a computer, Smith agreed to work out a bending pattern that Serra could take to a shipyard for construction.

But that was only the first hurdle. “We sent the program to Korea, to Germany, all over, and we couldn’t find anyone to build it,” Serra said. “I had worked for years with General Dynamics, which builds submarines. They wouldn’t touch it because they didn’t think they could get the valences down to what I wanted.

“So I went to Korea. The Koreans can do it, but they don’t make steel wide enough. They only make 12-foot pieces; I needed 16 feet. I wanted the pieces to be 12 or 13 feet high, and you lose some of the steel as you cut the template.”

At the point when Serra feared the works might never be built, architect friends suggested that he make them in concrete. “I didn’t want to do that because it begs the issue of architecture. I really wanted the tension that you get from torquing the steel,” he said.

Beth Ship, a shipyard in Maryland, eventually agreed to take on the job. But the first attempt was a disaster. Instead of following the pattern Serra had given the workers, they tried to bend steel as if they were making a cone shape. “The first day, they broke the plate. It sounded like lightning,” Serra said, shuddering at the painful memory.

After having spent nearly three years to find a builder, the incident was a serious setback. “It took almost a year to get back on track. Then we built three more in about six months. The learning curve got much quicker,” he said.

“But then the shipyard closed down. I had no idea where I was going to build these. I went to England to a place called Vickers, which builds the Trident [submarines] and Rolls-Royces. They were very interested in the project and they could have done it. But at the same time, the Germans bought into Rolls-Royce; they didn’t want to stop the production capacity, and they didn’t want us in there.”

The solution was a steel mill in Siegen, Germany. “There’s something about the Germans,” he said. “I think, because it has been part of their craft since the early part of the century, they have the perseverance and technical skill to really produce steel in a way that very few places in the world can. They make sections for boilers, power plants, turbines and ships. Anything that has to do with a reverse curve they make, so they were right down my alley.”

The machine used to bend the metal “has tremendous capacity in terms of compression,” he said. “In a very simple-minded sense, it’s like an old-fashioned washing machine. It has a very, very big top roller and two bottom rollers. The bed is about 60 feet wide, so you can feed in a very, very thick plate.”

The fundamental challenge, however, has been to teach steelworkers to use unfamiliar computer technology to create a form that apparently hadn’t been made before, he said. And as the project has evolved, Serra has pushed it further by varying the angle of elliptical rotation from 55 to 90 degrees, so that each space is different.

When he exhibited three of the “Torqued Ellipses” for nine months last fall and this past spring, at the DIA Center for the Arts in New York, critics said the spaces were like nothing they had previously encountered.

“If you can take the steel to the point where it hasn’t been dealt with before, it starts to lose its quality as steel,” Serra said. “It starts to look more elastic than steel has ever been. It starts to look like clay.”

Serra believes that part of the power and mystery of the “Ellipses” is that they are so big it’s impossible to grasp their full volume from one vantage point. And that the interiors are not revealed until they are experienced.

“These pieces force you to walk, and every time you walk, they change. So if you think there is a center, they decenter you. It’s not that they have a sense of disequilibrium, but they kind of throw you,” he said.

Yet even the artist can’t completely explain their effect. “I can tell you formally about them. I can’t tell you how to interpret them. The subject matter of these pieces is your ability to decipher what is going on, either psychologically or emotionally or formally. I think the content is your ability, or lack of ability, to figure out your relationship to the space,” he said.

Moving on to “Pickhan’s Progress,” the long serpentine sculpture, Serra compared it to a work shown at the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Both are S-curves, but the Bilbao piece is more slender than the relatively “Baroque S” at MOCA, which combines conical and elliptical bends, he said. The internal pathways are also quite different.

In sharp contrast to the walk-in pieces in the show, “58 X 64 X 70" consists of six solid rectangular blocks lined up in two rows. The blocks are identical in size, their dimensions indicated by the title. But they appear different because of the way they are turned and positioned. Instead of discovering elusive spaces, viewers are confronted with mass and weight.

The exhibited works are but the latest chapter in an extraordinarily productive career. Esteemed both for his innovative ability and his staying power, Serra said that he has had to be “a little bit obstinate” to realize his dreams, but that the kind of sculpture he makes has taught him patience.

Born in 1939 in San Francisco, he is one of three sons of working-class immigrants. His father, who came from Spain, was a foreman in a candy factory. His mother, a Russian Jew, was a housewife who loved to read and encouraged Richard to pursue his artistic interests.

He studied at UC Berkeley for a year, took a job with U.S. Steel, then transferred to UC Santa Barbara, where he majored in English literature. A professor who saw his artwork suggested that he send his drawings to Yale University. Serra took the advice and transferred to Yale. After receiving a master of fine arts degree there, he went to Europe on a fellowship accompanied by the late sculptor Nancy Graves. They were married in Paris but divorced a year later. He is now married to art historian Clara Weyergraf, who has helped edit MOCA’s catalog.

At Yale, Serra pursued Abstract Expressionist painting; in Paris, he was drawn to the work of sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti and began to concentrate on sculpture. By the mid-1960s, he had settled in New York, where he began making a name for himself with “process” works made of rubber scraps, which emphasized the process of making art rather than the finished product.

As his work evolved, Serra splashed molten lead on museum walls and filled galleries with logs. He also made “prop” pieces, consisting of metal plates that leaned against one another and appeared as if they might collapse--and possibly do considerable damage. In the 1970s, he began to work on large “site-specific” pieces, which continue to win him major commissions.

Although the “Torqued Ellipses” introduce a new form, they are also part of a continuum. “If there is anything new in these works, it’s that you are implicated in a more psychological way,” Serra said. “That wasn’t intended. It may be the problem of the ellipse itself. It’s an elusive shape, and when it starts leaning toward you or away from you, it either puts you in a more claustrophobic or freeing space. But also, if it is torquing as it rises, you become caught up in the spin. It’s not like a nautilus because the radius stays the same, but you do get caught up in the spiraling.”

Some writers have drawn analogies between the “Ellipses” and ships. “There is some reference to shipbuilding,” Serra said. “I have built these in shipyards and I’m working with curves, but it’s not as if I took the image of a ship and tried to make my work have something to do with ships. There’s also something about being in the hull of a ship when the ocean rolls and not knowing just where your equilibrium is, but I think that may be stretching it.”

Still, he accepts that “people need something to hold on to” when they look at his work. “To tell you the truth, any hook that will get people involved with looking, and any way of interpreting they can find, is OK with me,” he said.

The beauty of the work is unintentional also, he said. “It’s not something you set out to do. You get involved with the problems and how to make the pieces adapt to a certain kind of emotional release. I don’t want to make them heavy-handed or claustrophobic, but I don’t get involved with how to make them more or less beautiful.”

Despite such protestations, Serra is pleased with the exhibition, partly because it’s an opportunity to assess a series in progress. Making a final visit to the museum before returning to the East Coast, he said installing the work hadn’t been “a walk in the park,” but he was delighted with the result. “Artists are always most interested in their new work,” he said. “You bounce a lot of balls against the wall and you never know which ones will go through, but I have to say I think this is one of the best shows I’ve ever done.”

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“Richard Serra,” Geffen Contemporary of the Museum of Contemporary Art, 152 N. Central Ave. Sept. 20 to Jan. 3, 1999. Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission: $6; students and seniors, $4; children under 12, free. (213) 626-6222.


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