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An Ironclad Visionary

Sculptor Richard Serra works with metal on a grand scale, bending it with machinery and sheer force of will. But as some of his projects have proved, public opinion is trickier material. At the Geffen Contemporary, 'Torqued Ellipses' may reshape people's thinking.

September 06, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | 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.

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.

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."

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