The Shape of Things

Spend time with Serra and learn how to see

Mar 26, 2003 at 4:00 am
About a block away from the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, at the intersection of Grand and Laclede, St. Louis University's Busch Memorial Center is undergoing reconstruction. Among the features being added is a large stair tower at the building's corner that for now is incomplete, an open cage with suspended steps, supported by massive rust-colored steel corner beams. The structure presents a slight visual shock -- we're not used to seeing buildings so stripped and raw, and we rarely get the opportunity to examine industrial steel, weathered to a luscious tobacco hue. And just imagine ascending those stairs in their current state, the open tower frame offering no enclosure and the steps seeming to float, unsupported.

Something strange happens when you spend time with Richard Serra's sculpture. You see the urban landscape differently. You wonder about the architectonics beneath a building's surface and how walls shape space -- as well as your experience of space. For more than 30 years, Serra has created sculptures that engage viewers directly in the interplay of mass, space, energy, stasis and movement that occurs in any built environment, be it sculpture, architecture or an aggregate situation such as a city block.

Sculpture and Drawings by Richard Serra, now on view at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, was curated by the artist himself, and it foregrounds the myriad ways in which he has approached these concerns throughout his career. It presents the ideal opportunity for viewing Serra's work, whether you're a devotee or one of the many skeptics who associate him solely with "Twain," the outdoor piece installed in downtown St. Louis in 1982.

The exhibition spans the period 1969-2002 and functions as a miniretrospective of the artist's work, from his early prop pieces to the large-scale sculptures and mural-sized drawings of the 1970s to the more recent paintstick drawings on handmade paper. The exhibition literally culminates with "Joe," the fourteen-foot-high torqued-steel spiral in the courtyard, designed specifically for the Pulitzer.

"Corner Prop Piece" (1969) is deceptively simple -- a rolled-lead pole leaning against a lead plate in the corner of the entrance gallery. Nothing less interesting could be imagined, until one realizes that the pieces are not welded or otherwise permanently attached. The dense mass of the plate relies on the pole to maintain its standing position, and vice versa. The piece's integrity is actually in flux -- we are witnessing a fragile equilibrium that is struck by the mutual dependence of mass and energy at the meeting of pole and plate.

This energy exchange is palpable, though invisible. It's even more electric in "Stand Point" (1987), composed of two hot-rolled steel plates stacked in the corner of the main gallery. Collapse seems imminent here, and it's underscored by the tape on the gallery floor demarcating a "danger zone" around the work into which viewers aren't allowed.

Beyond their potent psychological suggestions, the propped pieces have another dimension of visual interest. Their surfaces are raw and indescribably beautiful. The chalky gray of the lead sheet evokes the cold, hard sea; the steel plates bear violent scars that are forgiven by a sumptuous amber hue.

The play between density and energy characterizes Serra's paintstick drawings on handmade paper, four of which are featured here. The artist has drawn inky-black circles, built up in places to an extreme, scumbled tactility. By contrast, the mural-size drawing "Pacific Judson Murphy" (1978), installed in the small cube gallery, exhibits a more evenly inked surface that is energized by subtle, smooth waves in the linen.

"Joplin" (1971), the massive sculpture that has long been on view in the grand hall of the St. Louis Art Museum, looks like a completely new work in the context of the Pulitzer. Removed from the Italianate clutter of the museum's décor, the work's structural and formal logic speaks more lucidly. But Serra doesn't allow us to ponder "Joplin" in total isolation. He has arranged "Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure" (1969), a collection of lead, wood, stone and steel pieces, near "Joplin" in such a way that a host of visual relationships develops.

None of Serra's works is kinetic in the traditional sense. Yet all of them suggest movement, either through the sense of flowing energy or by drawing viewers to move around them, to watch their formal relationships rearrange and feel the spatial changes in relation to one's own body. It is no wonder that Serra's works are often discussed in phenomenological terms, emphasizing physical and psychological experiences in moving through space and time.

There is no better example to study in this regard than "Joe," the enormous torqued spiral of weathering steel in the Pulitzer's courtyard. Moving along the narrow path it describes, it's not uncommon to feel a shift in the direction of gravity, or the suspicion that true verticality doesn't exist, or a distinct sensation that space has a mass of its own. In other words, "Joe" serves to heighten the perceptual faculty, to increase our awareness of the spatial flux experienced by the moving body.

Everybody likes "Joe," even people who claim to despise everything else Serra has done. Perhaps it's the funhouse quality of the sculpture that appeals to people, the feeling you've entered a situation in which spatial flow is compromised and the usual physical laws don't apply. "Joe" certainly presents an opportunity to experience heightened responses to movement in and around space and mass.

But this is a quality of all of Serra's sculpture. Be they corner prop pieces or standing plates or torques or snakes or arcs, they all demonstrate basic principles about space, structure and human perception. In this sense, they function much like architecture -- or as architecture ought to function. Problem is, for most of us, our spatial and structural sensitivities have become so blunted by the banalities of the built environment that we don't even know what architecture is. We don't recognize that architecture is about space, movement, site and experience as much as it is about shelter, property, luxury and labor.

Spending time among Serra's works can be an education in how to see structure again. And when we're set loose in the built environment again, perhaps we'll view it with a renewed sense of wonder about how it is shaped, how it moves as we move, how it defines and limits and opens up opportunities for perceptual inquiry. At the very least, it can help you appreciate a construction site. At the most, it can change your world.