The Humid Touch

The Pulitzer gives Serra's "Joe" a few weeks' rust and relaxation

Mar 17, 2004 at 4:00 am
Richard Serra has had his share of interactions with the public. They either adore or despise the massive steel sculptures he's planted in urban environments all over the world -- including St. Louis, which boasts two huge, publicly accessible Serras: one in the Gateway Mall downtown and another in the courtyard of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts on Washington Boulevard. People climb on them, kick them, desecrate them, rally to have them removed, are awestruck by them. Kids seem especially drawn to Serra's work. "Children always have a certain kind of wonderment of these pieces," the artist himself reflects in a sound-file interview posted on the Pulitzer Foundation's Web site. "[They] run into them, they explore them, play with them, play hide-and-seek.... [T]hey don't come to the pieces with any kind of bias, or any kind of censorship."

But that lack of censorship can wreak havoc on a sculpture. The Pulitzer Foundation has given its 125-ton Serra installation, "Joe," a timeout, temporarily closing off its courtyard home in an effort to reverse the wear and tear caused by visitors since the museum opened in September 2001.

Commissioned by the museum for the site and named after former Post-Dispatch owner Joseph Pulitzer Jr., "Joe" is the first in a series Serra has dubbed "Torqued Spirals." The piece, which stands thirteen feet tall, consists of sheets of steel that have been twisted into a spiral. Typical of Serra's work, the sculpture is interactive -- viewers can enter the spiral as they would a labyrinth, disappearing into its curves on their way to its center. The journey can't help but be a tactile one as well, what with the spiral's steel walls, which loom tantalizingly close. So people reach out and touch.

"The biggest problem is that surface out there," says Steven Morby, the Pulitzer Foundation's facilities manager. "Joe" is fabricated from corten steel, Morby explains, and corten steel rusts. "It's that patina, that velvet-orange coating on it."

Everyone knew the sculpture would weather -- that was part of the plan. The design of the courtyard, which the Pulitzer shares with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis next door, was even tweaked to accommodate the phenomenon: The sculpture was originally intended to sit on a concrete slab, but the rust would have stained the concrete, so designers settled on limestone gravel, which can easily be replaced as rust seeps down and stains it. "I can go out there and change that rock at the base of the plates, and that way it looks like we just installed it," says Morby. "The downside to that is that limestone tracks. It has powder in it so that it will pack, and if somebody takes their shoe and it's white from the limestone, they'll put it on the side of the plate."

Some visitors are also inspired to pick up pieces of the gravel and use them as writing implements, or simply to rub off the rust with their hands. None of this causes permanent damage, Morby says, but it does tend to accumulate. And pretty soon visitors get the idea that it's all part of the experience. Sort of like graffiti on a bathroom wall -- a little tends to spawn more, and more. "It kind of transcends what it's made out of when Mr. Serra sculpts it," says Morby. "Now it's something more than steel, and that's where we get into this sort of damage. But it's something that we can repair -- it just takes some time for it to heal itself."

Richard Serra could not be reached for comment.

Matthias Waschek, the Pulitzer Foundation's executive director, says a period of isolation and exposure to the elements will allow "Joe" to rust back to its original state. The process is being hurried along a bit by a pressure-water shower. "On rainy days or when treated with pressured water, the traces seem to disapear almost completely," Waschek says. "However, as soon as the surface is dry again, the accumulated traces reappear, though slightly less distinct than before. We do not know how long it will take to restore 'Joe' to its original pristine beauty, but we are doing everything we can to accelerate the process."

Waschek estimates the courtyard will be closed for a few weeks. In the meantime, he says, "We are thinking about how better to inform visitors about the sculpture's fragile surface." But he declines to be specific about what prompted the museum to decide to close off the courtyard, or precisely how much damage "Joe" has sustained.

In fact, he'd really rather not discuss it at all.

"The problem that we have is that if we talk about this, we incite even more people to do so. For that reason we don't want to communicate on this question," Waschek says. "In places that conserve artwork, whenever there has been an act of vandalism, they don't talk about this because they know when they do that, at best they get a kind of negative tourism. People want to see the traces, which is not good, and at worst even more people are incited."

Kay Porter, director of communications for the Saint Louis Art Museum, can't recall any instances of vandalism at the museum but says she'd talk about it to the press if something did occur. "We certainly have always made a practice to be responsive to inquiries, and I don't think we're going to stop doing that," Porter says. Then again, she says she understands Waschek's dilemma. "Obviously, anything that brings this to public attention sparks activity," she notes. "When things appear, ideas get planted. Sometimes people try to copy them, and that's the concern."

The nature and placement of Serra's "Joe" make it difficult to keep an eye on visitors who venture inside. A Pulitzer Foundation staffer confirms that the museum makes use of two surveillance cameras, but they can't possibly cover every square inch. The only way to do that would be to station security guards inside the piece, or to hang a camera directly overhead. But either measure would detract from the "Joe" experience.

Though Pulitzer officials refused to cite any specific Serra-sullying incidents, Schuyler Andrews, president of the University City art cooperative Craft Alliance, confirms that kids on field trips are likely culprits. Last year, Andrews says, a young visitor from Craft Alliance was scolded for getting a little too up-close and personal. "This was a kid who was sort of showing off for his friends," says Andrews, explaining that the youngster rubbed off some of the rust from the sculpture. "It's like wiping a little bit of the excess rust off with your finger, which was easily smoothed over. The kid was reprimanded."

Andrews, who says Craft Alliance continues to have a strong relationship with the Pulitzer Foundation, adds that whereas in a museum there's an unspoken understanding that interaction with artworks is forbidden, the lines are less clear with outdoor sculpture. As an example she cites Serra's "Twain," a frequent target of vandals.

"You can't put a piece like that out and expect that the potential for damage does not exist," says Andrews. But the alternative is to forbid visitor interaction entirely. "That's the other option: to say, 'No, this is all behind glass.' But I think that the value is exposing the public to the works in the context in which they should be seen. It's just important to make people aware of what a gift this is, to have the public access to this art."