Flashback: The Life of Richard Serra, The Museum of Modern Art, Fall 2007


Richard Serra Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, 2007


Dear Richard,


Your popularity makes visiting you difficult. You’re free only on Friday nights, when the spectators pound in. A bit like a public execution. It should be easy to see a piece of you—you are, after all, vivisected. But everything seems already taken, inhabited. Everyone seems to need you too much. You’re visible and invisible, both, like a disease. We see the symptoms but not the microbes that trigger the symptoms.

Even babies—why so many in a museum? The babies point and burble, or they cry deeply, ardently, into themselves. A womb is a museum that we don’t remember, Freud says, except in sleep. Oceanic bliss. It’s the mothers who preside, the fathers who seem redundant. Maybe infancy is a form of metonymy: the parents look at the baby but only see themselves. Like saying, you, Richard Serra, when I mean the work of Richard Serra? Who can blame these parents? Don’t think I’m making that tired analogy about art being the offspring of an artist. Every creation here seems more willed than wild, predestined in a way that children never are. You’re more a genetic engineer than a parent.

What are they—we—looking for, but proof that you, Richard Serra, exist? And therefore we exist? We pass by and through your sculptures and we believe without question that you authored them. But maybe it’s not belief or faith, but simple laziness; we accept these claims as facts because it is easier than to think something else.

If you’re a king, your royal guard does you proud. No one’s allowed to touch, even though your precious materials—steel, for one—will probably outlast the oils our fingertips may leave.

Let me ask you candidly: are you a monster? You’re definitely a carnivore. Maybe you’re so ugly you build mazes to outrun your reflection. But there’s a shortage of mirrors here.  And maze feels like the wrong word: I can get in and out of your gigantic puzzles without trailing red yarn or torn bread. Since the Minotaur retreated into retirement, the labyrinth is under new management, and maybe the myth doesn’t have to end with abandonment. The one who figures out the maze and helps the hero—she’s the one who gets abandoned.

What I want, more than anything right now, is the novelty of being lost within one of these tunnels. Once, loss was news. Even if I got lost inside for a few minutes, I could say that the sculpture me, at least temporarily. How many times have I been in Central Park at night without being lost? What would that well-lit lantern become in a blackout? Wouldn’t the well-governed grid of Manhattan be forced to concede to the forest? Isn’t there something beautiful about this?

You don’t provide paths, you carve out exits. You whisper us instructions to follow your thoughts horizontally. The vertigo, even acrophobia, is meant to be transmitted by both the structure and the strangers who are attracted to you. Perhaps you mean to work on the big people the same way the forest works on the children in fairy tales: you coax us to disappear. It’s not just the size; in New York, we’re used to being dwarfed. You want to undermine the fictional map we’ve absorbed, the tidy stories we tell ourselves about space.

I wonder if you come here, secretly, in disguise: you might be the man who passes me, whose T-shirt reads Protect Me From What I Want.

You make me seasick, and the worst thing is: I have no words to hold on to. Richard II loved words so much he lost his throne. His successor loved the throne so much he lost his soul. You wouldn’t trade your kingdom for a horse, but you don’t fool me: I know you’re a killer. A friend told me yours is art that kills. Fact: in the seventies one of your steel pieces fell, crushing a rigger. Is there anything here meant to memorialize him, or is it that the hubris of making your gift horses demands blood? What bridge doesn’t have a worker embedded inside it, what skyscraper doesn’t have a death for every floor?

When I go out in your garden, I wonder what it would look like with just your sculpture and nothing else built by humans. Would these giant waves and ship prows become more sacred? A friend told me once a story about sacrilege, how you can see the McDonald’s arch and a pyramid of ancient Egypt in the same view.

I want to steal something from you, of you. In the end, all I can manage are a few pictures with my phone. I hope for a candid snapshot. I lack the guts to get in the photo, to implicate myself. Isn’t it odd that a phone, something that depends on the give and take of conversation, can now take something as unanswerable as a photograph? My phone’s memory clogs with my attempts to take everything in, and in a few weeks the phone itself will be gone, left in a cab. I can look at the brochure to recall this, but that feels like cheating. The brochure shows too much. I want to remember what I stole from you: a close-up of rust, like peeping through a microscope at frantic, bubbling cells—that thrill that borders on alarm, because it’s just enough to let me know what you’ve made is alive.

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