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Viewpoint | Richard Serra made us dizzy and afraid

Richard Serra made modern sculpture exciting. He did this by creating the feeling that it could happen to you.

Facetious as it may sound, it’s somewhere at the heart of what made Serra, who died Tuesday at age 85, both a wonderful artist and intermittently vulnerable to accusations that he was a tyrant.

If you don’t find his works beautiful, you might easily hate them because they are ugly, imposing and conspicuous. But attitudes toward modern art – even minimalist sculpture – changed enormously during Serra’s life, and he personally played a role in converting millions of people to the possibilities of abstract sculpture. After years of work as an avant-garde and uncompromising avant-garde, he began to create things that, without losing any of their robustness – and only growing in ambition – were undeniably seductive, original dazzling and simply very cool.

I don’t know what he was working with, but as an artist he was not a tyrant. He was more of a physicist. He wanted you to know and feel in your bones that weight is not just a thing, it is a force. It’s mass times acceleration.

As such, it carries an inherent threat.

Sculpture, for Serra, was not just something out there – passive and separate. It was here, all around us. And it wasn’t just active, it was involving.

A pioneer of Process Art, Serra loved verbs – action words like twist And to roll – and spent part of his early career thinking about materials in terms of what he could TO DO with them (as opposed to what they would become once things were done to them).

But he also came to love names. And you can’t talk about Serra without using big, heavy names — words that most of us would never use otherwise, but which suddenly make you feel tough just by saying them. Cor-Ten steel and antimonial lead, for example.

Serra used antimonial lead (an alloy that makes soft lead very hard) for “One Ton Prop” (1969), a key piece from his early mature period. The sculpture was composed of four leaning pieces of lead against each other like the walls of a house of cards. No welding. No base. Nothing sustains them except each other.

“One Ton Prop” offered a strange – and strangely intimidating – new way of thinking about sculpture. It was physical – without a doubt. But it was also psychological. It involved you in a way that had nothing to do with stories or sentimentality, but was somehow beyond pure form. “One Ton Prop” — like many of Serra’s sculptures — was about as seductive as a sewer lid, but it provoked fear and giddy excitement, and you wanted to linger there.

Most people’s favorite Serras – and mine too – are the ones he made after “One Ton Prop”. For the enormous, exquisitely balanced, curved sculptures he called Torqued Ellipses, he used Cor-Ten steel. Sometimes used for the bows of ships, Cor-Ten is a weathering steel, protected from corrosion, which changes color in the open air. There it takes on seductive shades of orange and textures as rich and streaky as the surface of Gerhard Richter’s paintings.

Colors and textures (and the cobwebs and other marks of the organic world they may accommodate) are important. They draw you toward the surfaces of the sculptures, even as you are aware of your body’s relationship to something that is extremely large—almost too large to grasp, and certainly too large to explain.

Engaging with them reduces the brain to the status of a six-year-old tugging on an adult’s sleeve with a list of unanswered questions: How do these things stay up? How were they made? How did they get here?

The engineering behind Serra’s latest work was indeed breathtaking. But the pleasure of his greatest creations comes from the sensation of the mind giving up and the body giving in. He dealt out stimulants to the sublime like a dealer dealing aces.

Serra was a practitioner – I would say the greatest – of what was sometimes called “walk-in modernism.” That is to say, we are not content to admire his sculptures from afar. You move in and out of them. Towering over you, they move closer to you, then move away from you. And they make you aware of time as you make your way through, along, or around them.

They sometimes cause dizziness. But they are also remarkably liberating. You may emerge with feelings of secret, victorious expansion, as if you were Theseus after killing the Minotaur.

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Serra’s sculptures fulfill the main purpose of minimalist sculpture: to make you acutely aware of yourself in relation to the thing you are looking at or walking around. But they did something more. They challenged and seduced with undeniable psychology and emotion. They transformed nouns into verbs, things into actions, and stray thoughts into lasting feelings.

Placed outdoors, they are of course not simple sculptures. They fulfill a dual function of architecture, landscaping and town planning. In other words, ways of ordering space, often on a large scale.

It is true that some of Serra’s exterior sculptures prevent you from getting from point A to point B, and that this has sometimes caused controversy. In the art world, an air of legend hangs like a romantic fog over the “Tilted Arc” affair. Serra’s brutal division of an open square in Manhattan with a massive, hostile-looking steel arch, 120 feet long and twice as tall as most humans, was one of the last moments of significant tension between public opinion and an uncompromising artistic avant-garde. In the end, the job fell through.

Works like “Tilted Arc” made it easy to dislike Serra because she was domineering. I can appreciate this line of thinking and am glad that there are other types of art, focused on the ephemeral and delicate, art with a light, poetic touch. But I like what Serra has done. In fact, I’m impressed by it. At the Guggenheim Bilbao, Glenstone, SF MoMA and St. Louis – in many places around the world – Serra’s adamantine sculptures work on you. And they activate everything around them. Life speeds up in their presence. We lost a great artist, but we did not lose this acceleration.

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