Museum of Modern Art, 419 pp., $75.00
No doubt about it, the show is a triumph, the biggest interactive art event in Manhattan since Christo’s saffron flags fluttered in a wintry Central Park over two years ago. The day your reviewer attended Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, a sunny Monday in June, the two large sculptures in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden were crowded with young families, small children, and hopeful couples negotiating hand in hand the narrow passageways of Intersection II (1992–1993; see illustration on page 18) or jollily huddling in the crescent of shade inside the sun-baked interior space of Torqued Ellipse IV (1998).
The holiday, playground atmosphere surprised me, armed with a notebook and steeled, so to speak, to cope manfully with towering masses of metal and the great weight of art-historical importance that more timely reviewers had already assigned to the sculptor and his displayed works (“Not only our greatest sculptor but an artist whose subject is greatness befitting our time”—Peter Schjeldahl; “A landmark, by a titan of sculpture, one of the last great modernists in an age of minor talents, mad money and so much meaningless art”—Michael Kimmelman). Indeed, I was so intent on properly absorbing these marvels that I tripped over a stray toddler and nearly booted him into the rectangular, mercifully shallow pond at whose edge MoMA has posed Aristide Maillol’s silvery nude statue The River. This beloved allegorical figure, by the way, is the only customary resident of the Sculpture Garden who has not been swept away from his or her spot by the invasion of Serra’s big steel; even the trees, especially a feathery sweet locust inches from a jutting angle of Torqued Ellipse IV, look intimidated.
Surprising, too, was the wealth of textural incidents with which the twelve-foot walls of weatherproofed steel are spectacularly marked, or marred. On the two pieces outdoors in the Sculpture Garden, the weatherproofing, a brittle bluish film, is more worn off than not; lichenous orange blooms of rust have proliferated, and long rivulets of moisture have left ruddy rippling tear-trails down the slant surfaces of two-and-a-half-inch steel. Their basic coat of rust is a velvety reddish brown and looks fuzzy and eerily weightless compared with, say, David Smith’s rather implacable welded constructions—those squarish slabs of circularly burnished bare metal—and Anthony Caro’s riveted, sometimes gaudily painted beams and industrial fragments.
Serra’s early artistic training, at the University of California at Santa Barbara and then at Yale, was in painting: the fittingly massive catalog Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years (it accompanies the show but contains photographs of many more works than are in it) prints a conversation with the MoMA curator Kynaston McShine in which the sculptor recalls, “I ended up in my last year painting something that looked like, oh, renditions of Abstract Expressionism, somewhere between Pollock and de Kooning.” To another interviewer he has confided, “I was no slouch as a painter,” and pointed out “that he beat classmates …