Richard Serra: a Hit and a Miss (485 words)
I've been working on an essay about public art, and there's no getting into the topic without bumping, ha ha, into Richard Serra's Tilted Arc.
Tilted Arc was commissioned by the federal government in 1981 for Federal Plaza, a large hardscaped space in New York City. When it was installed, some people hated it, including many workers in the building. In 1989 it was removed, "destroyed," in Serra's view, because it was specific to the site and could not be re-located. (According to Wikipedia, it wasn't technically destroyed and is still in storage somewhere.)
The brouhaha was terrific, pitting "elites" against "the public." Lots of how-dare-you-artsy-pedants-foist-this-taxpayer-funded-carbuncle-on-us-we're-DOOMED versus lots of indignant, we-must-protect-the-noble-progress-of-sculpture-from-these-boorish-rubes-we're-DOOMED kind of posturing. (Proving—side note—once again that there's always a shitshow of hysterical argument going on. So never give up.)
No doubt it was horrendously traumatizing for Serra, who unsuccessfully sued the government to keep Tilted Arc in place. I sympathize with him.
And yet... Everything written on public art in the decades since mentions Tilted Arc at least in passing, usually with a "Tsk. Philistines." I was in lazy agreement with this view until I saw an image of the piece shot from the ground, rather than 20 stories up. And I thought, well... no wonder there was such a stink.
Imagine coming out of the building and having to circumnavigate a 12-foot-high wall of rusty Cor-Ten to get to the fountain beyond. Who cares about purity of form when it's shoving grim, existential austerity in your face—and it's a pain to get around?
Here in Texas, we have a similar piece made by Serra during the Titled Arc debate which, I think, can be read as a response to the fiasco. My Curves Are Not Mad (1987) is permanently on view in the Nasher Sculpture Center's garden in Dallas. Like Tilted Arc, it's steel bent into a single, tall, gentle curve. But the Nasher piece is two pieces of steel, which together create a pleasing tunnel you can walk through. And at 45 feet long, it's more humanely scaled than Tilted Arc's 120 feet (the latter was compared unfavorably to the Berlin Wall). According to the Nasher website, the title references a line from Henri Matisse's 1947 book Jazz. But another meaning for "my curves are not mad" could not have escaped Serra: he's not insane, and his work is not insane, despite the opposition to Tilted Arc.
Serra had the last laugh, of course: the world has many (wonderful) examples of his curved steel plates in it, and as a bonus he was immortalized as a sexy, wax-slinging Hephaestus in one of Matthew Barney's Cremaster movies. After Tilted Arc he got wilder and curvier, more crowd-pleasingier, making ribbons and coils of vertical steel that are fun to walk through and to view from above. To his credit, none of it has ever felt like pandering or giving in.