NEW YORK: The Richard Serra retrospective, arrived this week at the Museum of Modern Art virtually a foregone matter, in the way that Picasso and Matisse shows arrived in the old days. It's 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. At 67, Serra is still nudging the language of abstraction, constructing ever more awesome mazes of looming Cor-Ten steel.
The other day in the museum's garden, where two big Serras from the 1990s have been parked for some weeks, children dashed down the curved, leaning, fun-house corridors of "Intersection II," while a trio of young women sunbathed (before a blushing guard appeared) on the ground inside "Torqued Ellipse IV," its enclosing wall bent, curved and folding outward, conveniently forming a giant face tanner. All around, office workers sloughing off the afternoon and tourists resting tired feet roused themselves from scattered garden chairs to survey the two sculptures, sauntering through them like explorers happening upon a South Sea island, squinting up into the sky from time to time to fix their locations in space.
Actually they were explorers. These shapes and experiences are new. That's about the best, and the rarest, compliment you can give to any artist. Serra's "Torqued Ellipses" and "Torqued Toruses" and other recent works like "Band" and "Sequence" have their origins in work he did 40 years ago in rubber and lead, as this retrospective handsomely affirms, but these are nonetheless unprecedented variations on the theme of dumbfounding spirals and loops.
The public's perception of Serra's work has also obviously changed from the bad days of "Tilted Arc," a quarter-century or so ago. That same vocabulary of curved, giant metal walls, once vilified as art-world arrogance, is now better understood and broadly admired. This is how radical art operates.
In Serra's case you can also call it democratic art because it sticks to pure form that requires no previous expertise to grasp.
There's no coy narrative, no insider joke or historical allusion or meta-art theme. There's none of what Serra disdainfully calls, in the show's catalog, "post-Pop Surrealism," by which he lumps together all contemporary art that leans for a crutch on language and Duchamp.
Serra famously looked at Borromini churches in Rome before he started torquing steel, but his work is not "about" Baroque architecture any more than it's about Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman or Donald Judd, whom he also looked at and learned from early on.
The art is about the basic stuff of sculpture, isolated and recast: mass, weight, volume, material. What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the sculptures, at a given moment, the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning.
A filmmaker I met in Bilbao, Spain, wandering through Serra's sculptures there, likened the experience to movies. He thought the paths Serra devised within the works, between curving walls of steel, which suddenly jog, then arrive, unexpectedly, at cavities or enclosures, were like plot twists with surprise endings. Except there are no beginnings or endings in the sculptures. A novelist who has written about the Holocaust said the high, curving steel walls leaned over him threateningly, leading him until he became disoriented and lost, into what he felt were penned-in spaces, bringing to mind a concentration camp. The art scared him, he said, but he also loved it.
Kant called this feeling "the terrifying sublime," which is "accompanied by a certain dread or melancholy." Awe and fear mingle with pleasure. The concept was applied to mountain climbing, and Serra's new works on the museum's second floor evoke canyons, dunes, crevasses and ravines. The industrial steel walls, in uncalculated rusty orange and velvety brown, evoke natural terrains; the spaces through which the sculptures move people are akin to spaces in nature.
And like nature you get to know them only by walking around them, although the works partly thwart the effort. Serra's "Torqued Ellipses" and their descendants can't be pictured mentally, except in broad strokes. They're too complicated; from outside you don't know what the inside is like, and vice versa.
This complexity, requiring your constant attention, is the pleasure of the art, and it adds the element of time to three dimensions, which is among the changes Serra and his generation brought to sculpture.
That second floor at the Modern, by the way, is the show's tour de force. A high, huge and like so much of this museum, totally unlovable space, it was conceived for housing Serra's sculptures.