It’s a big deal, Serra at the MoMA. The retrospective Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years runs all summer and is a certain matching of opposite equals: the museum institution, all urbane lightness (and whiteness) versus the sculptor’s weight, physicality, and materiality. Athena versus Paul Bunyan. Athena, the patroness of crafts and defender of cities pit against axe-wielding, blue ox–loving, Bunyan, the maker and dominator of landscapes. Goddess versus Lumberjack. (Lethem’s dissection of Jack Kirby’s The Eternals must have gotten to me.)
But really, Yoshio Taniguchi does align the MoMA building with the city. In a 2004 interview with Terence Riley, then MoMA Chief Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, which I then quoted in New Museums, he says, “I approached the project as if it were an urban design. As opposed to designing one thing of beauty, I designed a museum within a city—a city within a city.”
Yet the contemporary metropolis feels fragile next to Serra’s installations. Torqued Ellipse IV (1998) and Intersection II (1992) are installed in sculpture garden, designed by Philip Johnson in 1953, and at first the juxtaposition seems simply clever: marble vs. steel. Corten arcs complimented by pre-war edifices. But the physicality of moving through the works eclipses context, even as a rush of visitors pause to take rusty-dusty pictures.
New works, Band (2006) and Sequence (2006), are displayed in the contemporary galleries on the second floor and make the expansive gallery space, complete with 22-foot-high ceiling, look inadequate and flimsy, even as it is a wonder that the floors can hold the weight of steel. (The video on MoMA’s website of the installation is amazing and telling.) Standing inside Serra’s industrial hulls, the only place to look, in order to escape vertigo, is up. And see gypsum board, track lighting, and return air grills. The ubiquitous makings of our daily environment, the weak enclosures of malls and office towers, can’t contain Serra’s homage to industrial landscape or the sensual appeal of brute form. In this particular battle, the lumberjack wins.