SERRA at LACMA

LACMA, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a huge space devoted to a powerful sculpture by Richard Serra. I love Serra’s cor-ten steel pieces. They pull you in and push you away, and cannot be ignored. I remember the intense controversy in New York  after his “Tilted Arc” was installed at a plaza in front of a Federal office building, in lower Manhattan. It was 1981, Serra was a well respected artist, and he made a huge statement with “Tilted Arc.” It had a looming presence as it cut sharply across the open space. It wasn’t polite. Being near the work changed the way you felt, throughout your body.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of these pieces, but they can make you tingle, they can throw you off balance, they can draw you in or push you away, and yes, they can make people angry. Some people hated that piece, and after years of litigation and controversy, it was removed.

That fate seems unlikely for the Serra at LACMA.

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Serra had been asked to make the New York piece for that specific location so removal meant not only a loss to the plaza (at least in my view) but a loss for the sculpture, too, as it lost its context.

As he said, “Site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it is urban, landscape or architectural enclosure. My works become part of and are built into the structure of the site, and often restructure, both conceptually and perceptually, the organization of the site… I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context…”

The Los Angeles sculpture, called Band is immense, resting and flowing like a giant orange whale on the concrete floor, soaring twelve feet over your head, offering openings, sheltering spaces, and broad expanses of gentle curves to wend your way around.

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Serra was already a well respected artist when Tilted Arc was installed in New York, and feelings ran high on both sides of the controversy the sculpture engendered. The artist said that removing it would destroy the work, since it was built for the site. Local employees didn’t like the way the sculpture interrupted their habitual paths across the plaza. It was a clash of cultures, with art world stars at one end and government employees at the other. There was a trial and a public hearing. And finally the huge sculpture was removed in 1989.

Tilted Arc remains in storage. Serra doesn’t want it erected anywhere other than on the site it was designed for. Our loss.

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My camera was as overwhelmed as I was the day I experienced “Band” at the museum in Los Angeles. The camera wouldn’t focus. I grabbed my phone is frustration, because I really wanted to bring home a piece of this experience. Later, I got the camera to work.

But I really like the blurred photos. I’m posting both here, so you might feel a little of the disorientation that a good Serra sculpture creates.

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I’m sorry I didn’t take more photos, photos of the kids and adults playing in and out of the curves, photos from every angle, from near and far. But I remember the feeling of being next to it, walking along it, soaking in the strange mix of benevolence and power that it conveys. A good memory.

 


20 comments

  1. Amazing piece; I’ll have to go there on my next trip. I love cor-ten steel and it is starting to make an appearance in gardens. I just bought a big planter made of it; now I’m urging it to rust as quickly as possible 🙂

    • That sounds nice – I’m not a fan of the bright blue ceramics you see so much. I think that started decades ago, and it’s time for that trend to fade. I love the color, but for me, it doesn’t work in the garden. Looking forward to a photo of your planter – later this year maybe!

  2. An excellent post Lynn with a very helpful commentary. It encouraged me to go to the Serra site where the scale of his work becomes apparent.

    • I’m glad you did that – it can be hard to show the scale of things. One reason why I wished I’d taken more photos that showed the kids running around the sculpture.

  3. Good photos, Lynn – not sure how I react to this sculpture – I love your ” they can draw you in or push you away” idea; especially like the final image here, in this case, in focus does it for me I think. Am having vague thoughts about a smaller camera too, thinking about the Fuji XT-1. A

    • I bet that’s a great camera. I’m getting comfortable with this one. It makes sense that the in focus photo conveys the actual sculpture better, but the out of focus shots resonated more with how I felt, I guess. So we have both!

  4. I’m not a big fan of Serra’s work, especially Tilted Arc which showed extreme indifference to the workers who had to traverse the plaza going to and from their offices. That’s one reason I like the blurry shots more than the others. Good to see Serra’s sculptures softened and less defined.

  5. This is a great post, Lynn. Makes me want to be part of the argument (FOR the sculpture) in New York. I, too, wish you’d taken more photos of the Serra at LACMA, but these are still a treat—including the blurry ones.


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