Sequence’s Travels Into Several Notions of the MuseumApril 30, 2015
Wall labels. Curatorial text. Provenance. Titles (or un-titles, as the case may be). At what point do the words surrounding an artwork serve the work, and at what point do they disrupt it? In terms of the museum, specifically, when do explanatory labels benefit museum-goers, and when do they detract from an individual’s experience? Rob Marks' "The Museum On My Mind" is a meditation on the role of museum commentary and what it means to “know” a piece of art.
It was foolish to have imagined that Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006) would easily relinquish its claim on the courtyard of Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. Even after power-washing, the concrete pad preserved the contours of the sculpture’s twelve twenty-ton weathering steel plates. During its four-year residency, a bond had grown between Sequence and its foundation, just as one had blossomed between the work and its community of followers. Visiting during the de-installation, these pilgrims sought one last visual memento, however inadequate, of the shifting experience of space and time conjured by Sequence’s winding pathways.
Sequence demands, and then commandeers, spaces like the Cantor’s courtyard, or the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gallery into which the sculpture moved in February 2015 in anticipation of the museum’s spring 2016 reopening. But just as the Lilliputians shackled Gulliver to a twenty-two-wheeled cart hauled by fifteen hundred tiny horses, transplanting Sequence is no simple undertaking. Riggers chained each of its thirteen-foot-high plates to its own eighteen-wheeler to conduct it from Palo Alto to San Francisco.1
It seems no coincidence that this process should call to mind one of English literature’s most poignant evocations of human scale. For the past several decades, size has loomed as shorthand for a set of tensions in the art world. If many Sequence visitors feel wonder, awe, or even affection—palpable in the sadness some expressed to us as we documented its leave-taking—others, such as the art historians James Meyer and Anna Chave, have questioned the motives of museums that display enormous works and the artists who create them. Sculpture, Meyer declared in 2004, with Serra’s work in mind, has grown bigger, “keyed not to the individual body and its perceptual grasp but to [the] increasingly grandiloquent architecture” of museums such as Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and Dia:Beacon.2
That Sequence’s transplantation has repeated itself four times over eight years is a testament to the willingness of large institutions to invest money, effort, and time to install and de-install the kinds of sculptures criticized by Meyer as concerned more with size than scale, and as much with architecture as art. And it is true that Sequence’s two years at the New York Museum of Modern Art (2007–8), three at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2008–11), four at the Cantor (2011–15), and its indefinite stay at SFMOMA all approach expanses of time, as well as space, that we associate as much with the fabric of museum buildings as with their contents.
Chave, writing in 1990, attributed Serra’s impulse “to make ever bigger works in ever more public spaces” to “a will to power” and characterized his work as not “simply exemplify[ing] aggression or domination . . . but act[ing] it out.” She condemned Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981–89), 120 feet of twelve-foot-high steel, for its severe material, austere form, and gargantuan size.3 In 2004, Meyer implicated Serra not in the artist’s will to power, but in the museum’s will to cultural dominance and international acclaim. Nowadays, for some, large art (and any medium will do) looms only as a wide target for critical arrows. I’m not saying that it’s unreasonable to fear that large art might obscure—and suck up resources and attention that might nurture—its slighter neighbors. I’m saying that size, as much as largists and smallists alike may fetishize it, is not what matters.4
During the 2011 installation of Sequence, the efforts of riggers from Budco Enterprises, the New York firm that assembles all of Serra’s sculptures in the United States, were dominated by precision: winching, clamping, hammering, grinding, welding, and grinding again, and placing to an accuracy within a quarter-inch over the sixty-five-by-forty-foot sculptural expanse. The riggers’ careful positioning and repositioning required judicious nudging, the sort of nurturing one might use to entice a stray cat into a welcoming home. The 2015 de-installation, on the other hand, was impressive not only for its care—for it still required care—but its force. Things may fall apart, but not this thing; cats may wander out, but not because you tell them to.
It was as if the sculpture, after eight years and three thousand miles of traveling, was saying, “Not again.” But as massive as Serra’s works are, many observers, including Serra himself, frequently ascribe to them a sense of weightlessness.5 When each panel floated up, hoisted by a two-hundred-foot-tall crane, it seemed as if the plate had remembered itself capable of flying.
Herein lies both the problem with critiques such as Meyer’s and Chave’s, and the challenge for curators exhibiting Serra’s sculptures. Sequence is massive, particularly when seen from afar. But it becomes something completely different up close. It is not that Chave’s and Meyer’s analytical arguments make no sense. It’s that they make sense only when observers position themselves outside, physically and emotionally, a Serra sculpture, the space it engages, and the experiences it induces. At a distance, Sequence is a skin, a surface, massive; closer, it is a body, an entity; closest, it is a relationship, an ongoing and reciprocal interaction with that entity. If I am intimidated, this feeling relates only tangentially to the sculpture’s size. It relates more to the unknown, the unexplained, the unnegotiated. For Jonathan Swift, too, size stood as much for difference as it did for power. The Lilliputians start by seeing Gulliver as enormous, foreign, and dangerous, but eventually their relationship becomes intimate.
As we documented the Sequence installation from the street in front of SFMOMA, I heard more than one bystander refer to Serra as “macho” or to his work as “male.” These comments are strange to me. If it is true, as Meyer suggests, that some museums deploy size in order to construct “spectacle,” or as Chave suggests that some artists deploy size for its capacity to dominate, it is also true that compelling art can be large, and compelling for reasons other than size. In fact, artworks like Serra’s can impede the flow of spectacle—the tendency toward an easy, passive entertainment that Meyer fears. And they can evoke what might be the opposite of machismo, evolving into a dance, an emergence.
Embedded in arguments like Meyer’s and Chave’s are appropriate critiques of museums, whose mission to sustain themselves may lead them to exhibit massive art even if this decision might conflict with the museum’s aesthetic, art historical, or educational missions. Within these claims are also unresolved tensions emerging from art-world debates about gender and power dynamics, and materials and practices. But anchoring these critiques to the size of a work risks the tree for its forest; size and scale are relative. After all, Gulliver is Brobdingnagian in size to the Lilliputians, Lilliputian in size to the Brobdingnagians, and Gulliver-scale with respect to himself. Sequence appears enormous from without and intimate from within, just as works such as the sixteen-by-twenty-inch Dove One (1989) by the California artist Jay DeFeo appear intimate from without yet enormous from within for those intrepid viewers willing to haptically enter the canvas.
Some museum architecture is justifiably called “grandiloquent,” but the museum spaces that Sequence has inhabited are modest. The sculpture hugs the walls, even in the Cantor’s courtyard, making the glance from afar harder to achieve, urging the viewer to engage.6 The smaller the architecture, the more intimate these enormous works become. Rather than threatening their architectural shells, they snuggle into them, as sculpture and space become partners.
Sequence envelops me as I walk its passageways. It is not about my body becoming small, but about my body relating to an arrangement of space that is unfamiliar, just as Dove One first grants that it is small, a thing on the wall, then that it is enormous, a space to enter. This is why even The Matter of Time (2005), Serra’s eight-sculpture installation sited in a 350-foot-long gallery at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, also eludes Meyer’s critique.7 From the mezzanine above, the arrangement is spectacular. But at ground level, the work takes on intimacy, becoming a village.
It’s no wonder then that Serra eschews overhead views of his sculptures, and why he dismisses photographs as unrepresentative. From above, from afar, all our judgments of what a sculpture is, what rust is, what size means, are disproportionate. From within, the sculptural experience disarms, at least for a moment, these judgments, and the breath that might have been expended on such language holds itself, releases itself, holds again, releases again, as the body discovers its own standards for size and scale, menace and comfort, gratuitous spectacle and necessary relationships within this sculpture.
This might be one justification for Sequence’s extended stays. Just as Tilted Arc was removed for what was, I’d suggest, a lack of patience, works like Sequence require visitation over time for viewers to truly see them. After all, it took Gulliver five years to complete his travels.