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Steeling Beauty 

Richard Serra’s advance party

Wednesday, Aug 15 2007

There’s nothing in the art world — or any world, really — quite like the sensory experience of a Richard Serra piece. As cool as Serra’s 40-year retrospective looks on the Museum of Modern Art’s Web site, there is no way to get the spatial vibe, the static sway of those organic slabs that manage to evoke both hull and sail. Nor is there a way to intuit the effect of the Corten steel itself, two inches thick and burnt sienna with a fine mottled rust. What could well be off-putting and distant is in fact strangely affecting, and sensual: You may find yourself running your hand across the surface of a torqued ellipse as you would the ribs of a horse, or — despite Serra’s protestations — imagining the form in miniature and appreciating the delicacy of its spirit. So it is quite strange and entirely inadequate to find oneself in an empty, half-finished building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, imagining how the overall space is going to look and feel with two enormous Serra works in it, and how the individual pieces themselves (and their spaces) are going to look and feel here. And it is especially strange to find oneself doing this with Richard Serra himself, in a hard hat.

Serra is all intensity and sharpness, intellectually and otherwise. (Though he would likely scorn the analogy, he could easily be cast as a battle-hardened Marine officer.) Today he is relatively affable and engaged. Interested. He’s come west to work out the space and the logistics for the installation of two of the three new pieces he made for the MoMA retrospective in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building now under construction at LACMA. Band, an undulating ribbon nearly 72 feet long and the standard Serra height of just under 13 feet, has been purchased for the museum by Broad. Its partner, Sequence, resembles two gigantic violin scrolls back to back. Both pieces will be in place when BCAM opens in February, each in their own vast room, and while Sequence will eventually move on to a yet-to-be-determined destination, Band will stay on at LACMA, happily.

Until recently, when UCLA got its own torqued ellipse (also thanks to Broad), and the Orange County Performing Arts Center received its stunning, 66-foot-tall Connector, the L.A. area was weirdly bereft of Serras — weird because of the artist’s California roots. Maybe being raised in the Bay Area and schooled in part at UC Santa Barbara didn’t make him quite Southern California enough. Maybe there’s something about the work that seemed, in the past, antithetical to Los Angeles — too heavy, too earnest, too serious, too sculptural. No more.

click to flip through (2) Band on the run: Coming to LACMA (Photo by Lorenz Kienzle)
  • Band on the run: Coming to LACMA (Photo by Lorenz Kienzle)

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Band and Sequence are probably the most complex works Serra has created on this scale to date in terms of movement and the division of space. “They’re both pieces you can walk into and through and around,” he told us. “Band has a contradiction when you walk into it, in that the inside and the outside seem to be continuous, so you get very confused about where you are — if you’re on the inside of the outside or the outside of the inside. It’s confusing even for me when I walk in. It’s a continuing unfurled curve, and there are four cavities and they seem similar but they’re all dissimilar — even though if you draw it on the floor, the plan is very logical. The problem is that it changes in elevation, so the walls either lean toward you or away from you, which means that every square inch of it is different. So nothing is the same, nothing repeats.”

L.A. WEEKLY:What is the difference for you between installing inside buildings and outside?

RICHARD SERRA: It depends on the context and it depends on the piece. That’s going to be one of the problems here: After we show the piece and it’s owned by this museum, where is it going to go? That hasn’t been determined yet. [LACMA director] Michael Govan and Eli [Broad] and I will get our heads together and try to figure out what’s best for the space and what’s best for the piece. A courtyard situation — a place in between buildings or close to a building — would probably be better. But the first two showings of it are going to be inside, and I really don’t know how it’s going to function outside. I’d rather keep it in a contained space. I don’t want to put it out on a flat lawn or something. And I’d like to keep in on a hard, flat ground. It needs an architectural right angle to play off of.

As far as your heights go, you tend to stay around 13 feet. How do you determine that?

  • Richard Serra’s advance party

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