Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The best American city for Richard Serras

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There are Richard Serras all over northern Europe. Germany is full of ‘em. So is the Netherlands. Heck, in northern Europe it’s not unusual to come upon Serras in places both likely and seemingly unlikely.

Meanwhile, here in Serra’s home country… not so much. So where is an American Serra lover to go to see a career-spanning range of the great man’s work? Sure, New York museums, in both Beacon and Manhattan, are chock full of big, bendy public and semi-public Serras, particularly (and mostly) the later work. Thing is, they’re rarely on view: Excepting Dia: Beacon, most New York Serra is in storage. So… where to go?

That’s easy: St. Louis. No American city has more great Serra more regularly on view than does St. Louis. For most of the last decade or two most of the city’s great Serras have been on regular or permanent public view. In researching this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast with Serra, I noticed that Serra hadn’t been asked a lot about St. Louis and the city’s importance in his oeuvre, so I asked Serra a number of questions about the city. Serra told several great stories; if you haven’t downloaded the show yet (or subscribed), don’t miss it. Remarkably, St. Louis could be an even better place to see Serra… but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Major Serras abound across St. Louis, including:

  • Untitled (1968), an early cast rubber-and-liquitex piece;
  • Pulitzer Piece: Stepped Elevations (1970-71);
  • Joplin (1971);
  • Twain (1974-82);
  • To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted (1970); and
  • Joe (2000, above right, collection of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts).

That’s not just a lot of Serra, that’s a lot of great and important Serra.

Most famed of all, Pulitzer Piece is a site-specific installation at the home of a private collector. It was one of Serra’s first two earthworks, a piece Serra developed concurrently with the currently endangered Shift (1970-72), which is located outside Toronto in King City, Ontario. (As Serra told me on this week’s MAN Podcast, he’s not sure which he came up with first: Pulitzer Piece or Shift. When he was mentally stuck on Pulitzer Piece, he traveled to Ontario, and effectively solved both pieces at the same time.) Pulitzer Piece and Shift led next to Serra’s great and better-known earthwork Spin Out (for Robert Smithson)(1972-73) at the Kroller-Muller Museum outside Otterlo in the Netherlands. (Serra’s final take on the type is at Storm King in New York: Schunnemunk Fork (1992).)

As great a place for Serra as St. Louis is, it’s about to be better. Many of these works are on public view right now, most famously Joe, Serra’s first torqued spiral which is at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, but more will come on view when the St. Louis Art Museum finishes its David Chipperfield-designed expansion project next year.

Last week a SLAM spokesperson told me that To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted, Serra’s only major urban earthwork, will be re-installed late this year, near the end of the museum’s construction project. The piece, first installed in the Bronx, entered the museum’s collection in 1984. After spending about six years on view at St. Louis’ Laumeier Sculpture Park, SLAM installed the piece 2005 in a road off of an entry plaza. Encircle (and the road) were removed for construction, but the museum plans to site it in the same general area before re-opening. (SLAM has not yet announced a re-opening date.)

That’s great. But there’s room for improvement, substantial improvement: One of St. Louis’s Serras flies beneath the radar, under-loved and certainly under-cared-for.

Serra’s Twain (at right) is sited in the heart of downtown St. Louis, in line with the Gateway Arch and across the street from the popular new outdoor sculpture park called Citygarden. (Fun note: Twain isn’t just across the street from Citygarden, it’s more-or-less across the street from this Mark di Suvero. Serra and di Suvero go way back: They were childhood next-door-neighbors in San Francisco’s Sunset district.)

Commissioned in 1974 but not installed until 1982 after an eight-year battle that spanned multiple mayoral administrations, Twain was the first major public Serra to be installed in the United States after Tilted Arc was put up in lower Manhattan. Today it’s apparent that the nearly decade-long fight to get the work installed sapped some of the pleasure Serra receives from the piece, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty great. [Image: Serra, Twain, 1974-82. Via Flickr user Martin Kalfatovic.]

By now we’re familiar with Serras that enclose us, that we walk into and traverse from the inside. In 1974 — and even by 1982 — that was still a pretty new thing for a Serra to ask of the viewer. Tilted Arc gently leaned toward and politely, vaguely began to encircle a visitor. To experience Twain you have to walk into it. That’s something Serra would begin to explore with greater intensity in the 1990s and which is still a focus of his work today. [Serra’s Twain as seen in Google Earth.]

I was last ‘inside’ Twain about 18 months ago, and it was apparent that the city was neglecting to maintain it as it deserves. The ground around it was worn and there seemed to be drainage problems on the block on which it was installed. A quick perusal of recent Flickr pictures of Twain indicate that its site could still use work, lots of it.

Twain has never been beloved in St. Louis. The city has never known quite what to do with it: To landscape it? Plant trees? Program downtown events or something in/around it?

Now would be a good time for the city of St. Louis to answer those questions, to address and celebrate Twain. Next year is going to be a great year for art in St. Louis: The St. Louis Art Museum will re-open and it will install a number of significant Serras. Here’s hoping the city joins in the party by showing off Twain.

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  1. Noel Weichbrodt says:

    Serra at his best exhibits subtlety & provocation on a larger-than-human scale.

    “Twain” is not his best. I think he knows it, too. It’s clumsy, lacking ideas, and ill-fitted to the site. Compared to his subsequent works in that form, it’s apparent that he recalibrated his approach after “Twain”.
    St. Louis can be a conservative, reactionary town, but in the case of “Twain” their civic sense was speaking common sense. The contrast provided by the reception to the CityGarden pieces, some equally as challenging in experience and form as “Twain”, couldn’t be more vivid.

    Excited about the SLAM re-installation of “Encircle”, though!

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