Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Shift(ing) to Richard Serra’s ‘Twain’

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Over on The Modern Art Notes Podcast I’m conducting a little mini-series about Richard Serra’s important and endangered earthwork Shift (1970-72). And the more I’ve thought about Shift, which is sited in King City, Ontario, the more I’ve found myself thinking about Serra’s under-appreciated Twain (at right), a delta-shaped sculpture in downtown Saint Louis. [More pictures here.]

Most recently, Twain came up while I was talking with UCLA art history professor Miwon Kwon on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast. Kwon included material both relating to and documenting Shift in “Ends of the Earth,” the survey of land art that she and Ludwig Museum director Philipp Kaiser organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show is now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The catalogue for the exhibition just won the Alfred H. Barr Award from the College Art Association.

On the program, Kwon and I talked about Shift’s siting in the Ontario landscape and how the sculpture reveals the land’s gentle undulations. Twain, which Serra conceived less than two years after finishing Shift, works in a similar way: It reveals how Saint Louis slopes toward the Mississippi River, and in so doing re-connects the visitor with the land and landscape in a way that reminds her why all the surrounding concrete and steel (and the city to the west of it) just so happens to be where it is. Twain is not often enough considered the third of a three-part trilogy along with Shift and its sibling Pulitzer Piece (which Serra conceived concurrently). More on that in a minute.

A new book, “Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.,” by Marjorie B. Cohn, plainly outlines Twain’s history and in so doing helps provide the proper context for considering it. (The book was published by the Harvard Art Museums and is distributed by Yale University Press.) Traditionally, Twain has been considered in the context of Tilted Arc: While Twain was conceived in 1974, it wasn’t installed until 1982, just months after Tilted Arc (which was conceived in 1979, five years after Twain) was destroyed. In fact, it was the first major public Serra to be installed after the Tilted Arc controversy.

Cohn doesn’t free Twain from Tilted Arc by linking it to Shift and Pulitzer Piece — her book is an art-centric biography of Pulitzer, not a history of Serra or a consideration of Serras — but by helping to ‘free’ Twain from Tilted Arc, her work helps us get there by detailing why Twain was (and is) so under-appreciated by Saint Louisans.  From the book:

[C]ontroversy in St. Louis raged over the local wastelands of slum housing. Under the direction of Joseph Pulitzer Sr., the Post-Dispatch ran an influential series in 1950 in support of urban redevelopment, and in 1951 Architectural Forum, noting that “of the 12 largest cities, St. Louis has the highest percentage of dwelling units still using outside toilets (13.2% at last count,)” congratulated the city for “getting ready to cut… the collar of slums which is threatening to strangle its downtown business section.” The cure: thirty-three eleven-story slabs of public housing, even longer than they were high, designed in high modernist style by Minoru Yamasaki.

As slum clearance and high-rise construction for the poor gathered momentum, the [Eero Saarinen] arch project was revived, a corollary of popular conversion over time to a streamlined, space-age aesthetic. Once built, the Gateway Arch was recognized as the premier example of colossal modern sculpture. Yet ironically, on October 31, 1965, the same issue of the Post-Dispatch that celebrated the newly dedicated monument reported on the wretched state of the failed housing project: “The image of Pruitt-Igoe is one of urine, vandalism and anti-social behavior.” George McCue, the Post-Dispatch art and architecture critic, later published an article in Architectural Forum in which he described how the Pruitt-Igoe elevators had been used as urinals and sites for rapes. By 1972 one of the buildings was leveled and in 1975-76 the rest of the project was demolished, just when the Serra sculpture project was facing its harsh public review.

After the Serra design became a reality, some among the St. Louis elite called it “Le Pissoir,” and a neighborhood newssheet published a resident’s warning in 1982, the year of its dedication, “Wait until a woman or child is pulled inside, away from the view of the public, and raped.” Twain was caught up in a perfect storm of civic and social disasters and contested spaces. To its detractors the rusted-steel rectangles were the image in small of the high-rise housing slabs, and their layout as a broken-sided triangle was a horizontal mockery of the sleek, lofty Arch that rose above it.

Cohn’s extended examination of Twain (she devotes nearly ten pages to it) should end any idea that Twain and the controversy surrounding it had anything to do with the concurrent Serra controversy in New York. It should also remind us that there’s little relationship between Shift and Tilted Arc within Serra’s oeuvre.

Best of all: By clearly outlining the Saint Louis-specific history surrounding Twain, Cohn’s new book will help allow critics and historians to understand that along with Shift and Pulitzer PieceTwain should be more fully considered as part of a key Serra trinity that uses large-scale sculpture to reveal land, landscape and our relationship to it. They are three of the most important sculptures of the post-war period.

Here’s hoping that a better understanding of Twain and Shift’s import to our shared cultural history will ultimately help them survive current challenges.

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  1. […] on MAN, considering Shift, Pulitzer Piece (1970-71) and Twain (1974-82) as a key Serra trilogy. « The final gallery of “Destroy the Picture” Blog Home Uncategorized […]

  2. […] funds may be headed to the Laumeier Sculpture Park, reports Kristen Hare in the Beacon. Now if only Richard Serra’s important, under-loved Twain (1974-82) could attract some of that […]

  3. […] Over the next half hour I walked up and down Shift, getting to know it. Then I picked about ten spots near and around the sculpture and stood still, letting my eyes run over the concrete and the landscape. I looked at Shift from the northwest, where I could see $1 million McMansions in Great Gulf’s “King Oaks” subdivision (now open!) rising in the near distance. (A few hours later I learned that the backs of the houses I saw were situated around “Richard Serra Court.” More on that in a minute.) I looked at Shift from what I came to think of as the ‘bottom’ of the sculpture, the view that looks slightly uphill toward what still seems to be farm land. By the end of the morning I was convinced: Shift is not just a critical, pivotal work in Serra’s oeuvre, it’s not just an important earthwork, it’s one of the most significant sculptures of the last half-century. (For more about Shift in the context of its companion work Pulitzer Piece and Twain, see this post.) […]

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