Richard Serra In Public

Richard Serra is responsible for what is perhaps the most infamous public sculpture of modern times (possibly excepting some sundry effigies of deposed dictators.) The history and surrounding controversy of his Tilted Arc have been extensively documented and analyzed, and since I don’t have anything new to add or any first-person experience to offer in this case, I’ll keep my account here brief: the work was commissioned by the U.S. Government; it was designed for and installed in Federal Plaza, downtown New York City, in 1981; its reception was, at best, contentious, with critics considering the work an eyesore or an inconvenience; hearings were held and litigation was pursued; speaking in defense of the work, Richard Serra cited its site-specificity, arguing that it could not be moved; ultimately, in 1989, it was removed. “’Tilted Arc’ is gone,” begins Michael Brenson’s article in the New York Times, April 2, 1982. The rather wry opening paragraph continues: “After eight years, Richard Serra’s 120-foot-long and 12-foot-high bend of Cor-Ten steel – better known by the press as the rusted steel wall bisecting Federal Plaza – has been disassembled in the dead of night and carted off to a yard in Brooklyn, where its three parts lie stacked and packaged behind barbed wire.”

This notorious history was brought to mind when I first stumbled on Serra’s Berlin Junction, a public sculpture located in the eponymous city, just south of Tiergarten, in front of the Philharmonie. Berlin Junction is, essentially, two Tilted Arcs.

The two bowed, rusted steel plates, placed just a few feet apart, create a kind of narrow corridor, an ominous, affective passage, wide enough to walk through, though not without trepidation, not without awareness of the walls curving and angling toward and away, constricting the space and slivering the sky overhead. If you happen to see it, an inconspicuous bronze plaque set in the nearby flagstones identifies the piece as a memorial to victims of the Nazi eugenics program known as “T4” in which hundreds of thousands of mentally and physically handicapped persons were killed.

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In the various accounts I’ve read, Tilted Arc‘s critics seem most often to be characterized in general terms, e.g., “the public.” “The public” is tough to argue with, especially when it means siding with “the art world.” But I can’t excuse the removal of Tilted Arc; it should not have happened. I’m happy to see Berlin Junction, but it also makes me wonder rather wistfully about another work, which I never had a chance to see.

One of the complaints of Tilted Arc's critics was that the sculpture would attract graffiti, an odd sort of Broken-Window-Theory-as-aesthetic-critique.  They were probably right about the graffiti, though.  Nintendo-inspired graffiti on Berlin Junction, elsewhere possibly humorous, is merely tasteless here.

One of the complaints of Tilted Arc’s critics was that the sculpture would attract graffiti, an odd sort of Broken-Window-Theory-as-aesthetic-critique. They were probably right about the graffiti, though: Nintendo-inspired graffiti on Berlin Junction, elsewhere possibly humorous, is tasteless here.

Anonymous “Art Brut” contribution seems more fitting, but still questionable.

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