Delineation v. Eating

If you didn’t see Richard Serra’s Delineator at MoMA, sorry: for the time being, you seem to have missed your chance. I caught the work back in the fall but, stopping in again the other day, was told it had recently come down. Which was a shame, because I had hoped to experience its wonderful terrors once more.

The 1974-75 piece is quite simple, consisting of just two large slabs of hot rolled steel. The two slabs are oriented crosswise relative to each other. One lays on the floor; the other is affixed flush to the ceiling. Each with a footprint somewhere close to that of a small bedroom, the slabs– and, more to the point, their weights– are massive; the space between carries incredible charge.1 The piece, then, is a bit of a dare: visitors wishing to pass through the gallery must enter that charged space, walking under the weighty metal plate.2

In 1971, a rigger died, crushed by a two-ton piece of steel, during the installation of a Serra piece. Serra himself was not responsible for the accident. Still, given that tragedy, Delineator seems less a dare than an insensitive provocation: “this guy’s gonna ask us to rub up against our mortality?” I mean, there are shades of this sort of vertiginous kick to much of his work, but here it’s so blatant: it seems the whole point.

Serra’s insensitivity notwithstanding, it’s a great piece. It’s not often a work can have such a visceral effect. And, truth be told, Serra playing the troll feels right.

Giovanni Anselmo’s Sculpture that Eats uses similar physical forces in a different, decidedly droll, way. In this work, part of the “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” exhibition, two marble blocks are joined by a copper wire. The larger of the two cuboids is relatively tall and narrow, about knee-high, maybe eight inches wide and deep; the smaller block is squat, a cross-section of the former perhaps diminished by a quarter. The larger block stands upright, while the smaller hangs, some eighteen inches off the ground, fixed in place by the wire, which encircles the two blocks. It feels a little Brancusi: it could almost be a kiss.  Almost, not quite– though held together, the pieces of marble do not touch: a crushed head of lettuce is between them. A small mound of sawdust is gathered at the foot of the sculpture, presumably to catch the vegetal juices, for the lettuce, predictably, decomposes over time. As it does so, it shrinks, as does the tension of the wire, which of course is all that keeps the smaller block in place. So the lettuce must be changed every few days: the piece is in constant flux; the sculpture eats.

Here, gravity is a real threat while the likelihood of harm is minimal.  The floor could get dented, maybe, or a bit of marble chipped, but there’s no sense of peril: lettuce and danger don’t mix.

1Really, it’s magnetic fields, not electrical, that I want to invoke here. The upper slab, predictably, seems to press down; weirdly, to my eye, the lower slab seems to push back, upward rather than down with gravity. My impulse, in other words, is to see the two metal plates as identically charged magnets, repelling each other.

2And on top of the bottom plate, which the label expressly permits: “Please feel free to step on this work.” Granting the viewer a sort of authority over the intimidating piece, this label seems like a knowing punchline.

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