On Schwendener On Richard Serra & Public Art

I’m pleased to see some actual critical response to Richard Serra’s sculptures, and Martha Schwendener is more right than wrong in her review of Serra’s latest shows at Gagosian. But this retelling of the Tilted Arc controversy is based on several faulty premises that are amply documented and refuted in the written record of the case.

It’s hard to approach Mr. Serra’s sculptures without some kind of baggage. There is, of course, the unfortunate 1989 “Tilted Arc” episode, in which that commissioned sculpture by Mr. Serra was removed from Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan after complaints from neighbors and workers that it impinged on their use of Foley Square. In the aftermath of that fiasco, rather than fighting for the rights of artists creating public sculpture, Mr. Serra’s response was to make abstract drawings with puerile titles like “The United States Government Destroys Art” and “No Mandatory Patriotism,” both from 1989.
When exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, these drawings seemed only to iterate Mr. Serra’s myopic misunderstanding of art in the public realm. As the art historian Leo Steinberg put it, the space of Federal Plaza was Serra’s “raw material, but there are a thousand people working there, so this is not raw material but the space of their existence.”

The campaign against Tilted Arc was started by a judge in the building, and it became an ascendant conservative rally that pulled in the likes of Rudy Giuliani. Public opinion, even the opinion of the workers in the Federal Building was not opposed to the sculpture. The commission assembled to judge the work, fate was stacked, and its recommendations went against the evidence it assembled.
What I bristle against most, I suppose, is Schwendener’s idea that Serra did not “fight for the rights of artists creating public sculpture.” That is exactly what he did when he sued the GSA to stop the removal of the work, and to declare it destroyed when it was removed. In the legal context of the time, this was, unfortunately, the most that could be done.
Of all artists, Serra has pushed the hardest for the primacy and autonomy of the artist’s vision. His take-it-or-leave-it stand is certainly annoying and abrasive to some people, but it is principled, and it is at the core of his practice, and apparently, his personality. He’s not a collaborative guy. He’s not a compromiser. He compared Robert Venturi’s plan for Pennsylvania Avenue to the Nazis. He walked out on Helmut Kohl and removed his name from the Berlin Holocaust Memorial rather than take the chancellor’s suggestions. [Schwendener mentions the memorial in her review, but ignores Serra’s involvement.] He apparently walked out on Steve Ratner when asked to pitch for a Hudson Yards public art project.
It may very well be the case that Serra is unsuited for public art and the political rigamarole that it requires. But he wasn’t poisoning the well so much as pissing on a reactionary fire that had already been lit during the Reagan Era. If such non-accommodationism is damaging to artists’ prospects for making public art, then maybe we should consider the processes by which public art comes to be. Maybe the gargantuan spatial spectacles Serra produces now really are optimized for private consumption, the single decisionmaker, the big checkwriter. But whatever Serra’s faults, the public art ecosystem in the US has rarely produced works that command such a spirited defense as Tilted Arc received back in the day.
Previously:
On those “Revenge Drawings”: Richard Serra was not pleased with the US Government
Serra interview from 1982: And I AM. An American Sculptor.
You really should have The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents, the 1990 compendium of material from the case [amazon]