Richard Serra, Man of Steel

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The New York Sun

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“I think of myself as a builder,” the sculptor Richard Serra says early in “Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet,” a 2005 documentary portrait of the artist as a restless 66-year-old that opens tomorrow at Film Forum for a two-week engagement. The film is nominally devoted to documenting the preparation and execution of “The Matter of Time,” a massive grouping of Mr. Serra’s signature steel walls, cones, and ellipses commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. It is directed with enthusiastic remove by the German filmmaker Maria Anna Tappeiner, who exhibits the same kind of deference for space and emphasis on meticulous construction as the artist’s well-known work.

Born in San Francisco in 1939, Mr. Serra was, he says, strongly influenced by the prevailing municipal zeitgeist in what was then primarily a port city and ship-building town. And, like his friend and onetime assistant, the composer Philip Glass, Mr. Serra is a member of a generation of artists who supported themselves via the blue-collar industry jobs available at the time. The artist describes day jobs in steel mills as being analogous to working in “bakeries that have gone into alchemy,” and the experiential genesis of his subsequent creative interest in metal.

Early gallery work in fiberglass and rubber led to initial studies in lead and other metals (including a Jackson Pollock-like stage involving Mr. Serra dressed in a flame-retardant jumpsuit and tossing molten lead against a concrete wall and floor “canvas”) and became an instructive experiment in structural stability. Mr. Glass recalls some of these formative late-’60s gallery installations buckling under their own weight. “It was a risky technology,” Mr. Glass says. “Pieces built to stand sometimes didn’t stand.”

As Mr. Serra’s knowledge and experience grew along with his ambition, he increasingly wanted to “open up the field” and further remove sculpture from the classical pedestal by displaying his gargantuan metallic visions in the most accessible environments possible. But his aesthetic sensibility was nearly as radical. The artist expounds with a physics professor’s acumen on how “matter imposes form on form,” and how a space may move simultaneously in two directions.

“Rusty steel at this price?” a bemused commuter asks when polled in a vintage documentary clip on his reaction to Mr. Serra’s controversial public installation in Bochum, Germany, “Terminal,” when it was erected in 1979. One wonders what the man would make of the 240-ton, $20 million creations in Bilbao.

In his third installment of the “Cremaster” series (2002), the artist Matthew Barney cast Mr. Serra as a character identified as “the architect.” But as he sketches and supervises the Guggenheim commission on-screen in “Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet,” the artist appears as an amalgam of builder, architect, interior designer, engineer, city planner, and metallurgist. Discussions of how a work is potentially “generated by the void” may also qualify him as a something of a mystic.

“We didn’t take it seriously,” the proprietor of Mr. Serra’s preferred steel mill says when recalling the sculptor’s initial collaborative overture. Of course, Ms. Tappeiner and the small army of steel workers, riggers, gallery representatives, and other allies depicted in “Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet” take every aspect of the design, fabrication, delivery, assembly, and display of Mr. Serra’s mammoth steel waves quite seriously.

Unleavened by any discernible sense of humor — and bluntly and somewhat awkwardly assembled between the non-parallel narrative walls of Mr. Serra’s résumé and the creation of the Bilbao works — the film isn’t the most traditionally entertaining night at the cinema. If one is inclined, as New Yorkers have often been, to pause in reflection at a busy construction site, Ms. Tappeiner’s cool fascination with the molten metal, mammoth plates, cranes, trucks, and ships necessary to realize Mr. Serra’s vision will make for a similar diversion, albeit a more conceptually upscale one.

“Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet” will screen for two weeks, starting today at 8 p.m. at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110). Tomorrow’s screening will be introduced by Dia Art Foundation’s Lynne Cooke, the co-curator of Mr. Serra’s 2007 MoMA retrospective. Tuesday’s screening will be introduced by MoMA’s Jane Panetta.

The New York Sun

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