[published: November 04, 2009]
Twenty years ago, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from the Federal Plaza in Manhattan amidst a wave of right-wing political backlash against subversive art. On the anniversary of the fall of the “Berlin Wall of Foley Square,” we reflect on Serra’s latest show in New York, democracy, David Hasselhoff, and the ongoing debate over federal arts funding in America.
Amongst the pick and sledgehammer wielding revelers who descended upon the Berlin Wall in the early, heady days of Germany’s political unification, there stood a grinning, fedora-topped, photo-op-ready David Hasselhoff. Aided by the idealist sentiments expressed in his synth-driven anthem “Looking for Freedom,” a song that held the number one spot on the German charts during much of the spring and summer of 1989 (and would make countless reappearances in the German media coverage of the Fall), Hasselhoff had come to represent the face of American democracy to the German people. Just as the work of Jackson Pollock had been sent to Europe by the CIA in the 1950s (his improvised drip and stain paintings passed as an artistic analog to personal freedom) here was another American artist (whether we are willing to make claims to him or not) brandished as a weapon in ideological warfare. Or to paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Mr. Hasselhoff, tear down this wall!
Were the Hoff’s signature melodies as favored by the residents of his native country, we could only imagine that the refrain of “Looking for Freedom” would have been fervidly hummed by the folks who worked in the Jacob K. Javits Building and the U.S. Court of International Trade in Manhattan a few months earlier. On March 15th, Richard Serra’s public sculpture Tilted Arc, the so-called “Berlin Wall of Foley Square,” was, after years of controversy and a bitter legal battle, removed from its site on Federal Plaza and, being site-specific, effectively destroyed. Following the decision, William J. Diamond, the General Service Administration’s New York Regional Administrator and the leading advocate against the sculpture, spoke in terms much like those that would later echo throughout unified Germany: the plaza, he asserted, had been taken back from an tyrannical art establishment and was now being “returned to the people.” On that cold winter night in downtown Manhattan, the Democratic process, it would seem, had triumphed over oppression.
A little background: commissioned by the Federal Government as a joint venture between the National Endowment for the Arts and the GSA’s Art in Architecture program in 1979, Serra conceived of Tilted Arc as a critical response to the bland architectural design of the Federal Complex—widely ranked as one of the worst and ugliest public spaces in country—that was to be its home. According to the artist, the work, a gently arcing, 12 × 120 foot long sheet of rust-patinated Cor-Ten steel, was intended to “dislocate or alter the decorative function of the plaza and actively bring people into the sculpture’s context,” thereby reversing public sculpture’s long held role of adorning architectural space and forcing the space of the plaza to be understood “primarily as a function of the sculpture.” In essence, this meant that Tilted Arc stood as a huge middle finger pointed skyward and facing in the direction of the surrounding government institutions whose ideology the architectural plan of Federal Plaza reflected. As it turns out, the people who worked in the surrounding buildings, many of whom were government lawyers, judges and bureaucrats, hated the sculpture; and it’s no wonder why: it was effectively telling them to fuck off every morning on their way into work and then kicking them square in the ass on their way home. Plus, somebody put graffiti on it.
In many ways, the debates surrounding the removal of Tilted Arc set the terms of the now decades-long culture war between the “people” (Agnew’s “silent majority,” which has since quietly morphed into Palin’s “real America”) and an “elite” art establishment that it presumes to be gallingly profane, sexually perverse and generally hostile towards all that is not deemed sacrosanct to its own, self-appointed glitterati. Now, 20 years later, as the German people line up to hear U2 (sorry Hoff) celebrate the end of that other Cold War, we have a new exhibition of works by Richard Serra in Chelsea to remind us of what we lost and a new controversy over the NEA to remind us of what we still risk losing.
For anyone familiar with Serra’s work of the past decade or so, the pair of monumental sculptures currently on view at Gagosian’s 21st Street gallery offers a familiar, if contrasting, set of experiences. Blind Spot, 2002-03, and Open Ended, 2007-08, continue the artist’s self-assumed, Sisyphean task of solving an infinite series of complex formal conundrums with his signature slabs of gently undulating, torqued or folded Cor-Ten steel. From up close, the works’ architectural scale and sloping curves make it supremely difficult to get a fix of their shape and, like Tilted Arc, they aim to command an imposing presence, the baroque grandiosity of which is only mildly tempered by their tuff, bulk-freighter-in-dry-dock materiality. There is a sense of Platonic purity to Serra’s literalist geometry, but, as Clement Greenburg once said of Serra’s most important and influential predecessor, David Smith, it is “geometry that writhes and squirms.” In this case, Greenberg’s phrase also doubles as an accurate description of how your body feels like as you walk through Serra’s works. Particularly in the spiraling Blind Spot, with its coat of velvety orange tarnish, the walls seem to billow, swell and heave is you move forward, causing a disorienting feeling and a sense what is, in reality, a pretty tight space feel like something bordering on the infinite. For an artist often accused of bullying his viewers with brutal he-man heroics and near-Randian artistic hubris (see above), with Blind Spot he has managed to produce a work of exceptional formal and conceptual complexity that manages to make a physically imposing, confining structure dance with precision and grace, making the space seem alternately intimate and sublime.
In contrast with Tilted Arc, Blind Spot and its steely companion, Open-Ended—a brawny pair of nested modular forms that come together to form a labyrinthine pathway, playing tomb to Blind Spot’s womb—are not situated in a critical relationship with their environment, placing the emphasis entirely on the viewer’s response. When not asked to carry a heavy polemical charge in resistance to their architectural surroundings, Serra’s large-scale works can come across as the domesticated variant of his mad-dog public sculptures. Still, by refusing to be ignored (one would never accuse Serra’s work of being, as Ad Reinhardt once said of sculpture, something that you bump into when you back up to look at a painting) the moral thrust of Serra’s project remains the same: by positioning the spectator in an active relationship with the piece, they are made hyperaware of their immediate environment. In a gallery context, this means keying in on your physical encounter with the sculpture and the other viewers who inhabit it; in public, this experience is expanded to include the aesthetic, social and political consequences of the architecture or landscape which surrounds the piece. By these standards, Tilted Arc, which is still considered by many to be the nadir of the artist’s career, was far from a failure. We could only imagine that, if both the artist and the federal program behind the commission would have made more of an effort to promote public understanding of what was, by all accounts, an intensely challenging work of art, Tilted Arc would be around to provoke, antagonize and provide a rusty backdrop for lunchtime picnicking today.
Or maybe it wouldn’t. Following the Tilted Arc hearings, Senators Jesse Helms, Alfonse D’Amato, Newt Gingrich and their right-wing “moral majority” targeted artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and the “NEA Four”—the performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller—in order to characterize all federally funded arts programs as nothing but a symptom of big government and a morally corrupt, culturally imperious left-wing intelligentsia. In the end, the democratically virtuous “little man” got his due, and the NEA got sliced, diced and gutted to such an extent that individual artists were no longer entitled to receive funding. What’s worse, the precedent set by the removal of Titled Arc proved that artists could not trust the government to protect their work from the vagaries of the democratic political process.
Forgetting about the rehashed accusations of intellectual elitism coming from the political right, what is truly disconcerting about the most recent controversy surrounding the NEA—prompted by a conference call wherein Yosi Sergant, the now-former communications director of the program, directed potential grant recipients to create work that promotes the Obama administration’s United We Serve campaign—is that this trust between the government and the arts community continues to take a beating. By essentially asking artists to mount a hipster revival of Socialist Realism, Sergant revealed that the current administration (which is apparently still high on Shepard Fairey dust) does not understand that art can have a social impact without resorting to insipid didacticism—bad news for anyone who is not willing to make agit-prop for the public option. If there is anything to be taken away from the history of the NEA over the past twenty years, it is that all art, particularly that which is federally funded, is political; and the last thing we need is a government-sanctioned army of David Hasselhoffs with tiny chisels. Instead, I would recommend that the administration consider funding art that demands more of its public, and gives more in return. Now that we have a president who, as we recently found out, is at least willing to live with ambitious contemporary art on the walls of the White House, would it be too much to ask for something like a Tilted Arc on the Capitol steps? I think that our representatives could only benefit by being surrounded by art that challenges, and not just superficially parrots, our nation’s democratic ideals. And besides, a daily kick in the ass might just help keep them honest.
Richard Serra: Blind Spot Open Ended
October 27 – December 23, 2009.
On view at Gagosian Gallery
522 West 21st Street, New York, NY 10011
T. 212.741.1717 F. 212.741.0006
Hours: Tue-Sat 10-6
Mark Loiacono is an art historian, writer and musician living in Washington, DC. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on Andy Warhol’s abstract paintings at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
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