Richard Likes It
The Sculptor Richard Serra Declares Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park ‘Fucking Magnificent’
“They (most other American sculpture parks) look like parking lots for sculpture. To have a park that is accessing the language of sculpture is not only rare, it’s fucking magnificent.”
So declared the sculptor Richard Serra in a conversation I had with him Monday morning in the shade of the pavilion on the southeast end of Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, as a crew bolted his installation Wake into the earth.
Wake is the first piece of art to go in at the park, which opens Oct 28, although Mark Dion’s Nurse Log and Teresita Fernandez’s Seattle Cloud Cover bridge are under construction. (No, there’s no sign of Louise Bourgeois’s father-son fountain yet—that will be last to go in.)
Wake is a pod of five undulating forms made of Cor-ten steel, each one 50 feet long, 14 feet high, and weighing 60 tons. Two slabs of curving steel, shaped very loosely like the hull of a ship, are joined back to back in each one; the hollow space between them gives each form a footprint about 6 feet across. Each slab has identical curves but they’re inverted before they’re put together, like reflected versions of each other. They’re scattered on a bed of gravel, at irregular distances from each other that are nonetheless highly choreographed to provide echoing views as the light falls on each rusty surface slightly differently. Like all of Serra’s imposing installations, Wake will be well worth spending time with. Those who criticize him as an implicitly chauvinistic maker of intimidating monuments miss the way his sculptures are not fixed, but variable, how they always refer back to the human ability to register space as though it were an emotional state, and to make discoveries based on however you are moved to navigate it.
The installation isn’t finished yet, but it stands low, in a valley beneath a sloping bed of trees that run along Western Avenue. Because it’s outdoors and doesn’t have the benefit of enclosure to emphasize its massive scale (plenty of his works are outdoors, but I like the truncated areas of the ones indoors best; especially this at Dia Beacon), Serra designed retaining walls that circumscribe the space.
“Architects can be a pain in the ass,” he said, bringing to mind the tension between him and Frank Gehry. (He told me that his installation in the massive signature wing of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is his favorite treatment anywhere of his work; maybe it helps that critics declared it the artist’s total victory over the architect’s structure.) But he gushed about New York-based park architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. I can understand that; I had many more reservations about the park until I took my first tour a few months ago and gained a sense of how sensitive and detailed their design actually seems to be.
It’s not possible yet to assess the experience of being in the 8.5-acre park, or to say whether it will succeed where so many other sculpture parks have failed to “keep the discussion about sculpture alive,” as former deputy director and park curator Lisa Corrin says. Monday I walked a small winding path through a grove of quaking Aspen trees, and sensed for the first time the “precincts” that the architects have been talking about—distinct spaces within the park that differ from each other. In the grove will be Tony Smith’s 1967 forest-floor abstraction Wandering Rocks.
Serra loves Seattle; in 1979-‘80, he made Wright’s Triangle for the Western Washington University Outdoor Sculpture Collection in Bellingham, at the invitation of Seattle art-collecting matriarch Virginia Wright. It was his first publicly sited work.
For him, any issue of the park’s success is settled. (At least for the opening lineup: “Will they screw it up when they change things around? I don’t know,” he said. That first lineup will be up for at least a year.)
“This place has the possibility of making sculpture an issue,” the white-haired, barrel-chested 66-year-old nearly barked at the press corps Monday. “I couldn’t be more happy, not only for myself, but for sculpture.”