Twice a day, on my way to and from work, I walk by a Richard Serra sculpture called Charlie Brown. The 60-foot tall object is located at Gap headquarters in San Francisco, and unless you work in the building, it's only viewable from The Embarcadero between Folsom and Howard Streets. Composed of four, rusty steel plates, the piece gently twists as it ascends through the building's east-facing atrium. When viewed from above, the plates apparently overlap at the top to describe a square. From the street, you can sort of get that, but my eye has always been drawn to the opening at the sculpture's base, an invitation to timidly enter the piece and, one can only imagine, gaze up in wonder.
In late July, 2011, the Bay Area's newest Serra sculpture, Sequence, from 2006, was installed at the Cantor Arts Center. On loan from the Doris and Don Fisher Collection (Doris and her late husband founded the Gap), it will remain at Stanford until the new Fisher wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is completed in 2016. Sequence has been living indoors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 2008; this is the first time it's been exhibited outdoors.
In simple terms, Sequence is basically a parallel pair of figure-eights made of two-inch-thick steel plates that rest on one edge, creating rusty ribbons about 13-feet high. Torqued and angled, the void between the ribbons can be entered from either end, and visitors to the Cantor are invited to stroll the path between the curving bands of steel. Along the way, the walls of the ribbons alternately fall away from or overhang the route, widening and narrowing the path below one's feet and the slot to the sky above, although usually not at the same time. A pair of somewhat circular, similarly uneven dead-end spaces await at either end.
The first thing you notice when walking through or around Sequence is the shadow of the piece that's been drawn by the sun. These lines on the sculpture's concrete foundation are as hard and emphatic as the edges of the steel itself, a precise but naturalistic echo of Serra's machined creation. Then there's the steel's texture, whose rusty splotches give the unforgiving material an improbable softness and warmth.
Quickly, though, one becomes preoccupied by the sculpture's scale, which on the day I visited the Cantor was all people around me were talking about. "They had to transport it in pieces on 12 flatbeds," one man remarked. "It weighs more than 200 tons," marveled another. In fact, it's difficult not to be impressed by the scale of Sequence and all it implies. The danger, though, is that the massiveness of the thing will call so much attention to itself, some might ignore its implications as a work of art.
Serra, of course, is smart enough to know that he can't control what people might think about his work once it's out there. He's even called the people who manufacture his pieces his first audience, so I doubt if he's particularly troubled that many of the people who visit art museums to see his objects are gossiping about how much his creations weigh and how they are shipped.
Still, Serra has also confessed to wanting to create objects that animate the spaces they occupy and truly engage viewers. If so, Sequence and pieces like Charlie Brown succeed because they deliver both, but only on their own terms. For example, one can stroll within Sequence to become, in a way, a part of the piece. This is engagement of the highest order, but the price of participating so intimately in the sculpture is to give up the experience of the observer. How well does it animate the space it occupies? The only way to find out is to ascend to the Cantor's second-floor McMurtry Family Terrace that overlooks the piece. The answer is, very well, but you are now far removed from the experience of the work, an observer only.
Thus Serra accomplishes his goals, but not necessarily in the same moment. In this way, his work is very black or white, very either-or, a radical concept in Western cultures whose populations are trained to get everything they want, all at once and all the time. As an observer, I will continue to admire Charlie Brown from the street, and perhaps my distance from it all these years has been a part of its allure. But I'm also grateful that Doris Fisher has made Sequence so accessible to so many people, giving those of us down on the peninsula a chance to become participants in Serra's work as well.