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Richard Serra Serves His Goddess

By Guy Zimmerman

In various spiritual traditions it’s common to hear the feminine identified with some version of open-ness or space, while the masculine is identified with form or substance. In Buddhist iconography, for example, wisdom is viewed as a quality of open space and as a feminine attribute. The womb, with its potential for birth, is evoked as an image. But in certain esoteric tantric disciplines Shiva, the masculine principle, is identified with root awareness – the ground out of which experience arises – and his consort Shakti is identified as…well…everything else. The feminine here is the profusion of all that can be experienced. A recent encounter with two sculptures by Richard Serra underscored for me what this shift is about.

Sequence_1In search of inner peace a few weeks ago I paid a visit to the Broad collection at LACMA and spent time with the two massive Serra sculptures that occupy the two wings of the ground floor. Sequence, in the Western gallery, involves two hundred and thirteen metric tons of steel rolled into twelve foot high sheets that wind along side each other in graceful nested curves you can walk through. Doing so, for me, was a potent experience. The Paleolithic steel walls rose up in narrow canyons that seemed to resonate dissonantly with hidden energy centers in my body. Overwhelmed, I staggered out the other side and had to find a bench. But as powerful as Sequence is Band, in the Eastern wing, is the truly remarkable work of art.

Standing in the Eastern gallery with Band you have the feeling that there is no valid reason to be anywhere else. Composed of the same twelve foot high steel walls as Sequence, Band somehow ennobles the space it occupies (this, of course, is what sculpture is supposed to do.) The curving walls flow up and back with the grace of a dance move, but without surrendering any of their convincing weight. You become aware, as you walk in and out of Band’s circular, heart-like chambers, of time slowing and then accelerating again. If you’re like me you imagine, if only for a moment, that you are not walking at all and that it is the steel walls that are in movement, flowing past and around you. Other polarities that typically animate Serra’s art – hard and soft, simplicity and extravagance, mystery and blunt physicality – here seem to achieve a new harmony of purpose that lightens the heart. It’s as if Serra’s work is showing us how to contain our own opposites.band_1

Emergence, emergent form are juicy but also slippery concepts used in various scientific disciplines to describe how a simple process suddenly up shifts to a radically higher level of order. Various random air currents in the Gulf of Mexico suddenly begin to reinforce each other and the “emergent form” of a hurricane slamming into New Orleans is the result. Emergence is certainly a useful idea when thinking about the evolution of an artist’s style over the course of a lifetime. As they struggle against the resistance of the material in which they work, significant artists often reach a stage where an entirely new kind of harmony becomes possible. Their work from that moment forth becomes about ringing the changes on that new set of possibilities – Jackson Pollack and the first drip paintings…Rothko and his color fields…the sudden appearance in Phillip Guston’s work of cartoonish, hooded KKK figures. I’m tempted to believe this kind of emergence is what you encounter when you wander from the highly dynamic and overwhelming Sequence to the equally dynamic and overwhelming, but also utterly sublime, Band. Out of the same elements Serra has been working and re-working for years a radical new expression opens up.

But this begs the question: what specifically is at work in Band? My gut tells me that the root polarity in Band must be discussed in terms of male and female archetypes. Serra, certainly, has always registered strongly in this arena. A hyper-masculine figure seeking dominance with hard hat and cauldrons of molten ore, Serra early on adopted a minimalist stance that excluded anything hinting at softness. And yet here, in Band, what Serra seems to have been aiming at all along was the creation of an undulating container for everything that surrounds it, as if the masculine, at the final degree of its austerity revealed itself to be an altar for feminine abundance. The walls curve and flow the way they do because constant change is the nature of what they seek to contain and support. At rest in this masculine container we inhabit the profusion of the feminine. Band is a devotional act toward the feminine. It will be interesting to see if Serra continues to mine what feels to me like a very rich vein of artistic gold.


  1. rich food for thought…!

  2. I recently discovered your blog and have been learning along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to state apart from I have really liked reading.

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