For my part, I’ve just never found Serra’s work to be so overbearing as it’s made out. What may appear stark at first glance always manages to draw me in, leading to a surprisingly complex interplay of direct bodily response and interpretive musing. The imposing surfaces always give way, in one way or another, whether it’s the spatial readings in the big black drawings, or the possibility of entry and circumambulation in the large sculptures. Some pieces are more successful than others, but as far as career trajectory goes, I think Serra remains more vital that a lot of artists of his generation (and no few younger ones.) The notion of artists building up to some sort of transcendent “late work” is largely a myth; the opposing truism that each artist really has one idea they do over and over is often nearer the truth. Even the best artists may sometimes appear to be “coasting,” but I’m apt to give a lifetime free pass to anyone who’s made a big contribution; if I’m bored I’ll just stop looking, and I’ve often found that stuff I was fed up with looked better when I came back to it at a later point in my own development. In terms of trying to “answer the critics”, that’s a chancy game, but I suppose artists are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

I rather enjoy Turrell, though I don’t really have a lot of first hand experience (and don’t be fooled, earth art and such really does need to be seen first hand. I’ve been to a big Robert Morris piece near Grand Rapids which in photos looks like a very graphic X on a hillside, but when you walk on it you don’t see it that way at all, and it turns out to create all kinds of cool perceptual effects) except a few SoHo shows and the PS One room. The skyroom is beautiful, but mostly an issue of framing, which remains an important issue in abstract art, but always begs the issue of what is being framed. In the case of the sky, you can’t go wrong, but Turrell causes you to see it in a surprising way, whereas Christo’s nature art is more a matter of decorating something that’s already impressive; instead of new insight he offers an addition that suffers by comparison. His work seems trivial compared to Turrell’s, and yet I’d say it’s genuinely overbearing at the same time (in a way Serra’s is not), which is a truly unpleasant combination.

Serra, I think, is a much more complex and significant artist. In terms of defusing Abstract Expressionism, I don’t think it’s surprising that as we move further away in time what once looked like a break now looks more like a continuation. Something similar has happened in Stella’s work, returning to the gesture and spontaneity he initially suppressed, and I like Serra’s later work more than Stella’s (though again, having done what he did in the 60s, I give him a pass at this point.) As I said, Minimalism and its adjuncts critique AbEx, but they continue its tradition. This leads me to some musing that brings together a couple of other recent posts, regarding “adolescence” in art and comic artist Jack Kirby, along with what I see as a tradition of violence in America.

My feeling is that, given a close reading, the “ugliness” of Minimalism begins to cut the legs out from under the heroic myth of violence that much of AbEx stands on. In part this happens through honesty; the point I was trying to make about Chave’s notion of its straightforward displaying of something normally masked. You might call this “brutal honesty,” but the brutality is of a different order than the genuine violence of physical force, and the point remains that, all protestations aside, art and everyday life remain separate. Whether art influences or reflects our culture is a dialectical conundrum beyond the present discussion, but aside from a few unfortunate accidents, art doesn’t actually hurt people.

I do see our culture as unfortunately preoccupied with violence. One way of looking at adolescence might be that it represents the difficult point at which we must transform a childish love of violence into an adult attitude of responsibility and restraint. We do not criticize the violence of children: their delight in flinging the body about; shouting; stomping on bugs; the adoration of the explosion. Adolescence is when society should temper this temper with a narrative of tragedy. That is to say that it is traditionally the time for initiation, when the child becomes an adult by participating in the mystery of the people’s mythology. The mystery encompasses the union of sex and death, things that children by definition don’t really understand. For children, violence is little more than the exhilaration of being a life force contained in a body, and the natural desire to test its boundaries. They don’t know the risks they take, but for adults violence is always a reference to death. Our mythology must offer not so much an “explanation” of death (this is why I refer to “mystery”) but a way to address it with due regard. Since death remains a sorrow to us, our mythology will of necessity contain a measure of tragedy, though this should be tempered by the hope of continuance via sex and birth. I fear that our culture teaches a narrative in which death itself is a solution, in the form of the death of “the other”. Kill the “bad guys” and everything will be OK. This leads to the triumphal violence of our action movies and our wars. But a true appreciation of the mysteries will initiate us into a dialectic of self and other, in which we find that the two are inseparable, and that killing remains tragic, even in those cases where it is said to be a necessity.

We have given up the stereotyped initiation rites of traditional societies, with some strange results. The fantasy world of adolescence, as exemplified by comics, action films, anime, sci-fi, etc, is one of the major places into which this necessary function has been displaced. The example of Jack Kirby, and the Lethem article cited by Tom, is instructive. I consider Kirby to be a great artist of the 20th century, but the point about his failure as an auteur outside of his collaboration with Stan Lee is quite true. Kirby is all about childish violence, on the level of the body and the level of pure energy; he created the standard comic book representation of energy as such: the flowing blots that Lethem refers to as polka dots. The thing that contained and channeled this energy in a constructive direction was Lee’s narrative. Lee’s style, a bathetic concoction of pseudo-Shakespearean high-mindedness and malt shop coming-of-age clichés, appeared ludicrous to the average adult, but was in fact a mythic teaching mode perfectly suited to the adolescent state of mind. The good guys always won, but they never triumphed; the bad guys came back to life, and everyday problems always brought the heroes back down to earth. The mythic dimension was channeled into the reality of everyday life. As Spiderman learned, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

In the end, adolescence is a passage, not a maintainable state. Our problems stem from refusing to grow up and take responsibility, hence the widespread observation that our culture has become terminally adolescent. In fact, we remain childish, reveling in violence as if it had no consequence. High art used to participate in the kind of mythmaking that forces a passage, but it seems rather removed these days. I think Minimalism contributed something through honesty and a critique of AbEx’s heroic violence; I see Serra as mysteriously existential, rather than heroically imposing. As Bill says, it’s just (an inert) thing. But a thing that causes one to feel and think.

- alex 4-21-2004 1:53 am

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