Tag Archives: Richard Serra


They’ve taken in the David Smiths for the winter, up at Storm King, and put them in storage until it’s safe to have them re-emerge in the spring, like crocuses, or tax preparers. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why so many of the sculptures up on Museum Hill disappear every year at season’s end. Does the bronze or steel of the pieces tend to crack in the area’s bitter cold, or collapse under the weight of the heavy snows? Or are they trundled off to the indoors because they are smaller and can be moved, and that it would be good if all of the works could be nestled in shelter but are simply too big to move? Not one of life’s great mysteries, but a puzzlement nonetheless.

The mystery, such as it is, was solved recently when – on a winter walk through the browned and still beautiful (indeed, perhaps, more beautiful) grounds, devoid of all humans except for our small, select group (one of the benefits of membership) – what to our wondering eyes should appear but the realization that the hilltop area is covered with trees mature enough that, when the winds barrel down from the mountains or ice storms coat everything, large and weighty branches snap and hit the ground (or David Smiths) with damaging force. Ergo, the sculpture exodus – no sense playing dice with Nature, not when fine art and millions of dollars are at stake … and, especially, when some of the stuff is merely on loan. So, off they go, to their Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, awaiting the equinox.

Which leaves the pedestals. Here and there, poking up from the beaten down grass, the concrete rectangles remain, devoid of duty, like doormen in a doorless world. In a sculpture park, as Storm King is, or in any museum or gallery, the pedestal is the most overlooked and nearly-invisible object in the place. But they also serve who squat and support; without pedestals, there’d be a lot of lopsided pieces ruined by contact with the elements, and a lot of art lovers with bad backs from bending over to look at things situated at the wrong height. The art would suffer, too, by just being plunked there – to be on a pedestal, after all, is a figure of speech indicating honor or praise or the implication of importance … all of which a lot of today’s art could use, if only to be considered adequate. Sometimes, pedestals are what make art “Art.”

But, up there, nearly alone on the semi-barren rise above Storm King’s di Suvero’d landscape, one can imagine more life to pedestals than even those functions already mentioned. One can dig deep into one’s memory and try to remember the pieces that had recently been on those pedestals, and imagine them there, seeing them, the shiny burnished surfaces, the geometric forms, ghostly, like phantom limbs. It’s a good mental exercise. Then take it to the next step: use the empty pedestals to envision your own sculpture garden, imagining works that could go on them, whether they be works you know or works you’ve made (give yourself an ego boost by seeing your art in Storm King), or even works you devise out of your own creative wisps as you stand and peer at the pedestals. And, for that moment, in that very site-specific magical moment, when site impacts you and you create art, you have an essential arslocii experience that is not only wonderful and ephemeral, but entirely personal – and, yet, no less valid or “real” than if the solid pieces were standing there before you. So much of the appreciation of art is what we make of it, our “take,” the intellectual and emotional resonances, the inner gong we strike; so why should imaginary artworks, utilizing the site and your brain, have less personal impact? They don’t extend beyond you … but, then, what does?

And, then, consider the concrete pads themselves, without any whole-cloth addenda. Fanned out across the ground, low to it, quietly making their presence known, they seemed like an artwork in and of themselves: physical, minimalist in the sense of a Donald Judd or even a Serra, as well as conceptual – a piece playing with the idea of pedestals without art, engaging us with the absurdity and opportunity to imagine. Believe me, we have seen worse things that call themselves art by big names who call themselves artists in places that call themselves art collections.

We’re not saying here that anything can be art – it can’t, although some might disagree – but that sometimes the art need not be present to appreciate and perceive the placeness inherent in an art place, and that sometimes the littlest things can be art, even unintentionally, and that when art is the thing under discussion, you the observer are in the driver’s seat. When they take in the David Smiths, it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken in your senses.

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Sniffing Serra

Having visited Dia:Beacon several times, (and it isn’t nearby) I am continually surprised by what I find there. The space is overwhelming, with huge, cavernous rooms and hallways, all in giant scale; the light is ethereal, whether delivered indirectly through the clerestory windows, or directly through window walls where some of the glass is textured in a fractured opacity and just their clear central panes allow outdoors glimpses and sunlight to penetrate the monastic ambiance. And, too, the visual array of artworks (because that is the point, right?), from Robert Ryman’s all-white canvases to Richard Serra’s monoliths of hard and rusting steel, tempt you in every conceivable way with sui generis sensuousness and mystery.

But, as all these other senses are fully engaged, so fully that at times you want to cry or fall to your knees or just feel the vibration and disappear into the energy that each piece and each space is emitting, suddenly, this visit, there is the realization that one sense that had been formerly neglected I am now experiencing – smell. Olfaction. Yes, smelling art.

When I was in art school I smelled art everywhere. Every classroom and, later, every studio had a smell – a particular smell: oil paint, clay, acrylic paint, printmaking ink, sawdust, welding fumes. Largely, these were toxic smells of chemical reactions, but to anyone who spent time breathing them they were the smells of creativity. The smells are so universal and have become such a part of the fabric of art-making that I can walk into any artist’s studio and smell the familiar, immediately bouncing me back to a connected past with my school days. This is generally not the case in the more staid museums; everything is so controlled, often encased, air-quality adjusted and purified.

But, at Dia, I was noticing olfactory changes as I drifted from room to room, artist to artist, material to material. I became excited by this added layer of experiencing the works and the spaces they occupy. Often the inner, windowless rooms there have a stillness with an odor that accompanies the unmoving air. As I became more acclimated to the smells, I realized that each artwork had its own individual smell and that, when clustered in groups, or when massive enough to stand alone, there was a very noticeable odor associated with the galleries they inhabited and imparted to them. At first it was a vague awareness of changes in the air, then I started to home in on trying to “explain” or dissect what it was I was inhaling. I became acutely aware in Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19, a construction of wooden shapes and paint stretchers with that sweet, old lumber fragrance. Something you would smell in a bone-dry attic, with hints of Masonite and fir emanating from old pieces of furniture.

With Agnes Martin, one would expect the smell of both linseed oil and acrylics, of course, but here they were faint, light, clear and pale – just like her canvases; whereas Robert Ryman’s works, whether room-size or small scale, had the presence of all smells. And On Kawara’s Today Series, daily paintings from 1966 to 2000, had an indistinct smell, a blurring of the years. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes had the whiff of heated dust combined with an electronic or solder pungency. While Joseph Beuys’ stacks of felt had, what else – wool, reminiscent of a formerly wet dog now dried, dust coatings and aged socks or mittens. Donald Judd’s Untitled (1976), was, as expected, plywood scented but almost minty in its intensity. And when the setting sun blasted through the clerestory above the minimal box constructions and the oils in the wood heated up, it was like a plywood sawmill without the dust, in the permeating aroma.

And so, I wondered, what about Richard Serra, could his pieces possibly have a fragrance? His monoliths of steel, a material that would seem almost inert except for oxidation: slabs of some natural mineral ores blended into a manufactured structural product? What smell could they possibly have? Hey, though, remember the plywood of Judd. (And right here I must confess to Serra being a favorite, so I really wanted the giant pieces to smell like something.) Union of the Torus and the Sphere sits in a kind of hallway and as close as I allowed my nose to scan it, there was, disappointingly, just a hint of something, at spots, a mild rust smell. I hurried downstairs to the Torqued Ellipses, his wonderful massive herd of shapes which you enter, are labyrinthine and so meditative that you get dizzy inside them. I took a deep breath; inhaled a dry cave, desiccated even. I smelled the rust, stronger now because I was inside the steel chamber and the enclosed air was more concentrated. There were distinct chalk-like odors, hints of dry mold as in cheese. Ah, yes, a fine blend, so fine I wanted to drink it in.

And once again I find placeness: in smell. It is said that smell is the most vivid sense memory. I hope to be sniffing Serra for many years to come.

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Between a Rock and a Car Place

Arslocii – this blog, the eponymous website, the concept itself – is, as we point out often, about pairings and duality, conjoined opposites combined in mutual impact, yin and yang, this and not this. Last installment, in writing about two quite different gardens, we discussed dominance over vs. partnership with the land, and light/dark, or sun/shadows.

With a little more time for reflection, we realize that we overlooked one important duo of elements that, frankly, lie at the heart of nearly every arslocii, not always but often acting as the key to the appreciation of the wedded art and site, not always but often the catalyst for drawing our attention to something special – bringing us into the tent, so to speak.

And that element is – surprise! – surprise, or, rather, the combo of expectation and surprise. This pairing – like the two terminals of a highly charged battery – is what gives us the jolt that causes us to be swept up by, say, a movie or play that we’ve been dragged to see against our better judgment, or by a book that we’ve had recommended to us but which we’ve avoided sinking into, or by a work of fine art that we believe is painfully outside our usual comfort zone … or even by a person who seems so unlikely to be someone we could be even remotely interested in – until we realize, recognize, that this is The One. Low expectations/high surprise, leading to the discovery of something new in the world that speaks to something deep within us –the shock of the new that makes contact with the shock of essential recognition. The assumption shattered by the out-of-left-field revelation, or challenge, or empathetic response. A contribution to placeness, and arslocii.

We think back on some of our intersections with arslocii subjects, and surprise-over-expectation is nearly always an aspect contributing to our receptivity and to its unforgettable nature: climbing the stairs and turning the corner to see Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, expecting to view no more than some artsy, ‘70s, one-note gimmick of a New York City office space filled with dirt – but finding, instead, a shocking space of noble silence, referential beauty and, remarkably, emotion; turning another corner (not a necessary action, this corner-turning, but a frequently surprise-inducing one) and being awed by the power of presence of a hulking Richard Serra piece, indoors, an unlikely captive in an enclosed Dia:Beacon hallway, both squeezed by the space and expanding it, defining the multiple implications of the word “enthralled”; walking through a parking lot of a featureless apartment complex, trying to find, hidden there, what’s left of Andrew Jackson Downing’s and Calvert Vaux’s Springside, expecting nothing but the weak suggestion of a once grand estate shoved now out of sight and left to ruin, like an afterthought forced upon a begrudging community – only to discover a magical, ghostly spot, perhaps the most placeness-redolent place we have come across in our journeys.

What brought up all this thinking about expectation vs. surprise was a visit we made to an auto mechanic new to us. (A note: One of the founding principles of arslocii – stated in what amounts to a manifesto of sorts – is that what we would delve into would be “intentional sites,” made interesting because of the “meaningful placement” of architecture, art and/or designed landscape.” Those were guiding tenets at the start, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that we’ve deviated from the original goal, and have found “placeness as art” in unintentional, accidental situations – in familiar sounds, for example, or in deceased relatives’ empty apartments – because a) our definition of “art” (if not “placeness”) has mutated over time to include the unintentional and the idea that “art” is something defined by being observed as much or more than by being purposely created, that art is a construct in the beholder and can include the incidental, the random and the unguided; and because b) these unintentional art-placeness places often have the highest level of surprise to them, and pleasure. Ergo, what follows.)

So – this visit to the mechanic. The garage and office reside in a low-slung building just outside the city limits on a twisty road that is home to various auto-service and -rental businesses, and other miscellaneous fringe enterprises. The garage/office “complex” is set to the back of a typically desolate, hard-surface stretch of cars and used-to-be cars, those being saved and those being cannibalized, accompanied by the sounds and smells and measured motion of any auto-repair shop – this one with a face towards the road and its back snuggled up against the high, craggy cliff-wall of a former quarry.

Having left our no-longer-sturdy, ancient van to be “rejuvenated” there some days before, we returned to discuss a few things and to communicate a few fears and desires to the garage’s owners, a middle-age couple, both well versed in the workings of cars but the man the chief mechanic. As we stood with him by the van, which was parked out in the car lot/boneyard, we noticed, in a large-ish nearby plot of land … a huge food garden, blanketed in protective black plastic and sprouting squash and peppers and tomatoes, basil and oregano and other herbs, and more – all this, adjacent to car carcasses and pools of oil and strewn auto parts. 

We expressed our amazement, to the mechanic’s obvious delight, and, in his thick, almost stereotypically theatrical foreign accent, he told us to follow him around behind the garage building – and, there, he gestured above him. On a rocky rise, against the stripped quarry wall, sat a structure, looking, at quick glance, for all the world like a Neutra or Irving Gill in the Hollywood hills, or like James Mason’s fantasy Modernist villa, pendent over Mount Rushmore, in North by Northwest. But this structure we were gazing up at was vague and diaphanous, and momentarily unprocessable, due to an expectation/surprise disconnect. For there, looking down on the greasy ugliness of the shop and the busy byway beyond was, astonishingly, a sprawling, glittering greenhouse.

The mechanic led the way, pointing out on our path the kiwi tree, and the persimmon, and the fig. And, climbing up and into the greenhouse, he casually but proudly guided us around his Eden of blooming and ripening fruits and vegetables, and, among them, trees bearing lemons the size of grapefruit. So much vibrant and colorful life a wrench’s throw from a revving engine and the haze of exhaust. He gave us one of the lemons, and back home it was practically sufficient by itself to make a quart of lemonade. And it was delicious.

Expectation – an auto repair shop. Surprise – a crystal cathedral between a garage and a cliff, burgeoning with food and life. And more – somehow, subconsciously, likely unintentionally, the mechanic had, in this alien terrain, collected up then deconstructed his Mediterranean world and recreated it, writ small, here. A work of personal art if we’d ever seen one, creating an arslocii full of biography and psychology, love and longing, and an assertion of placeness that not only defied and denied the distance from his homeland but reified the essence of it. For that moment, he shared with us his place, and wherever it was he wanted to be, we were there, too, full of wonder … and surprise.

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