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Art: Mystery Makers

Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years

Museum of Modern Art

Neo Rauch at the Met: para

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artists have always been fascinated by the labyrinthine, the enigmatic, and the confounding, and this celebration of uncertainty has a particularly strong appeal in our postmodern times. We want art to reflect our confusions; we want to fall under the sway of a mystery maker. This summer New York's biggest museums have been hosting an unlikely but compelling pair of mystery makers. Richard Serra and Neo Rauch, although as different as day and night, are both arbiters of the uncanny. They throw us off balance. They confound our expectations. They draw us into an imaginary universe and leave us feeling estranged.

Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art who get lost in the snaking twists and turns of Sequence, Serra's immense walk-in sculpture with twelve-foot-high steel walls, are feeling befuddled, quizzical, intrigued, maybe happily so. And this is not all that different from the confusion that grips museumgoers when they take a look at the exhibition of new paintings by Rauch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rauch entangles you in some maddening game of Telephone or Charades, because you cannot make sense of the relationships between his curiously clothed characters, or between these characters and the dramatically rendered perspectives they inhabit. These artists--of different generations, different nationalities, different sensibilities--both regard the work of art as an enigma. They approach artistic experience as if it were a form of mystification, which is not an altogether bad way to proceed. The trouble is that neither Serra nor Rauch knows how to shape or clarify or deepen an enigma. In the end, the bafflement that they provoke feels a little bland.

"Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years" is the first really enthusiastically received exhibition that has been mounted at the Modern since the museum re- opened in 2004. Of course the new MoMA was a box-office success from the beginning, but the Serra show is something different, an event that the public has connected with in a heartfelt way. And the Rauch exhibition at the Metropolitan, although relatively small and tucked away in a gallery that is not all that easy to find, has been drawing a steady and fervent audience. For Serra, who is sixty-seven, the Modern show is the capstone of his career. There are risks involved in such an apotheosis, as Brice Marden discovered last year when his MoMA retrospective left most of the critics sounding grumpy and deflated, and the galleries often looked abandoned. But Serra is likely to emerge from this universally acclaimed exhibition as a prince of the bohemian city--as exalted as Frank Stella was in his heyday, when he was a young god at the Modern. (Stella is himself featured at the Metropolitan this summer, with presentations of sculpture and architectural models that are coarse and bombastic.)

As for Rauch, who is forty-seven, the show at the Metropolitan gives him the major American exposure that may be needed to push an already high- flying career to the next level. Gary Tinterow, the curator in charge, has picked the right horse if he is betting on who among the lineup of flaked-out realists, darlings of the art fairs and the auctions, is most worthy of our attention. There may be a lot of problems with Rauch's work, but he is an artist of genuine interest, which cannot be said of John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Lisa Yuskavage, or Peter Doig.

For both Serra and Rauch, arriving in New York's greatest museums is an opportunity to confront a new kind of audience even as the setting forces into ever-sharper focus each artist's relationship with the art of the recent and the not-so- recent past. At the Modern, Serra is making his bid to be regarded as one of the modern masters. At the Metropolitan, Rauch's post-Surrealist narratives invoke some of the knottier works in the museum's modern collection, works by Balthus, de Chirico, and the German Expressionists. Both artists have taken rather circuitous routes to their present lofty positions. Neither is an obvious choice for most favorite son. Rauch, who grew up in East Germany, lives in Leipzig, where he studied and still teaches at the Academy. As has often been observed, his figurative style is full of echoes of the socialist realism that dominated art in the Soviet sphere, a desiccated populism that Rauch has scrambled and made hip with allusions to various high art styles. The result is a disquieting narrative atmosphere, thick with nostalgia for a nineteenth- century bourgeois never-never land.

Serra, early in his career, was one of the kingpins of Process Art. The late 1960s were a time when sophisticated modern art was widely said to have lost touch with the museumgoing public, and Serra's freely formed or scattered constructions came to be regarded as among the most esoteric works ever made in America. He would splatter molten lead against an old concrete floor, or hang some loopy pieces of vulcanized rubber on a brick wall. By the 1980s Serra was frequently cited as the epitome of belligerent radical esotericism. Tilted Arc, a government commission about which New York City office workers were up in arms because it blocked direct access across Federal Plaza to their workplace, became a symbol of avant-garde elitism run amok. (It didn't help that a workman, a rigger, had once died in the process of installing one of Serra's precipitously balanced creations.) All this makes it especially surprising to contemplate the new audience-friendly Serra of 2007, whose Intersection II, mounted this summer in the Modern's Sculpture Garden, has become the giant thingamajig in front of which with-it parents photograph their toddlers, the cuties with their soft skin niftily set off by Serra's brutalist steel walls.

There is no question that this new museum-ready Richard Serra is a far more interesting artist than he was back in his hard-nosed downtown days. His effects are more immediate and more playful, and this is all to the good. As for Rauch, I find something admirable in the narrative complexity of his work, although I doubt that he understands how extraordinarily succinct the storytelling is in the great narrative paintings, whether by Poussin or by Balthus. Sometimes I suspect that Rauch confuses narrative complexity with the narrative kitsch of the old communist style. Indeed, there is an edge of philistinism about the appeal of both Rauch's gaudy allegories and Serra's new sculptures, which are like funhouse contraptions designed for intellectuals.

These artists know how to draw us in, and to some degree they draw us in through the language of art--but beyond a certain point they are not engaging our minds so much as they are playing mind games with us. They suggest the swaggering assertiveness of great art, and of course when you put their work under the same roof as Matisse and Balthus, many critics and museumgoers are inclined to conclude that they are of the same company. But neither Serra nor Rauch has enough of the freestanding lucidity that holds us over the long haul. There is something hackneyed about their sense of form. Rauch doesn't recall the wilder shores of Surrealism so much as the murky brown Neo-Romanticism of the 1930s and 1940s. And the curved shapes of Serra's recent sculptures are routinized and banal, like the shapes of ergonomic kitchen appliances.

The Serra show is not a full retrospective, and in any event there would be no way to gather every aspect of this artist's work inside a museum, given the size of so many of his sculptures and the considerable number of them that are site-specific and permanently installed in various locations around the world. The two largest concentrations of work on view at MoMA focus on the experiments of the late 1960s and the immense, curvaceous structures of the past decade or so. What comes through, early and late, is Serra's let's-try-it spirit, his pleasure in the process of figuring out how to do something interesting with industrial materials. While the earliest works, those loops of vulcanized rubber hanging on the wall and miscellaneous industrial discards scattered across the floor, have a macho bohemian swagger, I do not see that their informality amounts to much more than sloppiness. And I remain unconvinced by the rather grandiose argument, made by Serra and others, that here the implications of Pollock's drip technique have been reconceived in the third dimension. There is a containment about the best of Pollock's paintings that is completely lost in the loft-life infor- mality of Serra's early experiments.

Serra first hit his stride with the Prop pieces, most of which date from 1969, arrangements of lead plates and lead poles (made of rolled lead), with the elements precariously balanced. Sometimes a lead plate is held against a wall by a leaning pole, sometimes one or two or more lead plates are held vertically by the pressure of a lead pole that rests on top of them. At the Modern, the Prop pieces are exhibited behind Plexiglas fences, obviously so that nobody will be hurt by falling lead, and their blunt power is somewhat muffled. They look a bit like dangerous specimens locked up in a zoo. Like so much that was produced a generation or more ago in casually renovated old downtown spaces, these pieces do not transplant very well, certainly not into the museum ambience. And yet a visitor can see that there is a phlegmatic elegance about Serra's bold, simple equations. The Prop pieces sug- gest an overgrown version of a child playing with blocks, the mild amusement suddenly overtaken by the realization that these hunks of lead are very dangerous indeed. These sculptures look like relics pulled out of the substructures of Piranesi's Carceri--romantic dread re-imagined as a cool modern experience.

Serra's work takes on a baroque bravado in the Torqued Ellipses and other vast structures of recent years. These are the works on which the organizers of the Modern show--Kynaston McShine, chief curator-at-large at the museum, and Lynne Cooke, who is with the Dia Foundation--have chosen to focus after a brief sampling of projects from the 1970s, ever-enlarging riffs on the Prop pieces' sense of dangerously balanced planes. When several of the Torqued Ellipses were first presented at the Dia Foundation in Chelsea in 1997-1998, the curving structures, with their roughly twelve-foot-high steel walls, had an undeniably theatrical magic. Looking back, they can seem like the curtain-raisers to a decade when the art world was consumed by gigantism; but what at first struck a visitor was the sobriety of Serra's vision. Exhibited in a warehouse space that could barely contain them, Serra's Torqued Ellipses got you keyed up.

Like so many people who visited them at Dia, I wanted to see these striking structures from all angles. I was fascinated by the loomingly oppressive character of their exteriors, and by the way that first gloomy impression segued surprisingly into the dizzying openness of the interiors. The Torqued Ellipses did not remind me so much of earlier sculpture or architecture as of a certain kind of Mannerist landscape, of those Italian gardens, designed in the sixteenth century, in which a visitor is drawn along constricted, circuitous paths that eventually open into surprisingly expansive vistas. There was a monolithic poetry about Serra's huge structures. And I can't say that I haven't responded to that poetry on repeated sightings of the Torqued Ellipses and all the variations that have followed--at the Gagosian Gallery, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, at Dia Beacon, and now at the Modern. But with each visit the monoliths lose some of their lyricism. There is a blast of power about Serra's recent work, and with each successive composition, Serra has aimed to adjust the nature and character and quality of that blast--but it is basically the same blast each time. In the increasingly enlarged dimensions of such recent works as Sequence and Band, the blast becomes something more like a growl or a moan. Serra is an actor with a single effect, and the effect loses its force with each performance.

The macho formalist, a particularly American role, is a part that Serra plays to the hilt. The Modern catalogue is framed by two photographs of Serra. In the first he is a young man in a black T-shirt and soiled jeans, his thick arms folded across his strong chest as he stands next to a wall on which the words "abstract slavery" are roughly inscribed, the whole registering as some sort of jokey-but-swaggering downtown come-on. In the second photograph he is much older, the black T-shirt has been replaced by a lighter one, and the close- cropped hair is now a bare cranium, but he is still the art-world tough, and he is here to tell us that aesthetics are man's work. Art, with Serra, can sometimes seem to be a branch of engineering, a guy thing, factory- scaled. So of course he is eager to tell us what is technically unique about his recent works, whether in an interview in the MoMA catalogue or on Charlie Rose. The idea behind all the recent pieces, as he explains, is that "the volume rotate[s] without changing its radius." What this means is that he has found a way to create a curving wall that curves differently on its equally long top and bottom edges, because the wall itself has been pushed and pulled in varying directions to varying degrees. The result is the precipitously angled, sometimes wave-like, sometimes knife-like quality of these huge steel shapes. They have a blunt elegance. I feel the afterglow of Serra's pleasure in the engineering. I recognize the attentiveness and the intelligence that he brings to problems of conception and execution as he works with technicians in the factories where these behemoths actually come into being.

So what is the problem with Serra's sculpture? These are works that act on the imagination but fail to create an imaginative whole. At the Modern I heard a young man saying to his girlfriend as they emerged from the snaking interior of Sequence, "The trouble is that when you're inside you lose the shape"; and that is a part of the problem. I find it significant that in reproducing the sculptures in the Modern catalogue, the choice was frequently made to shoot them from above, a view that gives you precisely the overall shape of which you are unaware in the galleries, where you are confronted with these huge constructions. My guess is that Serra wants us to take in the overall form incrementally, as we move around and through the structures. This does happen, at least to some degree. After I walked around and through Sequence, I could see that it was an S-curve made of two parallel walls. I knew this, but I did not feel it. The forms do not add up as you interact with them, not piece by piece, not glimpse by glimpse. I think this is because these structures are totally lacking in internal articulation. The big visual blast is never broken down into smaller visual moves. A Richard Serra is all or nothing.

Serra has cited, among the essential inspirations for the Torqued Ellipses, the oval dome of Borromini's Church of San Carlo in Rome, and I can see the con- nection. But at San Carlo--and everywhere else in Borromini's work--the seventeenth-century architect adumbrates the grand sweep of his forms in a thousand ways, so that the eye and the mind are able to grasp each overarching formal move in terms of a near infinity of smaller moves. Of course Serra will say that the stripped-down look of the Torqued Ellipses, with their gritty steel surfaces, is a modern simplification and amplification of the work of the Baroque master. But I would submit that there is a limit to how large a structure we can take in without some internal articulation, some complication or adumbration that helps us to relate the proportions of the work to the human scale. It is not at all clear, at least not to me, that beyond a certain size sleek modern forms can have a complexly nuanced impact. Alexander Calder, an immensely subtle artist, had a difficult time giving a compelling internal scale to his largest stabiles and mobiles; his delicate wit ended up feeling clunky. Serra knows how to grab us, but he does not know how to hold us.

Ultimately, the eye cannot absorb these vast steel inventions. Perhaps more than a visual response, Serra's work demands a kinetic response. And you can see at the Modern that people are taking in his work with their entire bodies. They walk around it, they walk into it. I found myself thinking about Michael Fried's famous essay "Art and Objecthood," published in 1967. Fried attacked what he called the "literalist sensibility" of much new art, complaining that the work of Donald Judd and Robert Morris was basically involved with "a theatrical effect or quality--a kind of stage presence." Serra is not mentioned in "Art and Objecthood"--his career had barely begun--and Fried himself has gone on to adumbrate in many books the rich and complex place of theatricality in the history of art. But Serra's new constructions are the perfect case of a sculpture whose power is essentially theatrical. Engaging with Serra's sculpture is an experience that can involve elements of wonder, danger, confusion, delight, intrigue, anxiety, and pleasure. You might as well be taking a roller-coaster ride. You are left with a strong sense of what the work has done to you, but with little sense of the work in and of itself. You gather impressions over a period of time, but they do not add up to an image or form or space that grows in the mind's eye.

It is not surprising that Serra's work feels most at home out-of-doors. At the Modern, the installation of Intersection II, with its four curved elements, reclaims for Philip Johnson's Sculpture Garden some of the urban theatrical panache that has been in short supply in recent decades. Here visitors find that they are not so much looking at a work of sculpture as they are taking part in a happening, exploring Serra's curved corridors, seeing how other people respond. Serra's appearance in the Sculpture Garden is the latest in a series of memorable events that stretch back many decades, including the house that Marcel Breuer built in the garden in 1949 and Jean Tinguely's notorious self-destroying sculpture Homage to New York, which rattled its way to oblivion in 1960. In the garden it doesn't matter quite so much that Serra's work is such swaggering stuff: his machismo looks provocative for being juxtaposed with Philip Johnson's dandified urbanism. And Serra in the garden is one of a number of bright spots at the Modern this summer. These include the four Joan Mitchell paintings that have been hung in the atrium; the small, elegantly focused show celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; and "75 Years of Architecture at MoMA," the first exhibition organized by Barry Bergdoll, the new head of the department of architecture and design, who brings to the museum a kind of breezily elegant scholarly imagination that has been missing in recent years.

If walking through Serra's sculptures leaves you wondering where you are, you may find that when you stand in front of Neo Rauch's canvases you do not know where his men and his women are, either in relation to one another or in relation to you. The world that we glimpse in Rauch's paintings is part Biedermeier fairy tale, part socialist realist nightmare, part contemporary bohemian ennui. Rauch has titled his show "para," and explained that he wants to evoke, according to Gary Tinterow, "a string of associations with the prefix: paranormal, parallel, paradox, and so on." The first word that came to my mind was paranoia.

If Serra thrusts you into a paradoxical theatrical experience, where parallel planes are skewed and anybody with the slightest inclination toward claustrophobia will begin to feel paranoid, Rauch sets you before a constantly changing stage set, where the figures and their actions suggest panicky narratives and the space changes as swiftly and uneasily as on a movie screen, with near and far exaggerated or compressed at will. What pleases me about Rauch's paintings is the conviction that he brings to these wildly unpredictable scenarios. He has said of the pictures gathered at the Metropolitan that they "grew--like other groups of pictures done before them-- out of the floor of my studio as if it was a Witches Circle." And I believe that they simply came to him, because although the conceptions are as artificial as can be, they do not feel at all contrived.

While Rauch was creating this cycle of paintings, he clearly had in mind the low ceiling of the gallery at the Metropolitan where the show is installed, and the wide horizontal formats that he has employed have a winning dramatic pressure. The work suggests a style that might be called the nightmare carnivalesque. Everybody is in some sort of costume, suggesting the military or the working class or the middle class or bohemia, and in some cases the allusions are scrambled, the way they sometimes are in costumes designed for theatrical productions. The settings have a theatrical aura as well. The buildings and the vistas suggest romantic stage sets, as does the frequent appearance of banners and signs in brilliant colors, not to mention the technicolor skies. In Suburb, a group of people are putting some banners on fire--or are they trying to put out the fire? In Waiting for the Barbarians, women in blue-and-white dresses handle rifles in the foreground, while in the distance a minotaur head is put on a man who stands on a little stage. In Goldmine, some sort of animal head and maybe some bones are being loaded into a wheelbarrow by two men who stand near the mine, which gives off a hallucinogenic yellow glow. In Hunter's Room, game birds and a large map are hanging on the walls, and three men and a woman are gathered, several holding crossbows. In The Next Move, two men in white dinner jackets are smoking in what is probably an artist's studio-- at least there is a palette and a nude woman on a distant bed.

Rauch has said that he is a conservative. If that is so, then he is a particular kind of conservative, one whose narratives are grounded in the idea of collage, in an assemblage of variegated elements that are charged with energy through the very unexpectedness of their juxtapositions. The situations that Rauch dreams up, though inexplicable, are not so easily dismissed. There is an inevitability about his discombobulations. In Father, a young man in a white tie holds in his arms an older man who is the size of a baby; on a table in front of them is a tiny piece of body armor, a kitschy vase, some lit candles; another man stands to the side, holding a small camera. The easiest way to explain this image, I suppose, would be to argue that the young man is coddling his own older self. And yet such an interpretation, which in any event does not go very far, does not really address the strangeness of the image.

There is something engagingly slippery about Rauch's inventions, something likably chaotic about his cabinet of curiosities. You aren't sure if some of his young men are nineteenth-century dandies or coarse contemporary workmen. And his women, with their thick legs and arms and short hair, suggest stern nurses or prison matrons, though maybe they are just slightly diffident younger sisters who haven't quite grown into their good looks. Rauch presents a silly- putty world. You think you are in the early nineteenth century, until you notice something that looks like graffiti spray-painted on a wall. Some oversized figures are shoved right into our faces, while other figures register as mere specks on the horizon. And nobody seems to interact with anybody else. The faces that Rauch paints have closed or semi-closed eyes. This is a somnambulistic world, a parallel universe in which our paranoia is paramount.

I imagine that the more familiar you are with Rauch and his sources, and with German culture in general, the more undercurrents and reverberations you will see. I think I recognize connections to certain artists who interest me. I cannot imagine that Rauch has not made a close study of Balthus, and I find it difficult to believe that the stylized forms of flames and flags in Suburb were done without some knowledge of Jean Helion's great triptych The Events of May. I also see connections between what Rauch is doing and the transformation of figure composition into a form of narrative collage that I admire in the work of R.B. Kitaj, and also in several works by Gabriel Laderman, The House of Death and Life and The Dance of Death (which I doubt Rauch has seen).

But what seems to me to separate Rauch from Balthus, Helion, Kitaj, and the best of Laderman is his unwillingness to clarify and to sharpen his images as he works on the canvas. There is something rather glib, often almost perfunctory, about the way Rauch renders his dreams. The faces have the vagueness of magazine illustrations. And the handling of paint is too flashy, with whole areas simply scumbled or smeared, and little grace notes scribbled in with the brush. In many of the new paintings the entire surface looks as if it has been covered with a brownish-yellowish tone. Rauch's visions are suggested, sketched in, rather than actually realized in pictorial terms. What is missing is a forceful visual musicality. There is something out-of- focus and murky about the poetry of his work. And for some people this surely becomes part of his appeal. The paintings are more like stage sets than fully realized paintings. They suggest a mood, but they do not fulfill its promise.

Neither Neo Rauch nor Richard Serra is finally willing to commit to the idea of the work of art as a totally self-contained and integrated imaginative whole. And yet the power of their work has everything to do with enveloping us in an all-encompassing experience, an experience that is strikingly strange. I would say that the extent to which their work succeeds is the extent to which they have managed to re- invent a traditional idea of art as mystery- making. And the extent to which they have failed is the extent to which they have refused to articulate or to clarify the precise nature of the mysteries that they have in mind. The greatest mystery makers--Leonardo, Giorgione, Bosch, Goya, Redon-- make the elements in their work so formally bewitching that we come to experience whatever illogic there may be as an outgrowth of the formal order--a formal disorder, if you will. In the work of a mystery maker, the enigmas must emerge organically, as a break in the natural order that is also part of the natural order, much as earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods are natural products of earth, air, and water.

I recognize that, for those who think Serra is a master, the bluntness of his enormous works registers a dissent from traditional ideas of articulation-- and thereby assures his avant-garde stature. And I see that for those who prefer Rauch to Helion and to Kitaj and maybe even to Balthus, the glibly sketchy realization of his images may signal a liberation from the strictures of the past. What is at work here, in the enthusiasm for Serra and for Rauch, is an idea that significant art is always a matter of exceptionalism--that the artist who really adds something to tradition stands outside of tradition, that the truly active imagination simply cannot abide by convention. It is this idea, which is somehow in the air at both the Serra and the Rauch shows, that I find disturbing. For there is no reason to believe that a mystery maker cannot operate deep within tradition.

After all is said and done, tradition is the only sure guide that a mystery maker has. There was an exceptional demonstration of the relationship between tradition and mystery-making last spring, in Bill Jensen's beautiful show of abstract paintings at Cheim & Read. In these new works, which are the best paintings that Jensen has exhibited in many years, the artist is paying unabashed homage to the open-ended compositions of the Abstract Expressionists and the easily elegant forms of the Japanese calligraphers. And out of the work of those prophets of indeterminacy, Jensen is building his own powerful enigmas, some in inky nighttime tones, some in stinging, almost technicolor hues. Plunging into the history of art, Jensen is also swimming in his own element. The old mysteries become new mysteries, quite simply because a different artist is at the helm. There is nothing theatrical about Jensen's work, no melodramatic pitch intended to grab us before we are ready. When Jensen fails, it is because the ideas have remained submerged in the very processes of the work. When he succeeds, his overlapping arabesques are as confident as they are confounding. Jensen creates a pictorial world that I can reconstruct as a parallel universe in my imagination.

Jensen is an unabashedly romantic artist, and so in their own ways are Serra and Rauch. We get flashes of the good old romantic values--surprise, enigma, awe, dread--in the work of these artists. Romanticism, with its fascination with the individualistic and the anti-classical and the uncanny, was of course one of the foundations of modernity, fueling both the daring reconsiderations of tradition in Picasso and Matisse and the rejection of tradition in Duchamp and the Dadaists. With Jensen, Serra, and Rauch, the romantic impulse registers in very different ways, but always as a desire to throw us off balance, to remove us from ordinary experience, to plunge us into new places. The danger-- it is the old romantic danger--is that the experience is so odd or so unstable that it flings us straight out of the realm of art, which is a realm of structure, and in some respects always an orderly realm. Jensen goes to the brink of chaos and pulls back before he goes over the edge. Serra and Rauch are ambivalent about the ordering authority of art. They hanker for art's power and they want to ignite art's fire, but they refuse to accept art's imperatives. And so the feeling in their work remains half-formed. Rauch's tall tales are as elusive as one of those dreams that you forget as soon as you wake up. And the memory of Serra's recent sculptures, which weigh between one hundred and two hundred tons, is as fleeting as the fiery shower of a welder's acetylene torch.

By Jed Perl