Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hunting for a Richard Serra Sculpture in the Bronx

Installation of Richard Serra, To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted, 1970, at 183rd Street and Webster Avenue, in the Bronx, New York. Photo: Peter Moore
"The place in the Bronx was sinister, used by local criminals to torch the cars they’d stolen. There was no audience for the sculpture in the Bronx, and it was my misconception that the so-called art audience would seek it out."

Richard Serra in an interview with Douglas Crimp, Arts Magazine, November 1980

In the late 1960s, sculptor Richard Serra decided that he wanted to install a work on a street in New York. "I went to the Parks Administration, who told me they would try to assist me with the project for any site in that area of the Bronx," he told art historian Douglas Crimp in a November 1980 interview. "Manhattan is out. Try the Bronx," the Parks officials responded. Serra says that he spent three or four months traipsing around the Bronx before finding an ideal spot, a dead-end street at 183rd and Webster, "a broken-down neighborhood, unencumbered by buildings," according to the artist. After paying a $250 fee, he was able to install his work, To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted, which curator Lynne Cooke notes was later "included" (her scare quotes) in the 1970 Whitney Annual (the address of the work was listed in the catalog) and the 1971 Guggenheim International. At some point, it was purchased by art dealer Ronald Greenberg (of New York and St. Louis gallery Greenberg van Doren), shipped off to St. Louis, and put on display at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), where art writer Walter Robinson saw it back in 2005.

183rd Street and Webster Avenue, in the Bronx, New York, 2010. Photo: 16 Miles [more]

Even if the street was completely dilapidated (and, with all due respect to Serra, the cars in the photos don't look quite as "torched" as one might expect, though he was there and I wasn't), it seems amazing to believe that the Lindsay Administration would simply let an artist close down a street, tear up the asphalt, and install a sculpture. In order to investigate, I made a trip up to the Bronx this weekend, secretly hoping to find a trace of Serra's sculpture, a circular ring filled in like a pothole. However, the neighborhood looks quite a bit different 40 years later. For one, the dead-end street is much shorter than in Peter Moore's photographs (see above). Also, Serra mentions "stairways going up to an adjacent street, which would enable a viewer to look down on the piece from, various levels," but those stairs were nowhere to be found.

Twin Parks West Houses, 365 Ford Street, one block from 183rd Street and Webster Avenue

The city's willingness to let Serra rip up a street made more sense, though. Plans were likely underway for the New York City Housing Authority to build a housing project there. The Twin Parks West Houses, which are still located at the end of the street that held Serra's sculpture, was completed in 1974, only three years after the work was included in the Guggenheim International. Walking through the complex, one can spot the stairs that Serra mentioned in his interview with Crimp, though they look fresh and new, updated versions of those that the artist saw his idealized viewer climbing to view his work.

The particularly fascinating thing about this whole affair is that Serra seems genuinely disappointed that his fellow art-world friends didn't make the trip to the Bronx. Here's the end of the quotation that started this post: "There was no audience for the sculpture in the Bronx, and it was my misconception that the so-called art audience would seek it out." The work succeeds precisely because of this fact. It marked a site of urban blight that had been institutionally confirmed: it could only exist because the city had decided that the neighborhood was in need of publicly funded improvement. A contemporary artist was welcome to place a sculpture there in the meantime. Interestingly, the Bronx contains more housing projects than any other borough in New York. "Manhattan is out. Try the Bronx." Indeed.

The view down from Tiebout Avenue, looking toward 183rd Street and Webster Avenue


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