Serra Sighting

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In Greece last month I had a kind of deja vu experience that it took me a while to trace to its source. I would find myself underneath the architrave of some ancient temple — this doesn’t happen to you much in Manhattan — and feeling I had had this experience before. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Shirley MacLaine here and start blathering about past lives.)

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It was a simple enough sensory experience I kept having under those architraves —  the feeling of a heavy rectangular weight overhead — but also a pretty powerful one. I realized that it was in some way important to the means by which classical (and neo-classical) buildings impart authority, through a sensation of overhead weight that registers on you almost subconsciously, as a peripheral awareness, as you cross the threshold to enter. But where had this happened to me before?

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Northeast corner of the Erectheoin, the Acropolis, Athens, 421 – 406 B.C.

Then I realized that what I was relating back to was a kind of sense memory of Delineator, one of the pieces that was in the Richard Serra retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year.

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Delineator, Richard Serra, 1974-1975 — Image: MoMA

Serra has frequently used architecture as a jumping off point for his work. He’s spoken repeatedly of how his Torqued Ellipse series grew out of his encounter with the elliptical interior of Borromini’s Church of the Four Fountains in Rome. So I wondered if the column and pediment forms of Greek architecture might have had anything to do with the origins of Delineator.

It turns out the answer is no. After I got home I tracked down this podcast in which Serra explains that in 1974 he had herniated a couple of disks in his back and been laid up for weeks on a mattress looking up at a cross rafter on the ceiling. He began to think about himself in relation to the space he was occupying. Meanwhile he was also looking a lot at the black cross paintings of Kasimir Malevich. From those inspirations he started to conceive a sculpture that would use perpendiculars to define — delineate — the rectilinear room it occupied.

But Serra’s inspiration and intentions for the piece don’t limit how it resonates with me or anyone else. (Which, as he said to me a few months ago, is fine with him.) Through Delineator I got a sense of overhead form defining space, which I carried with me subliminally to Athens, where it snapped into place underneath a pediment and led me to understand something about how buildings can literally impress their meanings into you.

Class dismissed.

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