Richard Serra, “Sequence”
SFMOMA, Cantor Arts Center, LACMA
This week, SFMOMA released additional renderings of its eminent expansion including new views of the interior. Snohetta (the chic, Norwegian architects) and SFMOMA haven’t been apologetic or really skirted the issue about plans to basically gut the entire existing building, keeping only Mario Botta’s postmodern façade. Climbing SFMOMA’s imposing stairs is literally my first memory of being in a museum. As a kid, I tried to recreate the alternating bands of polished and flame-finished black granite of these stairs with a set of sleek dominoes on my living room floor. A friend and I lamented the demise of Botta’s staircase the last time we visited SFMOMA and we brainstormed potential artist projects that might utilize the soon-to-be-dismantled stairs. (The SFMOMA expansion is going to be LEED Certified so maybe some of the black stone will be reclaimed.)
Alas, the released images show all of this will be eliminated in the expansion, sacrificed for the sake of greater street presence and improved openness to pedestrian traffic flow. (The $555 million expansion will also double the current amount of gallery space, so there is that.) New public space includes a multi-storied, glass-fronted gallery open to Howard Street. In the renderings, this gallery space is filled with a massive Richard Serra corten-steel sculpture. This isn’t just a filler “scalie” artwork; Serra’s Sequence (2006) will be installed in the new space when the Snohetta expansion opens in 2016. Sequence is part of the Fisher collection, the donors who generous donated many buckets of ducats for the expansion, and who are kinda-sorta donating their incomparable trove of contemporary art to the museum.
This is not the first time Sequence has been utilized to showcase the soaring heights and floor-to-ceiling windows of a museum expansion. Back in 2008, Sequence was installed at LACMA to inaugurate the new BCAM building. It was paired with another Serra sculpture, Band (2006), which was purchased by LACMA with funds provided by the Broad Art Foundation. Band still anchors one half of the ground floor of BCAM. Sequence was moved out in 2011, to make room for, among other things, Chris Burden’s wildly popular Metropolis II. In 2008, Sequence was on loan to LACMA from Serra and was fresh off a Serra retrospective at MOMA. Since then, the Fishers acquired Sequence, de-installed it at LACMA and devised big plans for the big artwork.
Before the SFMOMA expansion opens, Sequence is on loan to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. The sculpture is a spectacular temporary addition to the outdoor installations at the Cantor. The installation at Stanford also presents a window of opportunity to experience Sequence in an outside setting. When it was installed in BCAM there were complaints about the massive work being scrunched into a space (that while big) was too small to accommodate it. The installation in BCAM reminded me of the scene in Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home where Captain Kirk and crew squeeze a pair of humpback whales into a Klingon Bird-Of-Prey starship (yes, I just made that reference).
Others pointed out that Sequence is inherently meant to be an outdoor installation, so the installation in BCAM somehow muted or diminished the work. If meandering through Sequence indoors is a magical experience, than it is made all the more magical and richer when situated outside. Instead of the even lighting of a gallery, outside, your eyes have to rapidly and sometimes violently adjust to changing light conditions of dark shadow and glaring sun as you perambulate the work. Instead of a climate-controlled white cube, outside your body feels weirdly cold-blooded being subjected to alternating hot and cold. The cacophonous sounds of your footsteps and the echoes of others’ breaths race and swell as you walk through small tunnels and into large openings. Even the cold, metallic smell and taste of the oxidized corten steel are augmented in the outdoor setting. The effect of disorientation is not lessened but amplified in the outdoor installation because you catch both glimpses of blue sky and quick peeks of the surrounding architecture. An additional benefit of the installation at the Cantor is the ability to view Sequence from on high from the vantage point of the Cantor’s large balcony—a way to retrace one’s circuitous experience inside the work. This is not possible in a space with even 25-foot tall ceilings. If I’ve waxed poetically about this for so long, it is because Sequence outside, at the Cantor, is a must-see / must-hear / must-smell / must-taste / much-feel experience. It won’t be the same when it gets installed at SFMOMA.
P.S. Extra snaps to the Cantor for commissioning a group of students to document the herculean task of installing Sequence, and creating such a beautiful video.