Richard Serra at MoMA

I leave the D train and pass ads promoting the fall lineup at CBS – Jimmy Smits looks waxen these days – then emerge onto 6th Avenue where I see a poster of a girl looking down on the city with the tagline “Top of the Rock,” advertising the observation deck at Rockefeller Center. I pass Radio City Music Hall, then turn right on 53rd Street, past MoMA’s stores, on both sides of the street, telling me to “shop modern,” and a set of crowd control gates for Target’s Free Friday. It’s a long wait, but I finally enter the Eli and Edythe Broad Reception Center, also known as the lobby, queue up and stare at a banner reminding me that I can “Join Today and Skip the Line” next to a print of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, more alluring, surely, than any of the posters outside. Phew. Time to sit in the Agnes Gund Gardner Lobby, take notes, and regroup.

I’ve just been hit with a $20 bill for the privilege of seeing the Richard Serra retrospective. Growing up I used to take the commuter train into Grand Central Station on weekends to hang out at the museum, where I saw artwork so important it had its own tote bag. More important to me at the time were the well-bred girls from brand-name schools like Chapin and Brearley sketching the art, and I returned to my middleclass town glowing from a day spent among beautiful people and listening to five different languages. It was a cheap way to gaze into a different world. Now that world’s expensive, and I wonder if any art is worth $20. Yoshio Taniguchi, architect of the museum’s recent expansion, promised that with enough money – more than 800 million dollars in this case – he could make the building itself disappear. He didn’t quite manage it, though he dressed the space in tasteful modern accoutrements, the wall behind me rough and white, in elegant contrast with the smooth black on the other side, both of them floating a fraction of an inch off the floor. To see the steel girders holding up the building would be gosh amid such refinement. One only sees steel as art in a place like this.

I enter the Lillie P Bliss Garden Patio to see Richard Serra’s Intersection II, four curved steel panels like a double parentheses wedged between the trees. The parabola cuts across the checkerboard marble floor like a crude in-law, cracking tiles and staining them with rust. Inside Torqued Ellipse IV I notice sneaker marks, the shadow of tree branches and bird shit speckling the steel. The torqued side is tall enough to create some shade, and I huddle there with other patrons, staring back through the narrow opening as if we’re stuck inside a priest’s collar.

On the second floor, sponsored by Louis Vuitton, Serra’s pieces overwhelm the space as I suppose they’re meant to. People crowd in the corners or queue up to explore the art. I gaze at the undulating curves of Torqued Torus Inversion, the last hump bulging at such an alarming angle I imagine a dyke in the Lower Ninth ward before giving way. Then onto Delineator, where I stand on a piece of steel and look up at the ceiling where another panel is secured perpendicular to it, concerned suddenly about the weight bearing limit of the building’s hidden beams. Not everyone is alarmed. A woman next to me with a Macy’s bag consults a guide book. It’s the first art work I’ve seen that you can stand on and read about at the same time. From the middle of Equal Parallel, where steel stands in rows about four feet high, I can see what looks like the heads of museum-goers rolling by on the other side. Then on to Circuit II, where four steel plates bisect the room like an X, forcing everyone into an odd interaction as if suddenly encountering a four way stop and wondering who should pass first. In the last gallery: a rubber mat folded like half a mobius strip, foreshadowing Serra’s shapes in steel; metal plates now human sized, next to woodblocks, as if the elves in Santa’s workshop just took lunch; and four pieces of lead four feet square leaning against each other. I kneel down by the glass partition and can almost imagine myself inside, impossibly small, looking up at the mammoth walls.