Richard Serra at the Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis had special programming on Saturday, but there was time before it began to look at the exhibits and stroll the grounds. Joe, evidently named for Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., sits in a courtyard down a flight of stairs. The sculpture, one of Richard Serra’s “Torqued Spirals,” is a 125-ton swirl of Cor-ten steel with a patina of protective rust, like a 14-foot high cinnamon roll.

The Guggenheim Bilbao describes similar work by Serra, which “emphasizes the process of its fabrication, characteristics of materials, and an engagement with viewer and site. […] Relieved of its symbolic role, freed from the traditional pedestal, and introduced into the real space of the viewer, [this kind of sculpture offers] a new relationship to the spectator whose phenomenological experience of an object became crucial to its meaning.” Viewers are “encouraged to move around—and sometimes on, in, or through—the works,” which “capture a rare sense of motion and instability.” They “provoke a dizzying sensation of steel and space in motion.”

St. Louis has two other Serra sculptures. One is on the Gateway Mall, a one-block wide green space that runs for 20 blocks from the Gateway Arch to Union Station. The sculpture, called Twain, “required something new from its viewers: participation and a spirit of curiosity,” The St. Louis government website says. “Many in the community were wary of Serra’s design, which was neither commemorative nor ornate in a traditional sense.” (With some imagination, the eight panels might be the prow of a boat, pointed toward the Mississippi.) It has always provoked resistance. At one point it was defaced to look like dominoes; another time, someone spray-painted “La Grand Pissoir” on it, for the homeless who used the park. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, widow of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., was on the committee that commissioned Serra to make Twain, originally just called Quadrilateral, and lamented that long-term funding was not allocated to care for the sculpture’s surroundings.

The other Serra sculpture is at the St. Louis Art Museum. It is titled To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted and is embedded in the asphalt of Fine Arts Drive.

A friendly young docent stationed outside Joe encouraged us to walk inside the sculpture. A gravel path led through the thick steel plates. They rose on both sides of us, undulated, and curved to an unseen center. I felt like an ant in a flower. The astonishing thing was how something that industrial, cold, and massive could seem so organic and even sensuous. Those who like to say modern art is nothing because they could make it themselves would have to reconsider here. Thinking about it only provides more mystery—the funding of it, the light touch of the sculptor, the massive forces that forged, shaped, and transported it.

My son and I emerged in Joe’s center, a little round courtyard with the blue sky overhead. Shadows made complicated arcs on the steel and gravel. An older couple was already there.

The man and I were trying to take photos of our loved ones. Finally we did each other the courtesy of taking photos of the other two. But there was something unusual about the man’s almost proprietary insistence of where my son and I should pose for best effect, as if he had considered the sculpture’s interplay with light over time. He was obsessive in how he framed the shot of us with my phone. I realized I did not remember what Serra looks like, or if he was even still alive. I asked the man, only half-jokingly, if he was an art photographer so that I should cherish the photo he took of us. He smiled and said he was “just a retired coot.” In the end it did not matter; Joe was not made more special by who went to visit it, and the snapshot of me with my son was not less cherished. The sculpture alone is a little mystery worth a drive in from Springfield, Braggadocio, or Chicago.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.