Richard Serra, whose downtown sculpture “Twain” has evoked strong opinions from St. Louis area residents for 35 years, may soon have a major piece at another prominent location here.
The St. Louis Art Museum is seeking approvals to install a Serra at its entrance just behind “The Apotheosis of St. Louis,” the bronze statue depicting King Louis IX, the city’s namesake.
Don’t worry, Serra haters, this one isn’t nearly as conspicuous as the eight, giant steel slabs that fill a city block on the Gateway Mall. In fact, Serra’s “To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted” has been installed in the area before. More than once.
“It’s not ‘Twain,’” said Art Museum spokesman Matthew Hathaway, referring to the downtown sculpture. “The profile, like I said, it’s embedded in the street.”
The artwork planned for the Art Museum, which basically looks like a circle with a 26-foot diameter, will be planted in Fine Arts Drive, flush with the pavement, so it won’t serve as an obstruction to motorists or pedestrians.
Originally installed by Serra at an intersection in the Bronx in 1970, the artwork was acquired by local collectors Jan and Ronald Greenberg, who had it at their home from 1973 through 1978. The Greenbergs then lent it to Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis County until they gifted it to the Art Museum in 1984.
The Art Museum had it installed in the parking lot at the south entrance of the museum. It was removed in 2008 when the museum began construction of the East Building and placed in storage.
Brent Benjamin, the Art Museum’s director, said Monday that Serra was “the most important living sculptor in America” and noted that the piece proposed for Forest Park is “his first major outdoor sculpture.” The museum has checked with Serra, and “this is the site he would prefer,” Benjamin said.
St. Louis has had ties to Serra and his minimalist work for nearly 50 years thanks to the influence of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the late editor and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and his widow, Emily Rauh Pulitzer. Joseph Pulitzer commissioned one of Serra’s first site-specific works at his home in 1970.
Mrs. Pulitzer, a former Art Museum curator and noted patron of the arts, was among members of the committee that selected Serra’s work for the Gateway Mall. And Serra’s other well-known St. Louis work, “Joe,” was commissioned for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, the private museum she built in Grand Center.
“Joe enabled me to do what I wanted to do, and as much as I wanted it to happen, he was the catalyst necessary to make it happen,” Serra recalled in a 1988 lecture at Harvard University.
The torqued spiral of “Joe” at the Pulitzer museum has been better received than “Twain,” which was the object of derision by the now-defunct Globe-Democrat newspaper, among others.
The downtown artwork, Serra’s first permanent, site-specific public sculpture, was once defaced to look like dominoes.
Homeless people often slept within it. Those who seek to shield illegal or revealing activities have done so within the partial enclosure.
Vandals in 1985 painted “La Grand Pissoir” on the slabs, which roughly translates to “the big urinal.”
Some of that jocularity resurfaced Monday at a hearing to review the project.
“Would it be possible to bury all the Serra sculptures?” quipped St. Louis Preservation Board Chairman Richard Callow.
A seldom-invoked city rule directs the Preservation Board to review construction in the public right-of-way.
Jokes aside, they recommended the project move ahead, though it still needs approval from at least one more city board.
It’s still not clear when the piece will be installed. Engineering work has just started, and there are only a couple of narrow windows when Fine Arts Drive can be closed for construction without disrupting events within Forest Park.
And while a donor has expressed interest in paying for the installation — so no public Zoo-Museum District funds will be used — a final price tag still isn’t clear. When it is, the museum has to make sure the donor is still up for covering the bill.
Who is the donor? The Art Museum isn’t saying.