essayist + critic

A Cut-Crease For Richard Serra (Cleveland Review of Books, April 18, 2024)

The word cut-crease is a word for an eyeshadow technique I tried and failed at today, but what it actually sounds like to me is what the two four-ton Richard Serra box cubes in front of me at MoMA are doing, balanced slightly and intentionally askew, one on the other. Cut/Crease. The steal isn’t stainless and it oxidizes on purpose. Makeup oxidizes, we call it “baking,” because of drag queens. At Troy they lined their eyes with kohl to lay more men out to rot on the plains outside the city. Helps with your aim in the sun, apparently. Cut-crease sounds like a deadly thing.

A katana, which is made of a different type of steel than Equality, a late Serra in 2015, now a katana is a literal cut crease. If you throw a piece of fine silk in the air a well-forged katana should be able to slice through it right where gravity makes the fabric fold as it falls. A European steel broadsword, designed for thwacking and stabbing, can’t do this. Steel is a remarkably different medium. Serra knew this. I enjoy the particular promise of a blade that refuses to be a thing that pleases you; that this steel cannot be coy about what it is for. If I were coy, the turn here would be this: I would aestheticize my trauma in a particularly feminine way designed for the consumption of the internet, instead of returning to massive steel assemblages. But I am not some coy mistress. But I do not configure myself for this gaze. But fuck you, then, fuck your gaze. That’s a Richard Serra move right there, the signature Tilted Arc move. Plunk a nearly thirty-seven meter tall rusted steel wall in plaza in the front of the Javits Federal Building and see how you like it. You will all have to live with this insatiable obstacle. It will begin to define you, cutting the plaza in half, folding it. Walk around it, the cut-crease.

For a cut-crease look to work, you need to get a sharp line of eyeshadow right where the hood of the eye folds. Richard Serra was an argumentative guy, apparently. He went to Berkeley in 1961, and then studied art at Yale, presumably at least in part to avoid Vietnam. Nobody that I could find had explicitly asked Serra, in his lifetime, if this constituted trauma, or trauma avoidance, and if he could make the trauma of American imperialism marketable. If his work suggests the monumentality, the heaviness of trauma, it’s because it’s probably also your trauma and not the wall copy telling you it’s his. Whose trauma is at play here is a hybrid enterprise. It’s also (literally) heavy. Things that are measured in tons generally aren’t coy about their heaviness. Giant hunks of steel are not particularly easy to get into galleries, so you’d think they wouldn’t be particularly marketable and yet. At some point, perhaps the point in which he cameos in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 throwing Vaseline, like all superstar artists at some point Richard Serra became his own brand.

There are 3.8 million views for a basic eyeshadow tutorial on YouTube. A cut-crease is a step above basic, maybe two. Serra helped Robert Smithson shape the earth for Spiral Jetty. Step by step—incidentally he had cancer of the left tear duct. Incidentally he could have maybe saved his life if he had had his left eye removed. Remove your left eye, or either of the two, and you’ll distance vision. Serra decided this was unspeakable; he would die an artist (uncut, uncreased). This was not a branding exercise because he really did die and told no one. I didn’t know today standing in MoMA looking at the Equality cubes, that I would walk out and he was likely to be dead. Maybe if you perform yourself so well it’s not a brand anymore, it becomes a kind of wraparound-horseshoe sincerity. Maybe you have to be dead.

Writing on the internet now seems cut in half too: you either make the essay a cool, seamless hull that is unpierceable, ironize even the possibility of your own vulnerability, or sell your trauma. I refuse to do either. The hulls of ships were a secret heart of Serra’s metier; his father was a pipefitter for ships, and he visited the naval yards as a child. You can see this in the way he bends COR-TEN steel, doesn’t just let it hew to its natural straightness. The Matter of Time, made for the Guggenheim Bilbao from 1994-2005, is also bent, almost circular, nested arcs, the line of the lash as you open your eye to the world. COR-TEN steel is called “weathering steel” not because it is entirely resistant to rust, but because even with rust, it better survives atmospheric conditions. You will find it in reinforced concrete; in highways and skyscrapers. The use of COR-TEN steel began in the 1930s, lasted through the second World War and its implements, but afterward, it could be argued, COR-TEN became the material enabler of the postwar built imagination. Serra’s sculptures feel like world-building partly because they are, partial radians of future skyscraper hemispheres, pre-traced out. They make material of what is otherwise often ineffable. And the lines where The Matter of Time stops, where the arcs and curves cease to be continuous; this is not a waterproofed hull. This is not invulnerable. There is a cut, an open edge to the air, a hulking perfect unsutured line of a wound.

We like to say Serra is architectural, which means he thinks a lot about mass and space and light, which any sculptor in theory does, but I think it’s the scale with Serra, as well as the COR-TEN, that prompts this word. I had aspired to an architectural, compass-point precision with eye-shadow, which is what a cut-crease look requires. We are all, long after Le Corbusier, whining constantly about the scale of the body and the structure and the body again. I smell the steel box cubes. The smell of steel is a little like blood, it has iron in it, that kind of hard tang after-scent. I want to lay my cheek on them, but I can’t because this is a museum, and because they will oxidize and they aren’t makeup and you shouldn’t “bake” them like foundation. Anyway I assume no one’s trauma is neat or precise or architectural. But we sell it like it is; there’s even a formula, as if it has an edge to it to be damaged somehow. Remember though, Serra intentionally let his steel look weathered. Does it make Serra’s steel better that it is rusted rather than stainless? More rugged somehow, more “real”?

During the installation of one of his early works, the rigging instructions were not followed for the giant hunks of steel. A piece of Serra’s work dropped and killed a man. Cut. I have to assume he thought about it. Did he die thinking about it? Probably not. It isn’t suited to that kind of monumentality, to account death so individually. Did they bury him in winding cloths? Serra, not the man who died. He doesn’t seem like a fabric person, but what if it was one of those emergency aluminum blankets but made of steel instead of aluminum? You couldn’t wrap it hot around the body, it would vaporize. But if it were pre-formed, creased…

Density is also a Serra thing. You can see it in his works on paper, which for their smallness are less popular than the monumental sculptural installations. They are almost all dense masses of black, made of etching ink and silica. Etching can be finer than the human eye; you can detail it with a loupe, the eye’s extension, a lens set in a stainless steel holder. The delicacy with which you hold an etching needle, in my experience, feels much like holding an eyeshadow brush, but also a scalpel. Of drawing, Serra writes that it “is a verb” and offers a long list from 1967 in his elegant, looping script, now kept in the MoMA collection. The first three: “to roll, to crease, to fold.”  A little later: “to cut, to sever, to drop”. I draw the cut crease on the lid of my eye; I perform and do not perform my required feminine delicacy. I will not dress it up in puff sleeves and pastels and sell it to the pre-formed click and scroll gaze. It lives in the dense heart of the crossed over etched lines, in the difficulty of bending a single plate. Serra once broke a “40-foot plate two inches thick right in half” before the compression technology existed at steel mills to do this more easily. 

A 1-1/2 inch thick A588 COR-TEN steel plate that is four feet wide and eight feet across costs $10,585.60. Is this my price? A Sandy Liang ‘co pilot pinafore dress’—a cross between a schoolgirl and the Navy—costs $750. A Lethal Cosmetics Wildflower Palette which contains the three shades I am wearing in the failed cut-crease costs $52, before shipping. Would you like me better if I said I also cost this instead? If I pretended to have an aestheticized lack of agency, or a false innocence? If I claimed the performance of my femininity was a self-inoculating irony? When I sat on the floor with Serra’s cube-boxes at MoMA, I didn’t know I would get on the train and come home and find out he was no longer alive. It didn’t matter. COR-TEN weathering steel has a longevity of up to 120 years depending on climate. It does not care, in giant implacable hunks, about anything except being mass, being form. It performs itself but is not performative. Who doesn’t want that?

But look: Richard Serra is dead. Richard Serra is dead, and I am wearing eyeshadow in a classically femme colorway, and I will not perform a stylish trauma to sell myself on the internet. But look: I want tons of molten steel right now. I want to stand again next to the cooled mass, carefully placed to show difference, to make a tiny precipice, to make an arc of a wound in the pre-built world, to imagine otherwise with such magnitude it is almost offensive—to cut, and to crease.