“I don't understand why they have to touch it." This passing comment was directed toward a young girl who brushed her hand against the rust-red, corroded surface of Richard Serra's Intersection II, on display in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I overheard it as I was circumambulating the behemoth object (more than 12 feet tall and weighing many, many tons) and, museum rule-breaking aside, I couldn't disagree more.
More tactile than aesthetic, the primary appeal of sculpture is that it is exists three-dimensionally, sharing space with us. All its qualities—texture, weight, shape—announce that it is physically present. This arouses the senses in ways that paintings and other two-dimensional art cannot readily duplicate. The impulse to touch is an inescapable side effect of sculpture. Moreover, the most successful sculpture demands such a response. Serra's work certainly does.
Incredibly imposing, Serra's sculptures block everything else out. Your line of vision narrows to encompass just the object, you and the novelty of being in each other's environment. Walking through the narrow corridors of Sequence, a curlicued figure 8 made from sheets of weatherproof steel, I felt bombarded by the materiality of the work. The giant structure muffles sound, limits your vision, and affects equilibrium. Its “walls" curve and tilt in unexpected ways, and cause you to feel unsteady on your feet, like a sailor without sea legs.
The physical tension created by the sculptures isn’t just a matter of size either. As I passed alongside House of Cards and Prop, works made on a slightly more human scale, I had the foolish (considering that each of these weighs at least a ton) urge to exert my physical will on them—bring that house of cards down with a swipe of my hand or unpin the steel sheet propped against the wall. It is a testament to the artist’s skill that such dead weight appears so malleable.
The Serra exhibition left me pondering many things—the ironic appropriateness of such super-sized sculptures in contemporary culture; how cumbersome materials can impart such grace. But question the urge to touch? Not at all.