“Four Rounds” is located on the other side of the nearly 300-acre campus from the museum’s arrivals hall. From the entrance, two winding paths lead to the new attraction. Hikers taking the hillier route to the left pass Serra’s “Contour 290,” a towering 2004 steel curve that curves around a grove of trees. (“290” refers to the elevation in feet above sea level.) Those who keep to the right are likely to encounter the 2001 “Sylvester,” a massive steel spiral with twisted walls that allows people to walk a slightly troubling path to the crooked but quiet center .
“Four Rounds” has a lot in common with these earlier pieces. All three are large and sturdy, but apparently battered, with rusty patinas reminiscent of abandoned industrial objects. (An influence on 83-year-old Serra’s rugged aesthetic is the work his father did at a California shipyard.) But where “Contour 290” is softened by its placement in nature and “Sylvester” a playful funhouse quality has, “Four Rounds” is regular, sober and aloof.
The four steel cylinders are contained in a cast-in-place concrete box designed in collaboration with Serra by Thomas Phifer (also the architect of Glenstone’s four-year-old pavilions). Although the building is located just off the museum’s rural Woodland Trail—where a black snake was seen on a boardwalk two days after the Serra structure opened on June 23—it is connected to the landscape only by a single entrance and white glass skylights that diffuse the sunlight. “Four Rounds” was weathered outside to produce its rusted red-and-black surfaces, but it’s meant to be seen inside.
Like other recent pieces in Serra’s “Equal Weight, Unequal Measure” series, “Four Rounds” can be seen as a return to the sculptor’s origins in process art, a movement of artists who valued the procedures of object making. then the final result. “The meaning of the work is in the effort, not in the intentions,” the sculptor once said.
Each of the solid rounds is 82 tons, which is not an arbitrary number. It is the maximum weight possible at the foundry that fabricated the pieces and thus an essential limitation of the process. The cylinders are literally as big as they can be.
Despite having the same weight and shape, each of the four fabrications has a different height and circumference. Totality is a study in solid geometry, showing the different ways in which an almost identical thing can be made different. More than one quartet could have been conceived, but four is a sufficient illustration of the principle. Each is different from the other, yet equal.
This theoretical point is intriguing, but less captivating than the pockmarked patinas that also distinguish the four round shapes. As arranged here, the cylinders can be walked through and around. But they don’t offer as complex a spatial experience as ‘Sylvester’ or other Serra spiral ellipses. Perhaps that’s why the artist has indicated that “Four Rounds” should be exhibited indoors; the relatively small amount of space around the pieces adds drama to the gallery visitor’s encounter with them.
Regardless of the importance of the process to Serra, arranging and defining the space is clearly central to the sculptor’s work. In the 1970s he studied Zen Buddhist temples and gardens in Kyoto, and the interiors of his spiral pieces have a meditative quality. This affinity makes Serra an ideal artist for Glenstone, whose buildings and pathways are so carefully integrated into the landscape. In this nature-focused museum, Serra’s sculptures are machine behemoths in the garden.
Richard Serra: Four rounds: equal weight, unequal size
Glenstone Museum, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac. 301-983-5001. glenstone.org. The Serra Pavilion is open Thursday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm
dates: On permanent sight.
Recognition: Free, but advance booking is generally required. Visitors must be over 12 years old. Those arriving via the Ride On bus No. 301 do not need to make a reservation.