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Museum pieces
Richard Serra and Donald Judd at the MFA

Welcome to Boston, Alberta Chu. This documentary filmmaker relocated from LA last year, and her newly completed Seeing the Landscape: Richard Serra’s Tuhirangi Contour, one cool making-of-an-art-piece movie, screens January 29 and 31 at the MFA, with the filmmaker present on both occasions. This is a fascinating look at a major American artist, Richard Serra, who has created site-specific environmental works all over the world. His task here is to make something great and wonderful, of beauty and monumental scale, that will meld with the rolling hills and the verdant land of the Farm, a privately owned sculpture park deep in agrarian New Zealand. The Farm’s owner is at the center of the tale: Alan Gibbs, a New Zealand zillionaire business mogul who has the macho charisma to run a sports empire and the thick neck of a George Steinbrenner or a Donald Trump. Who can help wondering (the financial arrangements are off-limits for this documentary) what Serra was paid to travel to New Zealand multiple times over five years to be there for the design and construction of his artwork. Manny Ramirez bucks?

After pacing the land countless times, Serra decided on something that would be consistent with the curvy lines of the landscape: a huge winding wall across the terrain, 875 feet long, 20 feet high. To me, it’s reminiscent of Christo’s Running Fence, a temporary curtain that in the 1970s stretched miles across rural California. But Serra’s wall — the "Tuhirangi Contour" — would be permanent. It would have to be made, he said, of steel.

"Richard and I have a nice combatative relationship. We both have big egos," Gibbs tells the camera. Off camera, employee and employer battle furiously about the material for the wall; Gibbs wants something cheaper, lighter, more manageable. A stubborn Serra prevails, and after a global search, a shop is located in Germany where mammoth steel plates can be constructed and sent by New Zealand by ship. Trip one: the ship’s captain stacks the plates 20 high, and they tumble over and break. A whole year is lost rebuilding them. At last, 650 tons of steel are dumped in Kaipara, New Zealand, to be lifted high, thrust 30 feet into the ground into a concrete foundation, and joined to form a wall. Filmmaker Chu used time-lapse photography to bring us the months and months of building in a few sublime seconds. Voilà! It’s up! The wall rusts into a beautiful auburn, and sheep graze happily below it. "I think it’s magic," says Gibbs, a satisfied customer.

More art documentaries will be shown at the MFA in February. Veteran San Francisco filmmaker Christopher Felver will make a first-time visit for a small retrospective. He’s well known for The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (February 1), his amiable 1996 homage to the Bay Area’s poet-in-residence, and he has a 2003 feature, Cecil Taylor: All the Notes (January 31), about the legendary free-style jazz pianist. But the works I previewed feature renowned artists declaiming to Felver’s video camera.

The most provocative of these is the 1998 Donald Judd’s Marfa Texas (February 21 and 26), which tells us how in the 1970s the Big Apple–based minimalist, one of the shakers of the downtown scene, made the startling move to a one-light burg in southern Texas. Rejecting the rules of the metropolitan art world, where exhibitions drift in and out, Judd opted for a sedate place in which his art could rest permanently. In Marfa, he gutted the insides of a bunch of buildings (most of them from an abandoned Army base), made some changes to the outsides, then filled the insides with his art pieces, including the famous Judd boxes. Judd’s revolutionary edict: the inside and outside are all one, complementing each other. You should never walk inside a Judd-rehabbed Marfa building and be surprised by the interior. As for the exteriors, Judd respected, and built on, what he found: decent, pragmatic, American architecture. His Marfa architectural constructs are holistic, defiantly modernist.

An on-camera interview with Judd is threaded through the documentary, with the white-bearded artist, at age 64, alternately pompous and humorous. But he seems in great health, so it’s shocking — I forgot he’s gone! — to see the newspaper headline "Donald Judd, Dead at 65."

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@world.std.com


Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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