Richard Serra at Centro de Arte Reina Sofia: Modern Art Sculpture’s Return to Madrid Museum

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia first commissioned the piece from American master sculptor Serra in 1986.

Artwork Disappearance

It is a curiosity that Serra’s works have been at the centre of two rather sensational, mainstream press stories in recent years: first, his unsuccessful legal battle to keep his commission Tilted Arc (1981) in New York’s Federal Plaza against disgruntled federal employees’ wishes; then there was the bemusing announcement in 2006 by Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia that they had managed to misplace the 38-ton Equal Parallel: Guernica Bengasi.

What at first glance appears to be a matter of stultifying carelessness was actually more complex: the massive four-piece steel sculpture had been in warehouse storage since 1990. Its disappearance was only revealed in 2006 when the MNCARS decided to put it back on display and found to their abiding chagrin that the large-scale art storage company entrusted with the work had been placed in receivership and the sculpture lost in the ensuing chaos.

Serra Sculpture Replaced

In 2009, Equal Parallel: Guernica Bengasi finally reappeared at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia: after prolonged negotiations with the museum, Richard Serra agreed to recreate the piece for permanent display in a dedicated gallery. The museum transformed its former library into a spectacular light-filled hall for the piece, where it has been on exhibit since its unveiling in February 2009.

Meaning in Minimalism

Equal Parallel is typical of Richard Serra’s work in several aspects. Fashioned of his trademark COR-TEN steel, the sculpture consists of four horizontal slabs – two sets of one large, one smaller. The sets are arranged in a manner that shifts perspective as the viewer moves toward, through and past the work: like an optical illusion, the heights of the slabs relative to each other seem to shift depending on perspective. This creation of a unique abstract space, with its own apparent properties, is also typical of Serra’s work.

The abstract, minimalist nature of the sculpture, however, is challenged by the provocative title. Serra started work on the commission just days after the US bombing of the Libyan port of Bengasi in 1986. In this work of shifting power perspectives, the artist deftly – and explicitly – draws the parallel between Bengasi, target of an arbitrary retaliatory air strike in the conflict between the US and Middle Eastern terrorists, and Guernica, the Basque town destroyed by the Nazi Luftwaffe at General Franco’s behest during the Spanish Civil War.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

In the process, Equal Parallel self-consciously references another work housed at MNCARS – Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (oil on canvas, 1937), perhaps the most famous and most important modern Spanish painting, and arguably the single most influential artistic statement on the politics of violence and terror.

Just as Picasso with Guernica defied his earlier "ars gratia artis" stance in Modernism's pursuit of pure form to embrace social responsibility, with Equal Parallel, Serra defies the austerity of Minimalism in the same vein. Rarely has such minimalist art been imbued with such weight of meaning.