Richard Serra

San Francisco USA 1939, lives and works in New York

The art of Richard Serra clearly stems from the industrial age. Many of his works are made of massive slabs of steel that can have a somewhat intimidating presence. With the steel constructions, one is first reminded of the nineteenth-century feats of architectural engineering: the enormous bridges and skyscrapers which seemed to rise up with great ease due to the new ways of building. The steel foundry became a rewarding motif for realist painters; anything more modern and, at the same time, more inhuman was scarcely conceivable. It is interesting to look at the photographs of Serra’s steel sculptures ‘in the making’ (which he often includes in catalogues) in the context of this tradition, but Serra uses them mainly as a means to consider the process which led to the final product.

A concern for the process emerged in visual art during the late sixties, when Serra was producing his first works. His fascination with the handling of materials can already be discerned in Verb List (1967-1968), a summary of elementary principles and actions: to tear, to cut, to splash and of equilibrium, to name a few. The list defines, as it were, a way of working, which Serra then went on to explore from one work to the next.

Gutter Splash Two Corner Cast, from 1992, is a good illustration of Serra’s process-oriented approach. The splashing was done with molten lead, against the area where the back wall and the floor of the space meet. For the two-corner cast, Serra placed a partition at a forty-five-degree angle in the left corner and then splashed the molten lead into the wedge thus formed. After having produced three wedge-shaped castings in this manner, he shifted the partition to the right corner, where another three castings were made and where the partition finally remained. The castings were placed on the floor in two stacks of three each.

In comparison to works such as these, in which the action is central, the steel sculptures that have been made by Serra since the seventies have a very definite and scarcely process-oriented look. Those works have occasionally given rise to fierce reactions, particularly when situated in the public spaces of cities. The work Terminal, for instance, became the subject of a political battle in Bochum, Germany at the end of the seventies, and after a lengthy debate Serra’s Tilted Arc, on Federal Plaza in New York, was destroyed by the authorities in 1989. Adversaries generally say that Serra’s work makes an environment less, rather than more attractive. Those who admire it argue that Serra has given rise to a new type of beauty with industrial means and that the sculptures, which initially appear to be unwieldy, are actually dynamic and thereby break up the rigidity of the urban environment.

In his steel sculptures, Serra allows the industrial weight to turn into a surprising elegance; it is the very combination of actual unwieldiness and illusory lightness that makes these works successful. In the large drawing Olmec (1989), on the other hand, Serra creates the impression of enormous weight with nothing more than paper and black paintstick. Two pitch-black surfaces, not quite rectangular, seem to collide with each other. The fact that the ‘rectangle’ on the left side reclines, while the one on the right is upright, heightens the visual tension considerably: it is as though two opposing forces are engaged in an all-out struggle. The verb that one could associate with this work is to push. However, the blocks maintain a delicate balance with each other, and again the massiveness turns into Serra’s own form of elegance, which rarely loses its threatening nature altogether.

For more information and audiovisual material on Richard Serra, please visit PBS Art21

listen to interview with Richard Serra on BBC radio