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Sculptor Celebrated for Steel Artwork

August 8, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, an artist who builds big and thinks big. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some visitors are turning circles; others do the wave. Adults stare in wonder; children explore with pleasure. The monumental steel sculptures of Richard Serra are impossible to take in from any one vantage point. Instead, they seem to invite people to walk around, in, and through.

They’re on display in an exhibition celebrating 40 years of Serra’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

RICHARD SERRA, Sculptor: The piece is composed of two torqued spirals that are connected by an interior serpentine passage.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Serra, the idea of this sculpture, called “Sequence,” and all his art, is to create what he calls a “personal experience in a public space.”

RICHARD SERRA: Here the content doesn’t reside in the work. It resides in you. You’re the subject matter. Your…

JEFFREY BROWN: My experience.

RICHARD SERRA: Your experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: So stop here, because we’re walking, but it’s a little hard to convey the sense of the experience here. I mean, it is…

RICHARD SERRA: It may be disorienting.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is disorienting, because we have this leaning down on us.

RICHARD SERRA: Leaning away from you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is leaning away, but then right over there it’s leaning back at us.

RICHARD SERRA: Then, as you take five more steps, the whole thing is going to reverse itself and it’s going to lean in a different direction completely. You become implicated in the space. And you’re implicated in the passage. And your movement is kind of coordinated to how the piece leans away from you or towards you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think of part of the idea of the piece is my experience of walking through it?

RICHARD SERRA: Yes, here your experience spatially is the content and the subject matter.

Three huge new sculptures

JEFFREY BROWN: "Sequence" is one of three huge new sculptures made specifically for this exhibition, along with "Band" and "Torqued Torus Inversion." The planning and designing for these pieces begins in Serra's lower Manhattan studio...

RICHARD SERRA: What is it now? It's...

ALLEN GLATTER, Serra's Assistant: Thirty-nine inches.

RICHARD SERRA: Oh, that's close. We can live with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... where he works with his longtime assistant, Allen Glatter, on the computer and making models.

RICHARD SERRA: So the piece that you saw today in the museum, which this is a model of, the form on the top, the board on the top, is the same as the board on the bottom, only turned to a right angle. And as it rises in elevation, the radius doesn't change. It doesn't sound like a significant thing to have done, but in the history of form-making, it had never happened before.

JEFFREY BROWN: The actual construction occurs at a factory in Germany, with Serra overseeing the details. Serra has been around steel and large-scale projects all his life. He was born in 1939 in San Francisco, where his father worked in the shipyards. Serra himself worked in steel mills to earn money for college.

The sculptures he's created in recent decades grew from ideas that began in school at the University of California, and in graduate school at Yale, and while living in Europe for several years. He decided in the spirit of experimentation of the '60s that the key to creating new forms in art was to come up with new ways, or processes, of making art.

He set about this quite methodically: In 1967, he drew up a list of verbs to describe the things one could do with materials in space.

RICHARD SERRA: A list of verbs, like to cut, to roll, to form, to curve, to lean, to prop...

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was the idea?

RICHARD SERRA: Just to take a material and, in relation to a procedure, see what would happen. Now, you could go through a lot of different variations. Let me show you one. If you look at a piece like this, one of the verbs was called "to lift."

JEFFREY BROWN: To lift?

RICHARD SERRA: Yes, and I had a piece of rubber. It was about maybe eight or ten feet long. It was about four feet wide. I took it on its edge, and I simply lifted it up. And I wondered if that was enough to sustain itself as a work of art.

And because it had a continuous inside and outside surface, and it free stood, and it really was an exposition of the activity of lifting, I thought, "I can put my name on that." I really wanted to invent my own procedures for making what I thought could be considered a work of art.

Creating new experiences

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the viewer could, and still can, decide if he or she agrees with Serra, but for him it was about creating new forms and experiences. He cut, twisted, and hung industrial rubber to create a series of "belts," an attempt, he says, to redo a Jackson Pollock painting in three dimensions.

In his so-called "prop pieces," Serra formed lead plates, each weighing about 250 pounds, into precarious "house of cards" constructions, with no fixed joints or welding. Friends like composer Philip Glass helped put them together.

At the museum, these pieces are behind Plexiglas to make doubly sure of the safety of visitors and the pieces themselves.

I have to ask you, did it fall over when you were trying to figure all this out?

RICHARD SERRA: Several times. But...

JEFFREY BROWN: That's pretty serious when it falls over.

RICHARD SERRA: It was very serious. I remember one day a big truck went by and eight pieces went over, and we had to stand them all back up. And these pieces are where people were musicians, who were very clear that they didn't want to lose fingers. But we were young, and we were full of ourselves, and we had a lot of energy, and they helped me build these pieces.

JEFFREY BROWN: The work grew larger. In "Circuit II," four large steel plates stand free. Remarkably, they're held up and fixed in place only by the corners of the four walls.

Did you used to play with blocks as a kid? I mean, did you like this notion of, "Let me see what I can make stand up"?

RICHARD SERRA: I used to try to stand up pieces of paper to see how -- just take a flat piece of paper and see how much I can touch it to make it stand. But these are really free-standing. I think people come here, and they don't really realize what's going on.

Past controversy over Serra's work

JEFFREY BROWN: In the '80s, Serra famously had to deal with a public storm over his sculpture "Tilted Arc." The 120-foot-long curved steel wall was commissioned by the federal government for the plaza of a courthouse in Manhattan. When some office workers complained it ruined the plaza, the government decided to remove and destroy the sculpture. Serra sued, but lost.

Today, that very loud controversy seems far away, and Serra's work can be found in public spaces around the world: "Torqued Ellipses" at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the "Charlie Brown" sculpture in San Francisco; cubes, curves, and walls in a variety of settings indoors and out.

Do you like this, the putting it together and see if it works and see if it's...

RICHARD SERRA: I like all of it. I like it from its inception to its completion to my responsibility in talking to you. I think all of it is part of what I do, and I try to focus on all of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whole process, from the wood, to the small models, to the next model, to Germany.

RICHARD SERRA: Yes, but this is how it begins. It always begins with models. And what we try to do and what we're really involved with is invention of form and experimenting with form. And that's what I've always been involved with.

Complicated shipping, assembly

JEFFREY BROWN: It's no small feat to present an exhibition of Serra's works. The sculpture "Sequence," for example, is shipped in 12 large plates and reassembled on site. The whole thing weighs some 243 tons.

Several years ago, in fact, when the Museum of Modern Art was undergoing a major expansion, officials made sure to strengthen its second floor to accommodate a hoped-for Serra exhibition.

RICHARD SERRA: I think what artists do, and they'll continue to do it, is they invent their own procedures. Because if you're going to use the tools of another master, you're never going to be able to deconstruct his house. You're not going to be able to use the same tools if you want to do your own original work. And I think every generation has to find its own tools and own procedures. And I think what's interesting about art is that unexpected youth will take it somewhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the current exhibition, people are reaching out to touch Richard Serra's creations and taking an unusual walk for their own new experience.