Declaring, Defining, Dividing Space: A Conversation with Richard Serra

Union of the Torus and the Sphere, 2001. Weatherproof steel, 142 x 447 x 125 in.
Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

“Richard Serra: Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres,” the artist’s most extensive exhibition of major sculpture in New York since his 1986 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, took place last fall at the Gagosian Gallery. The exhibition demonstrated once again that Serra is one of the major artists of our time.

Jonathan PeyserMany of the sculptures in this show are made to be entered. Why?

Richard Serra: After I built the prop pieces in the late ’60s, I decided to open up the continuum of space. I wanted to remove the work from the limitations of the object, or the definition of the specific object, as articulated by Donald Judd and Minimalism, which remained predicated on a gestalt reading. Having decided that, I then had to find a way of doing it. I built a piece for Jasper Johns, about 1970, with a small plate that I was using as a template to splash against. I placed the plate in the corner and realized that it was freestanding. Then I took a single 8-by-24-foot plate and just let it bisect the corner of a room (Strike, 1971), which divided and declared the space. You had to walk around the room to see the piece. You could not separate the perception of the piece from its site or, in a more general sense, from the continuum of space. Once I installed Strike, I decided that I might as well take four plates and bisect the four corners of a room. The result was Circuit, built for Documenta in 1972 from four 8-by-24-foot plates with an open central core. Once you stepped into the room, you were in the volume of the piece. After these installations, axiomatically propping elements and creating constructions that were precariously balanced but did not allow you to enter became less of an issue. Declaring, defining, and dividing the space became the principle that I continue to work with. The context became crucial.

JPWas there any historic precedent that led you to this notion of having people participate by being able to walk through the art?

RS: No. Those causalities never occurred to me. I simply found that with prop pieces such as House of Cards (1969), but particularly with the wall props in Castelli’s “Warehouse” show in 1968, where there was a lot of propping overhead to hold up what was underneath, the viewer had to maintain his distance from the pieces and could only relate to them perceptually. I wanted to break that distance and create works that you could walk into, through, and around, to open up the field. I thought it would lead to a different kind of experience, and I tried to find a way to articulate that.

Strike: To Roberta and Rudy, 1969.
Hot rolled steel, 96 x 288 x 1 in. Photo: Peter Moore.

JPWhat qualities or features of your sculptures compel us to react as we pass through them?

RS: I was in Kyoto maybe 35 years ago, at the beginning of the ’70s. Looking at the temple gardens I found that they reveal themselves only by walking—nothing really happens without movement, which becomes the very basis of perception. Being in Kyoto was very different from being in Florence and looking at Piero della Francesca. Renaissance space is constructed by centralizing the focus. In the temple gardens of Kyoto the field is open, and your participation, observation, and concentration are based on movement, looking is inseparable from walking. The essential difference is not only the protracted time of looking, but the fact that you, your relationship to the objects perceived, become the subject of perception. Once I began to understand that this was a different kind of experience defined by an essentially different relation of viewer to object—in that you, the viewer, are the subject relating to an object in time and space—it shifted the focus for me. It sounds like a small thing, but I think it was primary for my development. I came back and built a piece for the Pulitzers (Pulitzer Piece, 1971) that extended over three or four acres and was based on walking and looking in relation to a shifting horizon. That development in my work would not have occurred if I had not been in Kyoto.

JP: I’ve been reading about the notion of bodily perception. Is this what you mean?

RS: My Kyoto discovery coincided with my reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who talks about how your body grasps space in relation to time and how the body becomes the measure of your perceptions. He offered another analytical tool for breaking the frontal/parallel orientation of Minimalism. That said, I also have to say that for me Judd was an enormous figure. He was probably the artist who best digested Barnett Newman and as a result did the most empowering work, albeit still coming out of a gestalt planar reading. I found the gestalt reading of a confined specific object in a room to be a great limitation. I needed to open that space up and find a way of entering into, through, and around it.

JP: Your sculptures also feel communal. One frequently meets other viewers exploring the interior corridors. What do you think elicits this response?

RS: That’s really hard for me to explain because I didn’t anticipate the kind of response that occurred with the torqued ellipses. Up to that point there had been a lot of aggression or hostility toward the work, the kind of bashing that you get for doing something that people find overbearing or threatening. While the Dia show was up, I found people going back to the same piece several times, and I found another kind of collective or shared experience. All I knew was that when we built these pieces in the shipyard, the workers who first saw them finished were startled by them and kept going back inside. I think the ellipses provided an experience that they hadn’t had before, neither in nature nor in architecture. It was new for them, and they wanted to figure out exactly what that experience was. You don’t need to be educated in the history of sculpture to respond to work like this, because the understanding is basically behavioral and experiential. Even though everyone’s experience is different given what they bring to it, on a very basic level those experiences have the potential of connecting and understanding. I watched a woman being helped out of her wheelchair to slowly walk into one of the ellipses and touch the walls. Things like that made me feel that there was something that people related to that was different in kind, if not quality, to the work that I’d made before, but I have no way of explaining it. These works are not predicated on images. I think if works are predicated on images you collect the image: sometimes you can retain it, sometimes not. For me, the better works make you go back for the fulfillment of an experience that’s not commensurate with what you’ve retained, therefore the experience always remains vital. There are works I continually go back to, whether it’s Matisse’s Red Room or a good Pollock.

There are other works in which there is a certain kind of closure once you’ve grasped the image. The ellipses and spirals do not deliver any particular defining image. If you ask somebody which image or images they retained they will invariably tell you that they retained an experience not an image. The artists I found empowering for my development included Pollock and Newman, who in their best works defy image retention. Experience is either evoked through line and process or through color and plane. My generation was probably more influenced by Pollock and Newman than the generation that came after, which was more influenced by Johns and Warhol, namely image. Sculpture was able to evolve by developing abstraction, whereas painting seemed to dovetail back into representation because it was more vulnerable to be “media-ized’’ whether it was by introducing printing techniques or implicating photography. Most recent painting, with few exceptions, has referenced print media; the prime mover for representational painting has been “media-ization,” whereas abstract sculpture remained immune from that influence.

JP: Do you think your work precedes language also?

One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969. Lead antimony, four plates, each 48 x 48 in. Photo: Peter Moore.

RS: In some sense, yes. I started with a verb list, but that was about prescribing activities. I have a problem with image because I always thought that it was easy and that the photograph—as much as I think Warhol and Richter have made big moves through their particular use of photographs—was a limitation, the limitation of the ready-made. Once you select and work with a photograph, you’re pretty much stuck with the surface and the given composition. There is not much more you can do with the dialectic of in and out, of figure and ground. I believe a lot has been lost since Matisse and Picasso because of painting’s reliance on photography. But if you ask me if that’s going to change, I don’t think so. That’s how we see the world now. But it does seem a compositional limitation to me. You either emphasize the dot or you blur the edge.

JP: You’ve introduced the torus and combined it with the sphere. Where does the idea for this shape come from?

RS: I got the idea in a steel mill in Germany, where they were forming spherical shapes. They used a torus as a forming tool to press a plate into a spheroid section. Basically, any donut is a torus. In any regular donut the inside and outside share the same radius, like the inside and outside of a ring. I thought I might have happened upon an interesting proposition in that, if you took a spheroid and a toroid section with identical radius they would probably lock together, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t study this combination because it didn’t exist anywhere, neither in industrial products nor in nature.

I had a steel donut around, and I pounded some lead over it. I found that I could make the torus shape and the spherical shape, and I could align and configure them in ways that seemed interesting enough to go back to the steel mill and ask if they could make small toroid sections, an inch to a foot, for me to experiment with. They had never made toroid sections. But they thought they might find some application for toroids down the line, so they humored me and made a series of modules. I spent the better part of eight months working with them, seeing what I could do, how I could combine spheroids and toroids, which combinations made sense as sculpture. I decided that the most straightforward thing was to juxtapose them, to make different spaces to walk through. That is what happens in Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere.

The next logical, almost didactical, step was to tightly join a torus and a sphere into a closed volume that you could not enter. By showing Union of the Torus and the Sphere and Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere in one exhibition you understood the permutations; the juxtaposition of the two pieces demystified the interior space of the Union of the Torus and the Sphere. Having walked through Betwixt you could infer the interior of the closed shape.

I had never built a closed form before. I was apprehensive about it because usually if you close a form and there is a void on the inside, it quickly degenerates into the realm of revealed/concealed, which seems to be a mainstay of Surrealism. I was wary of that association. I considered opening the form up to let people pass through it. But I had done that with conical shapes and was more interested in the extreme disequilibrium of the conjoined whole. It forced the experience of the skin, of the continuous differentiation of the skin. As you pass by, the volume bends concavely in or obdurately comes toward you. I wanted people to get close to the surface of the volume, to walk around it and sense its disequilibrium as a weight in space even though it was a closed form. I understood that I was up against tradition in several ways. The fact that you could not enter the piece also called up the recent history of the specific object. I had the piece erected in the steel mill and looked at it both open and closed. I finally decided, with the encouragement of David Sylvester and Harald Szeemann, to close the volume. They both said: “Look Richard, there is no reason not to close this up. It may be a more radical move to close it than to leave it open.” I made the decision reluctantly—let the chips fall where they may.

JP: Is that why you closely set it in a room with a rectangular shape?

RS: Yes, I put it in that room to bring people close to its volume, so that you didn’t see it as an object, but as a continuous surface. I had been reading Deleuze and Leibnitz—both write about the fold and the continuousness of surface, and how one side is basically the unfolding of the other side. I got quite caught up in the idea of the fold. I think this piece is probably an outgrowth of thinking in those terms. A lot of people have commented on the tooling of that piece to me, they found that it was exquisitely put together, more so than most pieces I make. I didn’t particularly care about that aspect. A lot of younger people in particular responded to the Union in a way that they didn’t respond to other pieces. I can’t explain why.

Sylvester, 2001. Weatherproof steel, 163 x 492 x 380 in. Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

JP: It has an overpowering quality about it, it subsumes you. You walk into the room, and you feel like you’re underneath it.

RS: That was very deliberate. I built it for that space. When you enter, you’re in its space, you can’t avoid its surface.

JP: How does light (natural and artificial) and darkness work on and in your sculpture? In which light do you prefer the pieces to be shown?

RS: Basically, the forms themselves, through the way they lean in or open up, define a certain psychological continuance, and the light is an important factor. The light either creates shadows or floods the spaces, especially the centers, which accounts for the release you feel. I think if there were no release in the spirals, if they were just wound into a tight concentric circle, they might not have been appreciated as much as they have been. The enclosed void is a space that undermines the notion of an axis mundi in that it has no center. The double ellipses (e.g., Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997) that preceded the spirals share the same center. In the spirals, there’s no center, so when you walk into the interior space you find yourself trying to locate the center. You’re continually trying to grasp where you ought to be—to no avail. The spaces are large enough to allow you to have a release and not feel confined, but you are kept off balance trying to locate yourself in the space. I think that accounts for their power and uneasy velocity.

JP: The word “haptic” frequently appears in discussions about your sculpture. How does it relate to your work?

RS: On a basic level it means touch. But, for me, it means psychologically extending yourself to the material through the space or psychologically extending the feeling of touch through the space, so that the space of the void becomes palpable as a form. Negative space becomes psychologically loaded, so that you could actually put your hand out and feel its presence. It occurs in some architecture such as Hagia Sophia, Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamps, and in some of Tadao Ando’s work. Simply put, it is the difference in how you feel in a telephone booth and how you feel in a football stadium. There’s a way of controlling that difference in terms of a psychological response, which encompasses the need to reach out, touch, and experience that space.

When the word “haptic” comes up, it’s not just in relation to the steel, but in relation to how the steel mediates the palpability of the space, the hapticness of the space. The space actually feels charged like you might be able to touch it, it affects your body: you’re being implicated in it, the space becomes a substance. There are very few works in which space becomes the defining issue, in which it’s not just a volume that’s cut out by walls but a volume that connotes the content, the experience of the content as space.

JP: Are the exteriors as important as the interiors?

RS: Definitely. In the ellipses, spirals, toruses, and spheres you never have a total comprehension of the piece until you walk it. Anticipation and memory come into play. If you consider the early ellipses, they shift from looking like a flowerpot on one side to looking like a lamp shade on the other side as you walk around and follow the inversion. It’s impossible to recollect what you have been looking at while you were walking. It’s hard to re-construct their shape because it doesn’t break itself down into a narrative sequence of images. In a sense they are unknowable in the round.

Ali-Frazier, 2001. Weatherproof steel, two forged blocks, Ali: 41 x 68 x 108.5 in.; Frazier: 41 x 60 x 108.5 in. Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.
 Elevational Wedge, 2001. Hot rolled steel, 5 x 130 x 259.9 in. Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

JP: Why are these sculptures made from steel?

RS: I started working in steel mills while I was very young to pay my way through college, first Berkeley and then Yale, and I made good money as a riveter. I worked on the Crown Zellerbach building in San Francisco. I saw steel being used for almost everything you could think of in industry.

I always thought that sculpture had been the handmaiden to painting, that it derived its strength, from González and Picasso up to Calder, through cutting, folding, and arranging pieces in space through welding, which to me was like gluing: it was false since it ignored gravitational load. Having worked in industry and seen what had been done in terms of cantilever and counterbalance to satisfy the internal structural necessities of building, I knew that there was another way of coming at sculpture—not exactly by putting the principles of engineering to work, but by using them in a way that took the focus off the pictorial aspect and by using gravity, weightload, and balance to redirect the viewer to a different way of thinking about space and time in relation to material.

I don’t get off on steel. It’s just a material I use to control and define space, something I’ve been around my entire life. I believe that the selection of material has to do with one’s sensibility: how you know the world has to do with how you sense yourself in relation to material. Steel is a material that I’ve learned to use. I started handling it at a very early age, and I thought I could use it in a way that I couldn’t use other materials—or let’s say I didn’t have a feeling for using other materials. I worked with rubber, with lead, but steel ended up being the material of my choice. It’s strange. When I see things written about me such as “man-of-steel,” that’s not how I see myself in relation to the material. I think of steel as something that’s useful in terms of defining space, but I don’t think of myself as being particularly enamored with it as a material in and of itself. For me, it’s a means to an end. I happen to understand its potential and I have a direct connection to it.

JP: You’ve created spaces that shape volume. To what degree has torquing made these new volumes possible?

RS: I think that without that minor invention none of this work would have been possible. Because if you take a cone, the radius changes as it rises in elevation, either outward or inward, depending on whether it’s a flowerpot or lamp shade. Most architecture in the last 50 years that deals with curves, deals with cones or cylinders. No one has dealt with a torqued ellipse. In the torqued ellipses, the radius doesn’t change as it rises in elevation. And that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around, the fact that the radius remains the same as it turns. When you say that something turns on itself 90 degrees and its radius doesn’t change—it’s hard to picture what that actually means until you make a model of it. After I built the first lead models, we were very startled, fascinated with its potential.

The problem of getting the pieces built looked insurmountable. We went all over the world to find steel fabricators able and willing to handle the problem. We were worried they might never get built, but I didn’t want to go to another material. Had I gone to concrete it would have begged the comparison to architecture, and any other flimsy material (whatever that might have been) wouldn’t have held the volume. We finally found a steel mill in Baltimore on the brink of bankruptcy; it was desperate and for that reason was willing to take on the problem. We had to teach people how to make these torqued shapes, it was a long haul until we found a capable fabricator in Germany.

Intersection II, 1992. Cor-ten steel, 158 x 669 x 2 in. Photo: Tom Powel.

I had worked with conical shapes and combined them so that they created spaces that one could walk through. Think of a cone leaning toward you, if you just turn it upside down, it then leans away from you. Based on this simple inversion I built Olson (1986) and Call Me Ishmael (1986). Then I took that same principle and added two inverted plates, making an interior space and exterior passages that you could walk through (Intersection, 1992). After those pieces, I needed to tie the space together into one continuum. I didn’t know how to close the volume, I think I was looking for something that would point me in that direction. I wasn’t looking to be influenced by Borromini. I happened to walk into San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome through the side aisle and I misread the space. I thought, oh, isn’t that interesting, he curved the space vertically, in its vertical elevation. When I got to the center of it, I realized that the vertical curvature was an illusion. Influence, whether it’s in literature or art, is often based on misinterpretation. That’s probably how every generation relates to what came before. Every generation misinterprets the language of the former generation and puts it to their own use.

That idea is certainly not my idea. Harold Bloom talks about it in The Anxiety of Influence, how Shakespeare is influential in relation to writers of later generations. Even though Bloom has a big Freudian subtext, I think misinterpretation has a lot to do with how artists proceed decade by decade. I think the reason is that you can’t really use anybody else’s tools if you want to do something new. You have to use new tools or misinterpret the old tools and their use. Because if you don’t, you’re pretty much stuck in the academy. I think misinterpretation and the use of new tools and production methods usually open up the situation. Artists who stay with the same production methods or the same tools as their mentors from previous generations get bogged down in the limitations and academicism of those tools and procedures.

JP: Did the earlier prop pieces generate or influence the torqued spirals, toruses, and spheres?

RS: I think that balance and gravity were basic to the work very early on. They are still prime concerns for me. How one body relates to balance and gravity. The early pieces were axiomatically aligned so that you could figure out what was holding what in place. Sometimes, when they made the most sense, the weight would be released. If they achieved perfect balance, you would think they were weightless. That’s always interested me. If you take the spirals, which weigh upward of 120 tons, you never think about their weight. You get implicated in their speed and their movement. In some primary way my concern with gravity, weight or weightlessness, and balance in the last pieces relates back to the early prop pieces. When you try to talk about new work, language seems very insufficient—in a sense it’s true for this interview, a lot remains unspoken, and it takes time for language to grasp what’s new. When you get into new work you don’t have connections either to works that came before or works that come later. Works that come later often influence how we think of things that exist now. What comes later makes us think about an earlier expression that we didn’t fully understand when it was first invented.

JP: How has the Gagosian exhibition been a departure point?

Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere, 2001. Weatherproof steel, 142 x 450 x 319 in. Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

RS: The exhibition is a culmination of some work. There probably won’t be too many more spirals. Maybe one or two more. I’m building one for the City of Naples. I think the toruses and spheres still have potential for development. The last piece I conceived is a vertical piece with seven torqued plates, in which the module changes systematically. The engineering term “node” applies to the point where a plate widens, which allows the plate to torque. In each plate the node is located at a different height. Which means that the piece not only leans and torques, but it continues to turn as it rises in elevation. We just finished the model; hopefully the piece will be installed in October in Fort Worth next to Ando’s new building for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. That’s a big piece for me. What we’re working on now, and I don’t have the model sections made yet, are sections of a bell shape—basically a flattened S, an S without deep curves. If you stand the S up, you have a plane with a concavity and a convexity: the lower half is a curve leaning away from you, the upper half a curve leaning toward you, or vice versa. These kind of shapes are used for the steel walls of nuclear reactors, but in a different scale and with a different bend than the one I want. The steelmill is making models for me, I’ll see if they are useful.

Jonathan Peyser is a writer living in New York.