Richard Serra, Man of Steel

Richard Serra’s tough guy status as the last gasp of machismo in art is fading as the lyrical “Torqued Ellipses”-shown at the Dia Center in New York and, with added forms, at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles-turn him into a friendly tourist attraction. Weighing in at over a million pounds and sporting a reported million dollar price tag, this exhibition confirms Serra’s rank as the heaviest sculptor around. His original theoretical stance, clarified in a major MOCA catalogue that highlights work created between 1985 and 1998, reinforces his emphasis on elemental concepts of sculpture: material and process, mass and weight, scale and plane, site and context. At the same time, Serra has succumbed to the demons for which he originally condemned others: theatrical staging and showy surfaces.

Pickhan’s Progress, 1998. Weatherproof steel, six conical/elliptical sections, total length: 86 ft.

Serra’s work has gone from rubber to thrown hot metal to steel plates dominating walls or hovering overhead. From a slab of steel propped against a wall by a rolled lead cylinder to the free-standing “One-Ton Prop” (1969), often known as “House of Cards”. From steel plates two inches thick to the 10-by-12-by-12-foot slab “Gravity” (1993) at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. From elongated outdoor forms with shallow curves, these including “Clara Clara”, “Tilted Arc”, and “St. John’s Rotary Arc”, to ellipses twisted or torqued so that the top and bottom curves vary by degrees. Conceived in a sandbox and with hand tools, these forms were then drafted, engineered, fabricated, and installed according to public safety codes. He has also created cubes, square pillars, and snaking curves. Serra has transformed steel from an industrial building material into art. His vocabulary has gone from linear to curved, his forms from solo to paired to clustered. His seven ellipses, spaced like dancers at a cotillion, six square forged steel pillars straddling an invisible central line titled 58 x 64 x 70, and “Pickhan’s Progress”, three snaking lines forming two tilting allées, grandly dominate the 55,000 square-foot Geffen space.

The ellipses are visceral, fluent containers that permit the flow of people and space. The two-inch-thick encircling steel plates, each 11 to more than 13 feet tall, bend in and out at proscribed angles of up to 90 degrees. Serra describes both the shape on the floor and the shape overhead as similar to the oval dome in Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quatrro Fontane in Rome-with a twist:

the steel vessel as it rotates upward from the bottom to the top ellipse has to bend continuously on its curvature, either inward or outward. So there’s never a vertical line in the topology of the sculpture. If these things are anything, they’re probably topological deformations.1

Pickhan’s Progress (detail), 1998.

The process of torquing is hard to describe and even harder to produce in two-inch-thick steel. “To use a simple example, place your two hands together so that they face each other,” Peter Costa, an associate of Serra, explains. “Maintaining the same center, twist your left hand toward your right thumb up to 90 degrees where they cross each other. The top hand (ellipse) is torquing away from the bottom hand (ellipse). When you rotate one ellipse away from itself, you get a torque.”2 Torquing is common in the world of machines; engines-and anything with a rotating force-produce torque. Tightening a bolt is an example of torque. Torquing ellipses twice as tall as visitors places them inside a shell whose twist is activated by their motion.

Some ellipses wear their mill skin and retain their black patina while some, power-washed and sprayed with saltwater, have a boldly rusted auburn surface. One ellipse has curves that are both soft and firm; the sense of balance between the top and bottom edges is subtle and fluent. Its making and beauty are one. Another has an aggressive entrance. Walking into and through the straight and narrow steel frame is a threat. Once inside, the interior lacks passion and is surprisingly calm. One double torqued ellipse is rusting naturally, from the inside out. The chalk, roller, gripper, and other marks of its making punctuate the surface. The top and bottom edges of each ellipse, at notably different slants, destabilize the viewer.

Moving between double torqued ellipses-and looking up and down- is especially disorienting. Recalling yet updating the bygone thrills of tilting floors and walls at a carnival funhouse, the human body, circling, entering, and walking between the ellipses, feels the discrepancies between the torqued surfaces-walls turning in and out at different angles to each other.

Being inside a Serra is a bodily experience affecting the head, stomach, and other organs. During the hours that I spent walking and sitting, thinking and writing, I experienced some Zen moments. Serra’s heavy metal is grand but hollow. Emptiness and Zen go hand in hand, of course. Perhaps the work will always be doubly ambiguous: never absolutely empty, never completely full.

Credit should go, too, to the hundreds of specialists and hired hands needed to draft, fabricate, ship, and install these works. The terrific installation team literally gave the work its color. They also fine-tuned every light, fixture, and surface to provide an impeccable setting.3 The wall removed to install the show was back in place. The Geffen, two adjacent warehouses renovated by Frank Gehry, was radiant from its steel-trussed ceiling with redwood decking and skylights to its gray cement floors.

Torqued Ellipses. Weatherproof steel. View of installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Surface is an issue Serra seems reluctant to face. The catalogue is entirely in black and white, in part to efface issues of color and surface. In the catalogue interview, Serra speaks about using the power wash and salt process to rust the pieces in order to erase marks from the making process. Serra effacing the marks of making? Serra rationalizes: he wants the torque to show.4 The surface is nonetheless showy. This is pedigree rust: glowing shades of amber and auburn, with surfaces showing serial numbers, chalk markings, and scars.

The work has other characteristics of being manipulated: some bottom edges are on little blocks or shims. By not being flush with the floor, which may itself be uneven, some ellipses and “Pickhan’s Progress” have odd-looking bottoms. In places where the forms align with the floor, they form a seam that pleasingly misleads the eye-and adds to the visceral impact. In other places, the forms look like giants on tiny stilts. Light creeps under them to emphasize the odd little platforms. But wasn’t Serra among those who discredited the pedestal?5

The theoretical dimension of Serra’s oeuvre is sometimes minimized. The MOCA catalogue repeats Serra’s line that “the significance of the work is in its effort, not its intentions.”6 Although Serra usually distances himself from discussing any theory, the one articulated by Rosalind E. Krauss in a 1986 essay for MOMA, remains the most cogent analysis of his work’s raison d’être.7 Krauss applies Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological characterizations of perceptual data. In her view Serra is “strip[ping] the work of art of all possible illusionism,” creating “a field force that’s being generated, so that the space is discerned physically rather than optically,” and establishing chiasma, “a relationship of crossing and exchange” that marks the “mutual interaction of seer and seen.” Krauss considers “the abstract subject” of Serra’s art to be: “all trajectories live in the indissoluble marriage of the spatial with the temporal.”8

Torqued Ellipse IV, 1998. Weatherproof steel, 12.2 x 26.5 x 32.5 ft.

This view is reiterated and updated in the 1998 Dia catalogue essay by Mark Taylor. Taylor argues that Serra’s art, unlike that of Irwin, Bell, Turrell, and Nauman, is “not opting for opticality as its content. It has more to do with a field force that’s being generated.”9 Taylor argues that Merleau-Ponty “views the body as something like a topological knot that interlaces space and time.” The body intersects these dimensions and hinges them together in a manner that permits the “‘invagination’ of differences, through which oppositions are overcome while distinctions are maintained.”10 By aligning Serra’s work with art historical references, notably Japanese Zen gardens, the essay shifts the focus from Serra’s industrial, masculine language to non-confrontational jargon that is a part of established systems of thought. Taylor updates Krauss’s conclusion by claiming, “By creating space that is in motion, Serra folds temporality into spatiality.” The torqued ellipse, Taylor elaborates, creates arcs that simultaneously tilt at opposite angles, shaping space so that it seems to move in opposite directions at the same time. Furthermore, the rate at which space moves is not constant but varies throughout the work. For Serra, this capacity to set space in motion is the distinguishing feature of his new work.11

In a 1989 New York Times feature, Deborah Solomon eerily foreshadowed the magic of the 1998 “Torqued Ellipses”: “Yet if his sculptures slice the air around them like a knife, they also enclose us in safe, tranquil places, or curve around us with graceful solicitude. Virtually all of his sculptures play with our anxieties about inclusion and exclusion, and this is what gives his spare metal forms their unexpected emotional charge.”12 Solomon’s non-theoretical view comes close to what most viewers experience.

Double Torqued Ellipse II, 1998. Weatherproof steel. Outer ellipse: 11.75 x 27.5 x 36 ft.; inner ellipse: 11.75 x 28.5 x 19.5 ft.

The Krauss and Taylor readings applying Merleau-Ponty’s ideas to Serra’s work are consistent with each other, but neither fully considers the scope of the philosopher’s argument itself. Merleau-Ponty refutes traditional theories of perception typified by Descartes, for whom perception was an intellectual process of decoding perceptual data and then drawing inferences about what may have caused them. Instead of a rationalist approach, Merleau-Ponty ponders the possibilities for overlapping and difference between the body and the world and postulates a metaphysical absolute, the flesh, the elemental Being which contains all of these disparities. This theory about the dynamic interaction of the lived body in the world has become a potent theme in art.

Merleau-Ponty has also opened up an alternative conception of visual space. Space is no longer primarily an objective space where each thing can somehow be mapped in its place. In contrast, the philosopher reads space as primordial, where things mutually depend upon one another. It’s also multi-sensory – visual, tactile, and haptic all at once.13 Merleau-Ponty defines primordial experience as the unity between reflective theory and the subconscious. The philosopher applies chiasma, which he defines as the sense of ordinary experience received from interactions between the self and the world, to the elements of painting in his most famous essay “Eye and Mind.” Citing examples from Cézanne, Rembrandt, Klee, Géricault, and Rodin, he argues that particular admixtures of great art may be incompatible with each other, yet that each contains a “temporal ubiquity of the body,” an “internal discordance” whose very incompatibility brings about an unexpected truth. Merleau-Ponty reasons that the artist has produced a vision from within.

58 x 64 x 70, 1996. Six forged steel blocks, each block 58 x 64 x 70 in.

The philosopher analyzes corporeality and dimensions in painting, but he does not discuss sculpture.14 His aesthetic could conceivably include Serra, or the philosopher might consider Serra’s corporeality to be too literal. For Merleau-Ponty, the painter’s experience of the world is a renewed sense of the bodily depths of visual space. Krauss, Taylor, and Serra himself seem to ignore the philosopher’s keen use of the eye as an entryway to the body’s vision. Nor does this trio address Merleau-Ponty’s sweeping thesis-that the body’s ongoing chiasmic interactions continue to sift through old and new experiences in order to arrive at new conclusions and that art, too, undergoes the same process of accreting meaning from its past and future: “If creations are not permanent acquisitions, it is not just that, like all things, they pass away: it is also that they have almost their entire lives before them.”15 Serra’s work is a prime example of this. It will outlive us all.

Serra is the son of Gladys (a voracious reader of Russian Jewish heritage) and Tony Serra (a former candy plant foreman of Hispanic ancestry who was related to Gaudí). The artist majored in English and fine art before making his mark as a Post-Minimalist installation artist during a post-Yale stint in France and Italy. Serra has often dismissed his forebears in metal art and sculpture in general-Gonzalez, Picasso, and David Smith; barely nodded to Brancusi’s “The Kiss”, to Giacometti, whom he’d spy dining at La Coupole, and to Smithson, whose “Spiral Jetty” he helped to build. “The models I have looked to,” Serra expounds in an oft-quoted remark, “have been those who explored the potential of steel as a building material: Eiffel, Roebling, Maillart, Mies van der Rohe…who had dealt with the material in the most significant, the most inventive, the most economic way.”16 Serra argues that art is “nonfunctional and useless” whereas architecture is “specifically functional and useful.”17 On other occasions, he grants that art is about inventing new methods and forms in the repertoire of sculpture, shaping a work that “refocuses attention on itself,” and that subverts city contexts or restructures “the perception of a given space.”18 Moreover, his work is always physically present yet may also appear to be weightless and balanced.

Torqued Ellipses, view of installation at Dia Center for the Arts, New York.

In the ’60s, Serra was not the only process-driven artist, but his stark way of balancing steel without welding and his insistence on eliminating the base stood out. He replaced the theater of balancing welded forms that leaned and leapt into the viewer’s space with unwelded forms that could, if not properly balanced, kill the viewer. As the work grew in size, one worker was killed by one such piece, “Joplin”, and another worker lost a leg during a de-installation. The floors of the Castelli SoHo gallery collapsed under the weight of Serra’s work during this period.19

One result was that Serra’s subsequent work was attached to underground piers and foundations. These safety features were required for public work yet eliminated his original goal of literally balancing sculptural elements. When the elements were welded and/or anchored, Serra’s work acquired an artificial balance-one condition for which he had roundly criticized others. His work contained the theatricality he had spurned.

This is one among many inherent contradictions between theory and practice in Serra’s oeuvre. Many stem from the irony that his background and his rhetoric are working class yet his theory is elitist. Serra is a purist who doesn’t admit many other sculptors into his pantheon.

At the same time that his work is receiving a deserved reconsideration, some experts find his earlier, confrontational work more compelling than the innovative “Torqued Ellipses”. The ellipses are Serra’s most original and most complexly engineered forms, but perhaps not his most rousing art. Moreover, they are, in some ways, the antithesis of his earlier forms; they are securely anchored, curving, and viewer-friendly instead of unanchored, flat, and positioned to appear confrontational.

Pickhan’s Progress, view of installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

In contrast to the Krauss and Taylor versions of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Hal Foster’s essay in the MOCA catalogue nods briefly to Merleau-Ponty and moves on. Its focus is on Serra. Foster reopens old doors by inviting a dialogue between Serra’s sculpture and work from the realms of painting, architecture, sculpture, and established critical discourse-for example, Charles Baudelaire and Bertrand Russell. Yet Foster admits that Serra is “opposed to painting on the one hand, and critical of architecture on the other.”20 Foster re-admits other Post-Minimalists-Smithson, Nauman, and Hesse-into Serra’s world. By framing his comments around the rhetorical question, “What does making sculpture mean to you right now?” Foster presents Serra’s contradictions as strengths. However, Foster seems to place Serra back into the rationalist camp, from which everyone else working today has, logically enough, decamped.

The venue of MOCA’s museum space is another irony. After the trauma of an eight-year battle and “Tilted Arc’s” removal to a storage site in 1989, Serra usually insists upon contracts guaranteeing that his work remains either on site or in storage during its entire existence. He often derides art that is not sited, using Henry Moore bronzes as an example of the “folly” of art created without an intended relationship to architecture or landscape.21 Additionally, his criticism of museums as sterile institutions that shift the focus from the art to the artist, is well known. Serra has complained that the museum context “invariably creates self-referentiality, even when it’s not implied.”22 Even so, the Geffen may be the ultimate exhibition space for Serra. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the next venue for these works, may provide a visionary new context or dwarf them.23

Serra and his wife, Clara Weyergraf-Serra, live in Tribeca when in New York and in an 18th-century farmhouse on a hill above the Northumberland Strait near the working-class town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In 1989 Deborah Solomon painted his portrait thus: “Nearly everything about him-from his battered blue truck to his bellicose manner to his fascination with steel-can be seen as a consciously cultivated roughness. Although deeply knowledgeable about European art, he is reluctant to acknowledge its influence on him.”24 The writer’s claim that Serra’s art “challenges established tastes and values” in an age when little else does may no longer be true.

Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997. Weatherproof steel. Outer ellipse: 13 x 33.5 x 27 ft; inner ellipse: 13 x 26 x 21 ft.

When detractors suggest that Serra is a draftsman with no talent for hands-on fabricating or shaping, this offers a clue to the riddle of his art. Serra is a contrarian-an artist whose models are architectural, a maker of sandbox models that require the best steel workers and the most advanced hot molding equipment. Serra is a guarded person who desperately wants his art to have a large public. Serra side-steps Merleau-Ponty, insisting that his steel forms, some with their own torque and tilt, concern material, process, and context. Serra is our Oedipus: the Artist has killed his Father, Sculpture, and married his Mother, Architecture. His cross-breeding of drawing and architecture has produced a new genre.

Jan Garden Castro is the author of “The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe” and a frequent contributor to Sculpture.


1 Richard Serra quoted in Richard Serra Sculpture 1985-1998. Edited by Russell Ferguson, Anthony McCall, and Clara Weyergraf-Serra. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, p. 187.

2 Telephone interview on October 14, 1998.

3 Context has been a problem in some of Serra’s public art. Twain (1982) at an outdoor St. Louis site, was never lit and landscaped according to its original plan and is not well maintained. Other outdoor work, such as St. John’s Rotary Arc and Clara Clara were initially well-received but were moved, respectively, to storage and to a site (Choissy Square, 13th arrondissement, Paris) where it was defaced. Regarding scale, see Serra’s comments in MOCA cat., pp. 197-8.

4 Serra interview, MOCA catalogue, especially p. 201: “…I needed to erase the [line-heating] scars so that you read the torque…”

5 See Richard Serra, Writings Interviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p.141. Serra argues that sculpture on a pedestal subjugates the viewer.

6 MOCA cat., p. 195.

7 This was reprinted by the Centre Pompidou in 1993 for European audiences.

8 Rosalind Krauss, Richard Serra Sculpture. Catalogue edited and introduced by Laura Rosenstock. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986. See especially pp. 19, 29, 32-33, 37.

9 Taylor, like Krauss, quotes Serra’s term “field force.” See Mark Taylor, “Learning Curves,”in Torqued Ellipses. New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1997, p. 41. My summaries of Krauss’s and Taylor’s arguments cannot convey all of the nuances of these supple texts.

10 Taylor, p 48. See entire essay.

11 Ibid., pp. 46-48, 55.

12 Deborah Solomon, “Our Most Notorious Sculptor,” The New York Times Magazine. October 8, 1989, p. 74.

13 This summary benefits from a talk with Merleau-Ponty scholar Dave Hilditch.

14 According to one source, Merleau-Ponty is “wrong about photography.”

15 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Michael B. Smith, translation editor. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993, p. 149.

16 Serra, Writings Interviews, p. 169.

17 Ibid., p. 104.

18 Op. cit., see pp. 109, 120, 138-9, 152, 185, and entire book.

19 Serra genuinely regretted these casualties. Due, in part, to his acerbic persona, he was criticized while other artists who were injured themselves or whose work crews suffered fatalities were not.

20 Foster, p. 20, in Richard Serra Sculpture 1985-1998.

21 Richard Serra, Writings Interviews, p. 146.

22 Ibid., p. 169.

23 See “Giant Guggenheim in Spain May Upstage Its Contents” by Michael Kimmelman (NYTimes: Oct. 20, 1997: B1). Visitors report visceral, emotional responses to this structure’s sculptural elements.

24 Solomon, p. 77.