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Art In Conversation

Richard Serra with Phong Bui

A few days after the opening of his new exhibit Rolled and Forged at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea last month, which remains on view till August, 11th, Richard Serra took time off from his busy schedule to walk Rail Publisher Phong Bui through the new work and sit down to discuss his life and work.

Portrait of Richard Serra, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail (Phong Bui): I was expecting to see more of the large curvilinear pieces where I’d get, like most viewers, even more spatially disoriented. Instead. . .

Richard Serra: This new body of work is not that. All the sculptures are based on measuring yourself against a horizontal or planar elevation more or less on eye level. For example, the biggest piece, Elevations, Repetitions deals with different heights in a relational movement to an open field and the relationship between these differing elevations. The space is defined by your movement through a complex of sixteen elements. Equal Weights and Measures, on the other hand, is composed of six equal blocks of forged steel, which are rotated to achieve a condition that makes it difficult to ascertain their sameness. I also included one existing forged piece, the big “Round.” It has a diameter of 84” and weighs 50 tons. I set it on a slope in the smallest room of the gallery to be able to see it from above eye level and below.

There is also a room installation titled No Relief which consists of two sixty foot long, six inch thick horizontal slabs flush to the wall on opposite sides of a narrow room. One is at the height of six feet, the other lower at four foot, nine inches. They compress the elongated space into a continuum that is slightly destabilizing due to the shift in elevations.

Richard Serra, “Equal Weights and Measures” (2006). Forged weatherproof steel, 51×63 × 75 inches each. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Rail: Let’s talk a bit about your early years when you were a student a Yale. How did you manage to respond to Albers’ teaching, which was extremely systematic, logically organized while making paintings under the influence of de Kooning and Pollock?

Serra: Actually, when I was at Yale, Albers was no longer teaching. During the summer of 1963 he was in the process of putting together his book The Interaction of Color, and because I had taught the color course, he asked me and a few other students to proof the book with him at Yale University Press. You would think that the regimentation coming out of the Bauhaus was very rigorous, but Albers’ design course was very experimental. You were asked to work out a specific problem, for instance figure-ground relationships: how to place lines or dots on paper or other various surfaces; to consider shape, movement, size, scale, color. You were asked to use materials as light as leaves and as heavy as concrete in relation to specific procedures. The problems posed were interesting, because you had to deal with a given material in relation to a singular procedure to produce a maximum yield of solutions. We had to find ways to enable form to distinguish itself from matter. Basically, it was an open-ended experiment. What I came to realize is that matter imposes its own form on form. Working your way through a problem with a specific material is not theoretical. For me the choice of material is subjective and accounts for one’s sensibility and intuition. Albers’ approach to color was not mechanistic but very playful. Amongst many other things you learned that the same colors appear different on different grounds or the reverse. Albers would even go so far as to assert that colors appeared to be either wet or dry. Keep in mind, during this period, Albers was experimenting by painting on two sides of a glass pane. He was constantly investigating the characteristics of different materials, and part of his teaching was to encourage just that. As far as my student paintings are concerned, well, let’s just say they reiterated the decade that came before, namely Abstract Expressionism. My education at Yale was a totally new experience for me. I had been an English Literature major as an undergraduate at the University of California in Santa Barbara. I sent drawings to Yale as my graduate application, and on the basis of twelve drawings, I received a scholarship. It was after I arrived at Yale that I had to learn what it meant to be a painter. It was a humbling experience. While trying to get an education as a painter I continued to draw—drawing has always been the key to understanding hand-eye coordination for me, and it always was and is a catalyst for all kinds of referencing.

Rail: You then went to Paris on a traveling grant in 1964.

Serra: Yeah, Yale gives one rotating traveling fellowship every year for different disciplines, architecture, painting, sculpture, and design. I received one for painting and went to Paris that year. I spent a lot of time in Brancusi’s studio at the old Musée d’Art Moderne, where you could still sense the aura of the sculptor’s original studio. The same with Giacometti: I watched him coming into La Coupole many nights with paint stuck to his hands, plaster in his hair, wax stuck in his ear, he too carried the aura of the studio with him. More than any other artist he was defined by his working process in the studio, and that was and still is important to me. The following year I received a Fulbright to study in Italy. I dropped painting and started working with stuffed and live animals, including chickens, rabbits, and a live pig, zoological cage experiments, which led to my first one-man show in Rome at the Galleria La Salita. At that time, Arte Povera hadn’t really coalesced as a movement—I’m not saying I was responsible for it, but it was in the air. I think a year and a half later, Kounellis was showing live horses in a gallery, and the movement took off.

Rail: You also taught at Queens College, and other places for a while. What was the teaching experience like for you?

Serra: I thought if I could teach at as many places as possible simultaneously, I could make enough money in one year so I wouldn’t have to teach the following year. I taught at the School of Visual Arts, Pace College, Sophie Tauber’s School of Fashion Design and Queens College. At Queens I taught a design course that dealt with figure-ground and use of materials in the Albers tradition. It was there that I got to know Robert Pincus-Witten.

Rail: He wrote about your teaching in reference to your early work.

Portrait of the Artist. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.

Serra: Right. Teaching was an interesting experience, but I needed to be on my own time. I’d seen and been aware of the work of Oldenburg, Judd, Andre, Morris, and others, but after having seen Flavin’s show at the Kornblee Gallery in 1966, I gave up teaching altogether and decided to just focus on my work.

Rail: How did you get to know Dick Bellamy, who later became your dealer?

Serra: While I was in Europe I went to the Venice Biennale in 1966 and it was there that I met Dick on a vaporetto. He had heard about the animal show in Rome and asked me to look him up when I returned to New York. He became the first witness of my experimentations with rubber and lead and later my first dealer.

Rail: What was the impetus behind departing from metal and lead into steel?

Serra: I’d worked in steel mills as a kid and when I was in college—I worked there every summer to make some extra money—so I understood the potential of steel. After I had worked through the rubber pieces and the lead pieces, the involvement with steel came quite naturally. I didn’t use steel as a surrogate for painterly collage like Picasso and his successors. I came to steel with the knowledge of its potential for construction. That knowledge gave me an advantage in terms of making sculpture although I wasn’t interested in sculpture per se, I was more interested in exploring different ways of constructing, and principles of tectonics on a very basic level. What holds what up? If you put a weight overhead how do you support weight underneath? Gravity, weight, stasis, and balance were my primary concerns at that time.

Rail: You said that your early work was informed by dance performance, but how about Allan Kaprow, whose Happenings also dealt with the gravitational force of the gesture as well as extended it into a dance or a performance, plus the Viennese Actionists like Gunter Brüs, Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsh?

Serra: I think Kaprow was reformulating Duchamp in terms of everyday experience, and used Pollock as a touchstone. Kaprow’s idea served a very useful purpose in opening up the context away from the object concerns of Duchamp into the field implied by Pollock. The early happenings of Jim Dine, Oldenburg, Whitman all owed a debt to Kaprow. I was aware of the Viennese Actionists in the early 1960s, but their ritualistic, cultural psychoanalytic approach and the ecstasy that was involved with the making of the work, which I’m sure were undeniably real for them, didn’t quite sustain my interest. Whereas with Giotto, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Newman, Johns, Warhol or Nauman, I can go back to their work time after time to either reconfirm something that I already know or to be startled by something that I thought I knew but didn’t. Their work becomes a reliable resource for me and the source of a continual dialogue.

Richard Serra, “Elevations, Repetitions” (2006). Weatherproof steel, 60×366 × 6 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Rail: That’s a high order .

Serra: Why not make distinctions between high and low art? Nowadays some people think a cat on the street is as interesting as the Sistine Chapel; it’s just simply not true—we all make distinctions every day. It is clear that the context into which you’re born has a lot to do with how you understand the field you’ve entered into and the context in which you exist and how you understand what has come before you. Whatever you get, 70, 80, 90 years, it’s not a long stretch of time.

Rail: It even gets shorter when you’re trying to accomplish what you want out of life.

Serra: You’d like to leave a body of work that you hope will empower people to strive for the same accomplishments that artists were able to achieve who came before you. Look, for example, at Titian’s and Goya’s incredible and broad body of work; not only did they continually reinvent themselves, they also managed to dig deep into the emotional depth of their lives and bare it naked on their canvases, which timelessly and psychologically affects us all throughout the ages.

Rail: What are your insights looking back now to the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s?

Serra: There was a group of us downtown who were trying to find ways to sustain our living and working situation. I started a small moving company called Low Rate Movers, Phil Glass and myself with Steve Reich, Chuck Close, Spalding Gray, and later Michael Snow. We moved mostly furniture. It was a good job because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work. We were doing different things—in music, film, painting, theater. Eventually I was introduced to the dance world. At that time Yvonne Rainer and the group around the Judson Church, were of primary importance to me because they were experimenting with movement in time and space in relation to matter and materials. They were the catalyst for what became the Process Movement. I lived with the performance artist Joan Jonas at the time, we traveled to Japan together and the experience of the Zen Gardens was important for both of our work. The art world was very small then. Everybody hung out at Max’s Kansas City; you could go there at any given night and see a mix of different people from Waylon Jennings, Janis Joplin, Carl Andre, to Andy Warhol and Bob Smithson. There was an exchange of ideas that weren’t presumptive or prescriptive or hierarchical. There was a great energy behind the anti-war movement. Artists were not only interested in making work in the studio but were expressing themselves socially. As far as the small art world was concerned, Dick Bellamy had a great influence. He was not commercially oriented. He was more interested in fostering new ways of thought in relation to what could be made. There wasn’t a big market at that time. If you were in Max’s and someone came in and said they had just sold out a show, you’d say, “Oh, too bad.” Because it meant that the buyers understood the work and that meant that it couldn’t be very radical.

Rail: Well, that’s great! Certainly that’s not the case now. Many things have changed and there is a big market out there now. At any rate, you once said, “The biggest thing that happened in the history of 20th Century sculpture occurred when the pedestal was removed.” One needs not refer to Buchloh’s pointing out the first ready-made of Duchamp and the first construction of Tatlin as pivotal examples for initiating this radical change. But I also feel of equal importance was the visceral intelligence, the nonlinear thinking of artists who are receptive to the pertinent issues or innovative dialogues of their time, whether in politics, art, literature, or science.

Serra: I have talked about this before, about the consequences of moving sculpture off its pedestal. Traditional sculpture on a pedestal either depicts a person, a place, or an event, so there is always an allegiance to the theme of the representation. Once you take the work off the pedestal, it’s in the same behavioral space as the viewer walking around it. Once that happens, time and space come into play, in terms of how you experience the sculpture in relation to the context and the field and your bodily movement. That’s an enormous change, the only comparison that can be made in terms of the three-dimensional world, is probably in urbanism and architecture. Certain modernist works, for example, Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut anticipated the move of sculpture to the floor but as a general concept it didn’t take hold until the late ‘60s. As to whether artists are conscious of their inventions, that’s difficult to say, because art making is not a program but rather a process of self-discovery.

Rail: So what do you think of the found object?

Serra: My problem with the found object is that even though it immediately transformed the field of possibilities I always thought it didn’t lead to a great deal of invention. That said it is also undeniable that Duchamp’s readymade is considered one of the most important contributions to twentieth century art. It called into question any agreed upon criterion for artistic production. Duchamp’s ready-made was an attempt to transcend mass production by placing a mass produced object in isolation and conferring upon it the special status of a fetish. In its isolation the object was non relational, non referential and disconnected. The problem of the readymade is that it eliminates critical subjectivities by substituting the art of making for the art of selection . It is a mere transposition of an object into an art object by display. Much of contemporary art has been animated by Duchamp. Today the endless re-iteration of the ready-made dominates the market and accounts for a lot of insipid surrealism.

Rail: That’s true. There’s an offshoot of surrealism now that seems to have extracted it’s way out of and from Pop Art, where there are too many impersonal iconographies thrown in sometimes too artificially.

Serra: I think the great thing about Warhol was his cynical, critical banality of conversing with the media. Warhol’s provocation is lost now and has been replaced by a superficial simulation of banality; that is banality for banality’s sake where everybody’s in on the meta-joke. Only the meta-joke of art about art can become tiresome real quick. Cynicism has been replaced with sentimentality. The problem with a lot of work today is its predictability. Its only allusion is to something we already know; it reframes, or re-references the known over and over again. It can’t possibly give us the same kind of inventive diversity and fulfillment and complex evolution of the formal language of art that invention can provide. I find it interesting that there’s no post-modernism that doesn’t deal with re-representation.

Rail: Well. That’s because art students spend more time in Chelsea openings than they do in the museum—like the way our culture gets confused between information and knowledge. But to get back to the issue of formal language, I thought it was interesting that Hoffman thought of the new plastic language being sculptural form flattened out; we know he was thinking that in relationship to Picasso, Matisse and his own teaching.

Serra: Most sculpture in the twentieth century beginning with Gonzalez and Picasso, through Calder and David Smith and Judd seems to originate in painting. Painting remains the primary planar reference for three dimensional configurations into the second half of the twentieth century, whether the work was achieved by cutting or welding or unfolding things in space or by the painterly surfaces of sculptural objects. Gravitational load-bearing was barely dealt with; the work had little tectonic rationale.

Rail: But there was common understanding by the late 1940’s that the invention of collage gave birth to new-construction sculpture. It makes sense because the space is there to be shaped, to be divided, but not to be filled, therefore the preferred materials are industrial kinds like iron, steel, alloys, plastics, instead of the traditional use of stone, bronze, or clay, so I can relate to what you’re saying about Smith’s, Calder’s or even Di Suvero’s work as three-dimensional interpretations of paintings.

Serra: Even Judd who defined the specific object is still involved with the plane and the surface. His subtext is Newman. I am not taking anything away from Judd, nothing at all, I am only saying that his challenge is painting.

Rail: When you mention the tectonic for sculpture, as you had often criticized that most architects are not concerned with space, but rather with the skin and the surface regardless of their having to deal with the internal functions such as plumbing of their buildings, it made me think of Kenneth Frampton being one of the few architectural historians/critics who claims tectonic for architecture, and you do the same for sculpture, which I find very interesting because while both architecture and sculpture have common ground in the tectonic, they also share a fundamental principle in engineered construction, especially in the industrial age.

Serra: It’s true. Frampton’s theory of tectonics coincides with how I think. He makes tectonics a qualitative criterion for judging and critiquing architecture and to measure invention and form. To be interested in form is where ornament falls apart. I had to give a talk recently on Bill Rubin at MoMA and I happened upon a statement where he says that he found Picasso’s guitar of 1912, as a constructed object, more influential in the history of sculpture than the Demoiselles d’Avignon in the history of painting. The Guitar does away with modeling and casting. Artists are still modeling and casting, and make significant works, in spite of the fact that Picasso’s guitar bracketed those processes as being history. Similarly you can ask whether portraiture is still interesting as a convention. Probably not. But that is not to say that artists have not done interesting portraits since Picasso, Bacon for example, Warhol, Chuck Close.

Rail: But let’s shift the subject a little further to what we were talking about before. In a bitter disagreement, you were supposed to work with Robert Venturi in the plaza between the White House and the US Treasury Building, which never happened because it was suggested that you adjust your thinking to Venturi, which you refused to do, which basically leads to you resigning from the whole project.

Serra: I was given a commission and Venturi usurped the project. He presented me with a proposal that he wanted me to incorporate into my thinking. He wanted to put stars and stripes on two pylons to frame the treasury building. I found the idea so banal and obsequious and the patriotism of the gesture so unsubtle that it ended the commission for me.

Rail: Too bad that he didn’t submit his thinking to yours because Phillip Johnson did just that for Rothko. When Rothko was commissioned by the de Menils to do the chapel in 1964, the initial design or plan was of a square configuration, which was part of his master plan he had devised for the university, but Rothko wanted the chapel to be an octagon, and he went as far as stating in his winning appeal to the De Menils that he had spoken with Meyer Schapiro, and was told by the esteemed art historian that indeed, such an octagonal plan had been used in Christian times. The reason I bring it up is because you’ve been extremely vocal and critical of contemporary architects in the last several decades who think they are artists.

Serra: The fact is that architects have power and leverage with their clients; often they try to intercede when commissions are given to artists claiming that they are artists themselves and can provide not only the building but the art to decorate it as well. I think the great thing about art is that it may have a function in terms of empowering people or endowing people’s sensibilities, but it’s ultimately purposefully useless.

Rail: One of the most challenging aspects about your work is its independence of the pictorial concern or pictorial language. Particularly in your site-specific works, they reveal no single, immediately perceivable image. They are anti-optical while insisting upon the fundamental adherences to structural process in relation to the effective treatment of materials, phenomenological reception through the bodily senses, which has to do with apperceptions of weight and mass, scale and plane, and most importantly site and context where spatial response is matter-of-fact.

Serra: There are certain conditions that are a given and that you can rely on. In sculpture gravity is undeniable. Sculptural form must necessarily confront gravity. I am interested in process and matter, in construction, in how to open up the field. The problem for me is to address within a work circulation or movement that is outside of all representation; that is to make movement itself the subject which generates or constitutes the work. My development has been up to this point fairly logical and sequential. But it’s crucial for me to pay attention to how the work develops and maintain a critical and fresh dialogue with what it is that I’m doing and what I’m intending to do, and then try, if I can, to make the most radical breaks each time out, however, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Rail: Your process of discovery as far as how the Torqued Ellipses came to being reminded me of David Rabinowitz’s early works.

Serra: Not quite, what I recall is that David made some early wooden horizontal constructions that formed a transition between a square and a circle, and a square and an oval. The Torqued Ellipses are based on a totally different concept in that their radius doesn’t change as they rise in elevation. You have to imagine an oval void on the floor and the same oval void at the height of twelve or fourteen feet overhead turned at a ninety degree angle in relation to the oval on the floor. The steel skin is wrapped around these two voids. The space of a torqued ellipse that is created in wrapping two voids that are turned in relation to each other does not exist in the history of sculpture, nor does it exist in the history of architecture, and it doesn’t occur in nature. On the other hand a lot of things have been done with hyperbolic curves, in fact if you look at any mathematical program that you can find on any computer, they are all based on line theory. The way we built these pieces was to roll the form first and inscribe the bending lines later. Math or computer programs will not lead you to a torqued ellipse. I remember visiting Borromini’s Church San Carlo in Rome; I thought I was looking at a classical oval on floor and ceiling. I wrongly thought that the oval of the ceiling was turned at an angle to the oval of the floor. I misread it. I subsequently became very interested in my misinterpretation. I explained the configuration to an engineer who was working for Frank Gehry at the time. I asked him whether if I have an oval on the ground and an oval at a right angle to it in the air, could they be connected with a surrounding with a skin? He was too busy to run it through the computer and I was too impatient to wait, so with my assistant I built the first lead model of a torqued ellipse. After having contacted several steel mills in Germany and traveling to Korea, we finally contacted Sparrow’s Point, a rolling mill and ship yard in Maryland, where they had a large enough bending machine that could handle oversize plate. With some trials and errors over the period of one year, we were able, in the end, to get the first torqued ellipse built.

Rail: What do you think of the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who also had worked in steel, pretty much the same time if not before you?

Serra: The person I knew better was Chillida’s mentor, Jorge Oteiza, whose work comes out of the marriage of Malevich and mysticism. He did a tremendous amount of work in a two or three year period. Around 1955–57, Oteiza was probably the world’s leading figure in terms of sculptural invention. He was the big force in the Basque country.

Rail: How did you meet Oteiza?

Serra: I met him through Carmen Giménez, who is a very close friend of mine. She introduced me to Oteiza when I went to Bilbao twenty-five years ago to participate in a show that Carmen had organized in the museum there.

Rail: Tell us about the genesis of the Stop Bush image?

Serra: The whole Abu Ghraib atrocity got me very angry. I went to some marches, but I wanted to do more than that. After having created the image, several of us here at the studio started a website called, and we decided to make the image available to anyone who wanted to print it out. Subsequently we printed thousands of posters with that image to be distributed at both conventions and we mounted it on a billboard on 10th Avenue. Later when the Whitney asked whether I would agree that they include the original drawing in this year’s Biennale, I thought why not? But I don’t confuse art and politics, I think of the Abu Ghraib image purely as a graphic image made for a political poster.

Rail: Artists used to do more of that in the ‘60s; for example, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Irving Petlin and Mark di Suvero, were among the members of Artists and Writers Protest, and later Art Workers Coalition.

Serra: Leon Golub was a social-political narrative artist, so if he made posters, they naturally would be an extension of his vision. The same can be said about Nancy Spero’s and Barbara Kruger’s work.

Rail: Have you ever been political before? I’m not talking about the controversy surrounding the public work—

Serra: Well, my brother Tony Serra is an attorney in San Francisco who has defended the Black Panther leader Huey Newton, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Hell’s Angels, and he was involved in the defense of BALCO. I grew up in a fairly active political family. I try to separate, however, what I do politically from what I do in the studio. I really don’t think one thing has anything to do with the other.

Rail: Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox represents a great chasm between those who relate many experiences to one single central vision, and those who’re scattered and diffused in their thinking. The first kind of intellectual and artistic temperament is attributed to the hedgehog, the second to the fox. My question to you is, are you the hedgehog or the fox?

Serra: I don’t know, I don’t have any distance on myself. I can’t see myself in those terms; what do you think?

Rail: I think you’re a hedgehog.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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