Richard Serra: Tilted Arc
The combination of law and hedge in the word nomos is quite manifest in a fragment of Heraclitus: … ‘the people should fight for the law as for a wall.’”1
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Where there was once a long span of curved steel—not a wall, not a girder but a horizon of movement—there’s now a mound of shrubs. There are other elliptical islands of greenery and slabs of marble for seating, but the plaza is empty. The perimeter is blocked off by metal stanchions and No Access signs. From the black-glass building, a federal security guard comes out to tell me that photographs aren't allowed. Those are his instructions. He can't say when the plaza will be open again, but it is open sometimes, yes.
In July 1981, Richard Serra installed 75-tons of steel in the plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. The work, commissioned by the General Services Administration (GSA) Art-in-Architecture Program, was a curved plane of Cor-Ten steel twelve-feet high and 120-feet long, cutting through the plaza’s spiraling tiles and inclining toward the two Modernist buildings on its concave side. “This experience of space may startle some people,” Serra said.2 In 1989, the work was dismantled during the night by federal workers and hauled to a government motor pool in Brooklyn.
Detractors complained about the “rusty metal wall,” which attracted graffiti, they said, and rats. During the 1985 public hearing convened, ostensibly, to determine the fate of Tilted Arc, one opponent of the work cited both Gertrude Stein (“a wall is a wall is a wall” [sic]) and Robert Frost (“Something there is that doesn't love a wall”). Though numerous factors ensured the destruction of Tilted Arc, I’m interested in the rhetorical transformation of the work from a threshold for change to an unyielding surface—from an arc to a wall.
Think of a wall and all it implies: for the neighbor, the nation, or the lover peering through the chink. A wall offers the tantalizing possibility of trespass and transgression, as in the graffiti that began to appear on Tilted Arc. By the time it was installed, the lexicon of tagging had jumped from the street to the subways, to the gallery. That year, exhibitions at the Mudd Club, FUN Gallery, and P.S. 1 featured train bombers, taggers, and street artists such as Lee Quiñones, Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the December 1981 issue of Artforum, critic Rene Ricard noted the emergence of their mark-making from the ancient, anonymous life of the streets: “Any Tag by any teenager on any train on any line is fairly heartbreaking. In these autographs is the inherent pathos of the archaelogical site, the cry down the vast endless track of time that ‘I am somebody’ on a wall in Pompeii, on a rock at Piraeus, in the subway graveyard at some future archaelogical dig…” He singled out Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and charged them with claiming their iconic worth—not as taggers but as artists.
When the writing on the wall moves indoors, it gains legitimacy as an object of private consumption.
Richard Serra didn’t place much faith in the privatized space of the museum or gallery, nor was he interested in the pictorial surface of walls. When he traced that first line of chalk across the tiles of the plaza, he crouched down to watch legal clerks and secretaries come and go from the office building like line workers heeding the noon hour whistle. He observed their patterns of movement along established routes. What he was after wasn’t obstruction or boundless freedom of motion, but a taut articulation of enclosure and unfolding. Mobilized in relation to this horizon, the viewer was positioned to encounter a new field of perception—the self as subject, occupying the site in relation to other subjects in space. “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza.” said Serra, “As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.”3
The field of perception does not make merely aesthetic claims. This is the space of what Arendt calls “appearing” in her discussion of the polis: “where I appear to others as others appear to me, where people exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly.”4 What does it mean to make one’s appearance “explicitly”? In what sense can we call this a political act? For Arendt, human freedom is enacted in the realm of public action and speech, among a community of equals. The possibilities of word and deed arise in the space between beings, whose bodies, as they appear to one another—bearing the weight of their particular histories—create the site for newness. Critics of TiltedArc complained that the work blocked sightlines and impeded movement. But for Arendt, recalling the walled enclosure of the Greek polis, bounded space is precisely the condition in which one might appear as a citizen and political actor. Here, boundlessness is not the condition for freedom, but the consequence of political action: “one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”5
Consider Tilted Arc itself as a fragment: a section of that ring-wall that once circled the Greek city-state—a boundary defining the city as a political community, rather than a collection of buildings. But a fragment only—an artifact from a phantom site whose designation as public space has been reclaimed by the state, whose function mainly concerns the protection of private property. This relic appeared in the plaza in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Over the next decade, as Reagan dismantled the public sector, slashing federal housing assistance and gutting federal aid to cities, the number of Americans living in poverty soared; the number of children living in poverty grew by over one million. The federal military budget ballooned alongside the nation’s incarcerated population, which grew by over 130 percent. By the end of the decade, the richest one percent of Americans owned more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. Tilted Arc was a rebuke to Reagan’s banner of freedom—a code word for his policies of national renewal. Alongside the barriers of privatization, the arc traced a different boundary, establishing a space where we appear to one another in our singularity and difference, as political subjects.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 63.
- Remarks delivered during the 1985 public hearing convened by the GSA; see hearing transcript, “The Matter of: A Public Hearing on the Relocation of ‘Tilted Arc’ at Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, March 6, 1985, p. 40.
- Remarks delivered during the 1985 public hearing convened by the GSA; see hearing transcript, “The Matter of: A Public Hearing on the Relocation of ‘Tilted Arc’ at Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, March 6, 1985, p. 39.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998) 198-199.
- Ibid, 190.
NICOLE MILLER is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.