Conversations About Sculpture
In May 2008, as the Parisian daylight stretched into summer hours, Richard Serra’s set of five 56-foot-tall steel plates, Promenade, had taken over the city’s cavernous, glass-roofed Grand Palais. In the Tuileries Garden, Serra’s 1983 work Clara-Clara, with its paired, inverted semicircles (or more precisely, conical sections), had been reinstalled in its original location at the garden’s gate to accompany the new work. I was a graduate student in Paris at the time, and I watched as Clara-Clara elicited strong reactions from promenaders in the garden. Over the first few weeks of the installation, dusty white handprints and footprints began to appear on the sculpture where passersby had taken the work’s presence as an affront or physical challenge and slapped or kicked the curved sides of the sculpture.
In Serra and Hal Foster’s series of conversations—edited to form the 13 chapters of Conversations About Sculpture that guide the reader through subjects ranging from Serra’s early influences and engagement with art history to the primary conceptual motivations behind his work to the controversies that have shaped his public persona—Serra insists that Promenade’s string of looming vertical plates, installed down the central axis of the Grand Palais, did not reinforce their own monumentality, or overbearing effect. Instead, the plates dislocated the easy path down the center of the 19th century glass palace, offering visitors a choice of how to proceed around them. “One of the reasons I became interested in the dislocation of paths,” Serra reveals, “is to create a more complex matrix for the viewer.” (Of his more recent works that interlock ellipses and other fluid geometrical structures, like those in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years at MoMA in 2007, Serra refers to this dynamic of dislocation and choice as “thinking on your feet.”)
One of Serra’s guiding principles, that he and Foster return to again and again throughout these conversations, is his resistance to the reduction of his sculpture to an image. As Foster explains in his introduction to the book, Serra’s resistance is to the psychological concept of the gestalt, or a coalescing of a perceived object into a unified image rather than a set of discreet stimuli. In 2008 the Tuileries’s Clara-Clara made this resistance clear, defying resolution into an urban pastoral image with the rest of the park to the point that park-goers desired to make physical contact, to feel its texture, or maybe to push it out of the frame of the sleek, manicured lawns and allées.
Often, though, Serra’s sculptures exude the effects of monolithic works. Union of the Torus and the Sphere (2001)—a work that New Yorkers know from its installation at Dia:Beacon, for example—has an imposing, closed, warped presence, with the seam of the two plates betraying the light and space at the center of the sculpture at one end of the work. Serra’s perspective on his own work—his explanations for how and why he makes work, and how he believes his works live in the world—conveys a similar effect. Some of the pleasure of reading this book derives from that effect of an artist who has engaged deeply with art history and the place of his work in it. (Some of the pleasure derives from moments of tension between Serra and Foster that arise as the artist interprets his own work and other works from recent art history. In one illustrative example, Serra judges the use of photographs by Robert Smithson and the Pictures Generation as too textual, estranging the artwork from the physical world we live in; for Foster, this is precisely the strategy artists like Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler embrace, turning Serra’s “problem” into a strategy for commenting on the mediatized world we live in. Foster, the art historian and critic, has the last word.)
As Foster points out at moments throughout these conversations, Serra’s reading of his work shares some of its spirit with some tenets of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology—specifically, Merleau-Ponty’s explanations for how we perceive the world from the vantage of our bodies. Serra recounts several anecdotes (watching a train bend along a track from a vantage point in one of the train cars; watching the sea as he walked up the beach only to turn around in the other direction and have the world’s volumes shift) that Foster compares to tales from Merleau-Ponty. “A right-handed world first, so to speak,” Foster explains of Serra’s beach story, “then a left-handed world, sutured together by your body, with the world pivoting on your turning.”
In these conversations, Serra stakes out a territory against the image as well as against intention. Like the textuality he criticizes in Smithson’s works, intention and language are not to supplant the experience of perceiving the work, a precept that Serra references to delineate further his quarrel with Conceptual art. Serra argues his well-known Verblist (1967–68) is not conceptual since it does not prescribe a concept; it makes no statement, he argues, but rather offers a list of actions that describe processes. As Serra’s wife, Clara Weyergraf-Serra, who contributes to several of the conversations, puts it, “[T]he Verblist actually generated works.” And in referencing a more recent return to drawing in his practice, Serra remarks on the importance of “[t]he nuance of the experience of making, the sheer pleasure derived from the activity of drawing.” Making supersedes intention or composition in some ways. “The gestalt,” Serra explains, “is a great limitation, a pictorial limitation: the viewer can complete the image of an object by looking at one part only.” In other words, works easily reducible to the pictorial—to artistic intention, or pictorial composition—rob the work and the viewer of surprise, of the pleasure of making the work or the experience of viewing the work.
In discussing his return to drawing, Serra calls his drawings more lyrical than his other “heavy pieces.” The book’s black-and-white frontispiece, a photo by Robert Frank, catches Serra half in shadow, his head and shoulders illuminated like a sculptural bust against the arching background of his own sculpture. The image heroizes Serra in a mythic moodiness, like one of his “heavy pieces,” his eyes peering out beneath a furrowed brow and smooth bald head gleaming white in the light, rhyming with imperfections in the metal of the sculpture that gleam white in the upper right background of the image. But, Weyergraf-Serra offers an anecdote that proposes a different way of perceiving heaviness in Serra’s sculpture. “A surfer,” she recounts, “wrote a delightful text about the torqued pieces comparing them to surfing—to the kind of exhilaration he feels when pushing off on a rising wave.” Heaviness—as a physical quality of the work, or conceptual armature of the artist or critic—becomes a play of perception, an effect of gravity, a force that you might use to propel yourself weightlessly forward.