Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 3rd July 2007)

The survey of work by Richard Serra at MOMA NY offers excellent on-line illustration, unfortunately it is in a Flash presentation, making specific links impossible (surely software designers can remedy this). However, other sources allow this post to trace Serra’s career and to settle for just pointing to MOMA’s comprehensive site.

Serra’s career has been devoted to a Minimalist approach to sculpture, emphasising basic qualities to material through minor construction. Minimalism in sculpture properly commences with the work of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, where construction to a work is firstly restricted to symmetrical modules or units and these ostensibly derived from industrial process or standards. The work is about the disengagement of materials from such process, about the difference between them. On the one hand Minimalist sculpture wants materials on industrial terms rather than those of traditional sculpture, on the other it avoids anything more than perfunctory modelling, carving, casting, welding or assembling (see also post 33). The work favours materials often reduced to mere sheets, plates, tiles or bricks, in seeking basic building-blocks for construction, yet restrains construction to no more than manual positioning, strict alignment of units or matching of wall to floor or ceiling.

Later works relax positioning in ‘scatter’ works but essentially the problem remains how to disengage materials from standard or industrial process, without falling back into traditional means, or how to ‘build’ with them without resorting to industrial process (see also Post 36). For Serra, following a little later, the material must display striking or unusual properties through minimal construction. His flung molten lead works offer a novel variation on scatter. So initially, construction is still limited to manual positioning, but materials now favour elasticity, malleability. Early works suspend or fold vulcanized rubber (examples from the MOMA show are found under the Sixth Floor option to the menu). But as Serra looks to other materials for similar give or tension, the issue shifts to one of weight and balance, and while it is not immediately obvious how a single modular sheet of timber or steel might display this, between sundry components Serra engineers precise and precarious balances that underline both mere positioning as well as weight and strength to the material. These comprise Serra’s real contribution to Minimalism.

At this point there is still nothing to dispose Serra to works of steel. Plastics, fibreglass, various common alloys and even glass, especially heavy and hardy kinds, theoretically remain options. But perhaps with an eye to tradition, to contrast with works by Alexander Calder, David Smith, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Clement Meadmore or Mark DiSuvero for example, Serra surrenders to steel. Steel becomes his signature and ultimately his sentence.

Following works prop and balance elements against one another, but increasingly, construction reaches out to an adjoining wall or corner for support and this appeal to the environment or surrounding architecture is later to prove fatal to his project. At the same time, where construction takes its cue from a specific site, dimensions to material then suggest themselves to Serra and a third distinctive trait to his work emerges. For the works not only stress weight and strength to material in precarious positioning, but by increasingly appeals to surrounding fixtures, the amount or size of material then expands to fill or squeeze the space on just these terms. Works take on, not just a grand, but bombastic even intimidating scale, impose themselves upon a site and often leave the viewer with only enough room to scurry like mice through a maze (see the second floor walk-through at MOMA’s site).

The works begin as a response to architecture, (indoors or out) a construction that begs the participation of the surroundings, but tragically, Serra’s view of the surroundings overlooks people, is only in terms of the grandest geometries. The controversy over Tilted Arc (1981-9), irrespective of contractual obligations, underlines the resentment to works that place a premium on scale and competition with real estate, in the name of sculpture. Significantly, these later works have long since exchanged manual positioning for more industrial means in order to take advantage of greater scale, so that their Minimalist cache is a hollow one in any case. The works in fact have more in common with later, more elaborate ‘readily-mades’ (see also Posts 8 and 25) but as this they then look too traditional, fail as simply monumental indulgences. Where works consistently list, sag or slump, have trouble staying upright without curling and crowding the visitor, a symbol is suggested; perhaps less person than place.

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