And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
act v. scene i. Athens. The palace of theseus.
On Thursday, July 16th, 1981, American sculptor Richard Serra was invited to speak in front of the recently extended Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building, on the Federal Plaza, in the Civic Center district of New York City. It was a warm day, in the low 80s, with a soft north by northwest wind. As Serra’s speech took shape his words solidified into a giant steel arc, rusted despite the low humidity. This was not the first time Serra’s speech had taken ferric form; it had happened elsewhere in the city, and in other cities around the world. The explanation appears to be that Serra, formerly a steelworker, was so concerned with material substance that his speech manifested itself in terms of steel. This particular speech remained in sculptural form, in situ, for 8 years, until the cool, dark hours of Wednesday, March 15, 1989, when Judge Jon Newman declared its removal, saying:
Serra has already had six years to convey his message through the sculpture's presence in the Plaza. Since the First Amendment protects the freedom to express one's views, not the freedom to continue speaking forever, the relocation of the sculpture after a lengthy period of initial display does not significantly impair Serra's right to free speech.1
Other than the steel arc, no other recording of Serra’s July 16th speech was made. Photographs of the arc, from various angles, both earthly and aerial, prove its former presence. Those who remember it recall that it was primarily about “art,” and also that it said something about its place in front of an important government building in the middle of the city’s political arena. As a New York City resident the opportunity was an honor that Serra did not take lightly, as revealed by the massive weight and tilt of his manifest words. The artist, therefore, was not pleased about the destruction of his expression; he had been asked to speak in the plaza as a sculptor, not as an architectural decorator or a government agent. Today, Serra’s Federal Plaza speech, hereafter called “Tilted Arc,” does not exist, but a broken steel arc is stored in Maryland, a context that renders another interpretation.
Tilted Arc was not a lone occurrence; Serra’s expressions began taking rusted steel form first in 1970, in Kyoto, Japan, and then later that year in Toronto, St. Louis, and the Bronx, NYC. On April 24, 1980, a little more than one year prior, six blocks west, and four blocks north of Tilted Arc, Serra expressed “St. John’s Rotary Arc,” a manifestation of similar concerns. In April of 1983, two arcs, “Clara-Clara,” were expressed in Paris, and in 1986 another pair of arcs, the “Berlin Curves,” were made manifest before the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin as part of the exhibition “Der unverbrauchte Blick.” In 1987 these same two curves were renamed “Berlin Junction” and moved to an intersection in front of the Berlin Philharmonie in the Kulturforum. In contrast to Tilted Arc, this recontextualization did not destroy Serra’s message but facilitated an interpretation of its rusted steel form. This essay is about these two speech acts, Tilted Arc and Berlin Junction, called: “Richard Serra’s Personhood in New York and Berlin.” The sculptural arcs are referred to as spoken expressions of Serra’s personhood in the tradition of droit moral, or Moral Rights Law, as agreed upon by 171 countries worldwide.
For a moment, let us pretend that the steel arcs are not the fixed forms of Serra’s spoken expression, but rather, that they are objects found in an environment, like sculpturally-shaped rocks or ruins. Certainly, then, where they are found they are imposing and disruptive to the urbane order of their sites. They are like rugged mineral outcroppings or traces of past civilization, “let be,” spared from the bulldozer of progress, as though to keep in remembrance something otherwise lost. As such objects, found in situ, there is an obvious complaint should some individual assign a private meaning to their encounters, for as found-objects they should be open to the free encounter of everyday people just as cities are freely open. Some terms of this proposition are difficult, like “free” and “people,” but these will be dealt with later. For now, let us pretend that the steel arcs are not speech acts — where they exist in a landscape they are discoverable as found-objects.
This pretense requires a type of learned sight-reading already learned by modern people. It is part of our inherited Enlightened worldview; a form of seeing that has lost its faith in the meanings of personal experience and put its trust in the natural visual order. The disavowing of personal meanings enables the making of larger, more universal, judgements: such is the power of “demystification” and the disenchantment of material reality. Once disenchanted the truths of the objective world become like their archeological fact: a sacred oak is always merely an oak, and Serra’s rusted steel arc is always just a rusted steel arc.
This purely visual apprehension that discovers objects rather than authors does not require personal experience for its judgement. In fact, the personal context of subjective experience is suspect as mystified. An objective perception, however, especially one that is clear and distinct, has the great affordance of a universal truth once the statements about objects are properly structured. This troubling logic is demonstrated in the following dialogue between Richard Serra and the renowned American architect Peter Eisenman, in which Serra must resist Eisenman’s attempts to restructure his personal expressions into a more universal context. [Condensed for brevity.]
PE: You are interested in self-referentiality, but not in a modernist sense.
RS: My works do not signify an esoteric self-referentiality.
PE: If you don’t want to use the term self-referential, you could say your work is "structural" in that the dialogue it opens is an archeology of its own structure. This kind of structure is not an abstraction.
RS: I am not interested in whether art is called structural or abstract.
PE: What is it other than the work’s structure?
RS: I can’t answer that question.
PE: I am trying to get at the notion of structure as part of the ineffable condition of an object.
RS: I am most interested in selecting structures that define the context in question.
PE: But aren’t you interested in their self-selection rather than your selection of them?
RS: I am confused. They don’t select themselves. They are the responsibility of the person who is formulating the problem and making a decision as to the solution.
PE: You did not invent the Rotary Arc. You found it. It was preexistent.
RS: Preexistent in the world? That sounds strangely Calvinistic.
PE: No, preexistent in the context and in the universe of sculpture.
RS: No. A tilted arc did not exist in the history or repertoire of sculpture.
PE: It preexisted. It was there and you found it.
PE: It preexisted conceptually.
RS: I don’t believe that my sculptural concepts are found objects. They are inventions.
PE: In the universe of sculpture the concept suggests itself. Let us say you and I were playing a game of chess. All potential lines exist, but all lines are not necessarily winning lines nor are they necessarily elegant. Some are more beautiful or elegant than others.
RS: I don’t subscribe to the chess-board theory. There aren’t any rules. I make them up as I go along, and I never consider "beauty" in my solutions. 2
In this interview, Eisenman’s attempts to recontextualize Serra’s expressions, away from Serra’s own uses toward a more universal context, if successful would eliminate the novelty of Serra’s words. The two speakers were in fact producing two speech acts. Eisenman presented his conception of Serra’s artistic concerns, while Serra labored to create what was uniquely his own. Eisenman believed that Serra’s objects existed as he himself found them, archaeologically, rather than as invented and placed in situ by Serra.
The dialogue poses an existential dilemma akin to Tilted Arc and Berlin Junction: if Eisenman succeeded in his conception, it would mean the destruction of Serra’s act of speaking. Serra must hold his ground if his expressions are to withstand Eisenman's recontextualization. If his own conceptual inventions are restructured then their physical forms, the steel arcs, lose their relation to Serra’s concept “Serra’s rusted steel arcs,” rather than just any rusted steel arcs, and thereby cease to exist as placed. For Eisenman the found-arcs exist, in fact, as objects of his own expression. In his interview about the said objects, Serra becomes unnecessary. Should the whole world be such an encounter, Serra would also cease to exist.
There are good reasons, then, to reject a merely objective encounter with the steel arcs. Foremost, such an encounter is really no encounter at all but merely the revisiting of familiar domains — the whole world as an image of ourselves. Secondly, such an encounter reinforces an established order of things by not recognizing new conceptual objects. Thirdly, such a denial silences the voice of any person speaking outside-of the existing context therefore removing critical commentary. Fourthly, but especially not least, it depreciates the joy and pleasure of meeting objects on-their-own-terms as manifestations of another being’s intelligence and presence.
There are also good reasons for accepting the steel arcs as Serra’s spoken words as imagined. For one, the discussion of visual expression benefits from the metaphor of communication — artistic creations appear to “speak.” Similarly, iterative mark-making is analogous to language whether ink-on-paper or steel-on-concrete. Furthermore, phenomenologically, those who author or produce things tend to give reasons or profess, “no reason.” Accordingly, as a result of such and similar concerns, there is a legal tradition of protecting art objects as speech acts known as “moral rights.”
Moral Rights Law began in the 19th century with the French legal tradition of droit moral. Informed by the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, droit moral sought to establish in law that artistically created objects were not just their material artefact, subject to property rights, but were, in fact, projections of the artist’s personality into a world of objects, and therefore necessitated a protection of an author’s “moral rights.” 3 Such rights protect the artist’s manifested personhood from mutilation and defamation. By example, if a sculpture is altered by an estate holder it is no longer the artist’s realization though it retains the artist’s name. It is thereafter a material misrepresentation of the artist’s self-expression. An artist’s “good name” therefore needs protection against slander. An exception is made in the case of destruction when nothing misrepresentative any longer exists, and other exceptions are found in cases concerning artworks in the United States, as will be shown presently.
Moral Rights Laws are part of an international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, originally signed by eight countries including France and Germany on September 9th, 1886. 4 The Moral Rights protection was added in the 1928 Rome Act revision, Article 6bis, and signed by 30 countries:
Independent of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation. 5
In 1988, after 102 years of refusal, the United States agreed to sign the treaty with the passing of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988. This Congressional Act, however, carefully removed the moral rights article with “Section 3. Construction of the Berne Convention”:
(b) Certain Rights Not Affected.—The provisions of the Berne Convention, the adherence of the United States thereto, and satisfaction of United States obligations thereunder, do not expand or reduce any right of an author of a work, whether claimed under Federal, State, or the common law—
(1) to claim authorship of the work; or
(2) to object to any distortion, mutilation, or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the work, that would prejudice the author's honor or reputation. 6
The copyright treaty, consented to by the Berne Convention Implementation, carefully does not “expand or reduce” moral rights over economic property rights. This has a significant effect on the two rusted steel arc expressions Tilted Arc and Berlin Curves. Most speech acts, after all, do not solidify, but remain in Theseus’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “airy nothings,” without locations and names. Locations and names, however, turn speech into real property, an alchemy often achieved by the poet’s pen. According to Karl Marx once creative production becomes property industrial capitalism then melts the poetical object back into air, “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” 7 These are fast transactions. Where does the poet or sculptor or free-speaking citizen figure into such relations? In the case of Richard Serra’s New York speech act . . .
In this case, the speaker is the United States Government. "Tilted Arc" is entirely owned by the Government and is displayed on Government property. Serra relinquished his own speech rights in the sculpture when he voluntarily sold it to GSA; if he wished to retain some degree of control as to the duration and location of the display of his work, he had the opportunity to bargain for such rights in making the contract for sale of his work. Nothing GSA has done limits the right of any private citizen to say what he pleases, nor has Serra been prevented from making any sculpture or displaying those that he has not sold. Rather, the Government's action in this case is limited to an exercise of discretion with respect to the display of its own property. 8
According to the attorney for NYC, future mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Serra sold his unique expression when he sold its material manifestation. His speech act thenceforth belongs to the new owner of the rusted steel object. In contrast, Serra’s speech act “Berlin Curves” had a much different destiny. Whereas the U.S. legislation limited moral rights, German moral rights are even more expansive than Article 6bis according to the German Copyright Act of 9 September 1965 last amended in 2013. German moral rights differ from other European law by not differentiating between moral and property rights, an approach called monist, rather than distinctly separate, or dualist. This not only protects the personhood of an artist but secures their profit from works that represent their personality, as guaranteed by Articles 11 & 14:
(11) Copyright protects the author in his intellectual and personal relationships to the work and in respect of the use of the work. It shall also serve to ensure equitable remuneration for the exploitation of the work.
(14) The author has the right to prohibit the distortion or any other derogatory treatment of his work which is capable of prejudicing his legitimate intellectual or personal interests in the work. 9
The German Copyright Act guarantees that the poet’s material expression remains the poet’s material property. By law, then, a commissioned artwork thereafter does not include the sale of an artist’s selfhood and authors keep possession of their spoken words. Richard Serra, a U.S. citizen, felt this difference in the reception of his two rusted steel arcs, one in New York and one in Berlin, as he reported to Deborah Solomon for The New York Times in 1989, the year of Tilted Arc’s destruction:
In this country the right of property exceeds all other rights. Art is property, and if you sell your art, you've sold your free speech. We're not very far from seeing Reagan on a bronze horse in our Federal plazas.
In Europe you have a historical continuum of public sculpture that's gone on from Donatello to Rodin and continues today. In the United States, you have just the opposite; the Government has excluded the possibility of any public sculpture that does not reinforce the official ideology of the state. 10
Serra’s political grievance was specific. The Art in Architecture program that funded Tilted Arc’s commission was a program of the General Services Administration in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, a program that Reagan intended to end when he took office in 1981. 11 After the installation of Tilted Arc in 1981 twenty-five Art in Architecture projects were suspended, as new rules for conservation and locationality were formulated. 12 Although not achieved during Reagan’s presidency, the 1990 legislation, the Visual Artists Rights Act, set in law a change in direction for moral rights. On paper, it appears to make amends for the moral rights omission of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 and this was probably the hope of its advocate, Democratic senator Ted Kennedy. But VARA did not so much expand moral rights, as it repurposed the rights to preserve material property in the name of “culture.”
The Western fine art system has a prominent point of conceptual overlap with the academic and economic valuation of antiquities or artifacts from poorer nations: the authentic, tangible object. Both types of objects have high symbolic and often nationalistic value, and their preservation is deemed a public benefit, especially in museums, which imply a degree of public access. 13
The United States government has a complicated, entangled history with modern art, as explored by Serge Guilbaut in his 1984 book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. “It is one of Mr. Guilbaut's central points,” wrote Thomas Bender in his New York Times review, “that because the Abstract Expressionists, for their own reasons, had made their art apolitical, it was possible for the editors of elite magazines, directors of museums and galleries and the Government itself to use this art in the politics of the cold war.” 14 For example, in March of 1948 American art critic Clement Greenberg described the new relations for Partisan Review: “the main premises of western art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial power and political power.” 15
The U.S. moral rights legislations of 1988 and 1990 established a desirable situation for cultural property owners: expressed personhood as tradable objecthood. Whatever imaginings the poet’s pen might draw from the air and fix in situand attribution is discoverable as a found-object belonging to the finder. In the instances of Serra’s speech solidified in giant rusted steel arcs, the found property is not merely so many tons of steel, at the market rate of raw material value, but a greatly increased value tied to a unique place and name. In the United States, according to limited moral rights, the personhood of Serra is cut loose, while Serra’s name and the material situation of an imagined steel arc remain with the object. In Germany, according to expanded copyright protection, Serra’s imagination is recognized as the special value of the steel, and Serra retains intellectual property rights.
The difference between the two policies affects not only a dreamer’s material wealth but the richness of a world populated by objects of unique expression. If, for example, Serra was asked to speak on a picturesque hillside, framed by foliage, overlooking a winding stream, his communication would not be “Tilted Arc.” Tilted Arc was a special speech made on the Federal Plaza in front of the Javits Federal Building in the civic center of Manhattan. It loses its meaning removed from this context. In fact, it fails to exist. The loss of Tilted Arc, however, is greater than the loss of a material object or even the masterwork of a premier artist — it is the loss of a meaningful expression in material poetry by a merely human being. What is more precious than bespoken existence? Although VARA preserves objecthood it does not protect speech. Serra’s expression is melted back into air.
In December of 1986, when it became obvious to Serra that his speech was going to be recontextualized, he sued the U.S. government. The court recognized that ideas need not be spoken or written to qualify as speech, but even-so, “Even if Tilted Arc is speech . . . The GSA owns the sculpture.” 16 All of Serra’s claims were dismissed: breach of contract, trademark violation, copyright infringement, and violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. Serra appealed the decision regarding his constitutional rights, saying, ‘to remove the arc was to destroy it,’ a violation of his right to free expression. 17 Serra’s lawyers cited a First Amendment decision made four years earlier, Board of Education v. Pico, in which the court ruled that removal based upon dislike of content violated free speech. In that case, the judgement was against a Long Island school district that removed nine library books. In Serra’s case, however, the court could find no content at all in his rusted steel arc:
At the very most, Serra suggests that Diamond and Ink thought that "Tilted Arc" was ugly. That is surely an assessment of the work's content, but it raises no issue under Pico since there is no assertion of facts to indicate that GSA officials understood the sculpture to be expressing any particular idea, much less that they sought to remove the sculpture to restrict such expression or convey their own disapproval of the sculptor's message. Indeed, Serra is unable to identify any particular message conveyed by "Tilted Arc" that he believes may have led to its removal. 18
“In view of the uncertainty as to the meaning,” the U.S. court decided against Serra’s appeal. And yet, it was clear to France and Germany since 1886, and to 30 countries worldwide since 1928, that the content of Tilted Arc was Richard Serra himself, who sat before a judge and jury tried for the meaning of his personhood. As in his interview with Peter Eisenman, the burden was on Serra to find the right words. The court decided he had nothing in particular to say.
This, of course, is far from the truth about Serra or any person — we are communicative creatures. Before exploring what “Tilted Arc” said, in particular, we can look at the other types of things said by Serra. Each is a unique expression of his personhood. I have four in mind: a story, a poem-of-sorts, a very long sentence, and a drawing.
The first expression is a story called “Weight” told by Serra for an exhibition in Bochum, Germany, Richard Serra, Recent Sculpture in Europe, 1986–1988. Bochum has a special meaning for Serra — his first large-scale vertical structure, Terminal, was spoken-forth in front of the Bochum railroad station. Weight also has a special meaning for Serra: “Weight is a value for me, not that it is any more compelling that lightness, but I simply know more about weight than lightness and therefore I have more to say about it . . . .” 19
One of my earliest recollections is that of driving with my father, as the sun was coming up, across the Golden Gate Bridge. We were going to Marine Shipyard, where my father worked as a pipefitter, to watch the launching of a ship. It was on my birthday in the fall of 1943. I was four. When we arrived, the black, blue, and orange steel-plated tanker was in a way, balanced up on a perch. It was disproportionately horizontal and to a four year old was as large as a skyscraper on its side. I remember walking the arc of the hull with my father, looking at the huge brass propeller, peering through the stays. Then, in a sudden flurry of activity, the shoring props, beams, planks, poles, bars, keel blocks, all the dunnage, was removed, the cables released, shackles dismantled, the come-alongs unlocked. * It was a moment of tremendous anxiety as the oiler en route rattled, swayed, tipped, and bounced into the sea, half submerged, to then raise and lift itself and find its balance. Not only had the tanker collected itself, but the witnessing crowd collected itself as the ship went through a transformation from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat, and adrift. My awe and wonder of that moment remained. All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory which has become a recurring dream. 20
The second expression is a poem of-sorts called “Verb List, 1967–68.” 21 The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns the list of words as part of its Department of Drawings and Prints: “Graphite on paper, 2 sheets, each 10 x 8". Gift of the artist in honor of Wynn Kramarsky. © 2011 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.” 22 Like the steel-plated oil tanker that rattled, swayed, tipped, and bounced into the sea, these are the actions that materials can perform:
The third expression is a very long sentence, the opening sentence in the first paragraph of an article Serra wrote for Artforum in 1980 about “St. John’s Rotary Arc,” a rusted steel arc placed in St. John’s Park, which became the Holland Tunnel exit rotary in 1927, designed to slow down cars as they enter Manhattan. Serra employed the same verb language as in the previous expressions, but rather than narrating, or listing, the action of this arc, Serra unrolled it, unwound it, turned it around and around, like an automobile exiting the Holland Tunnel on a clear, warm, spring day, like the 24th of April, 1980.
I have always thought of the Rotary as being a turntable, a cartwheel, a bottleneck extension, a continuation and completion of the New Jersey Turnpike, a highway roundabout at the exit of the Holland Tunnel and the entrance of Manhattan, a place where cars continually turn and cross lanes in apprehension of changing directions as they enter New York coming from New Jersey, a space polluted by exhaust fumes, a scene of incessant change, a hub, a place of rush hour glut, a place of disorientation and permanent rotation where, at various times of the day, the density of traffic screens the inner center of the Rotary, enforcing the distinction between the inside and the outside of the space so that the space seems to open and close with the traffic flow. 23
The fourth expression is a drawing:
The arc is a common character in Serra’s language. It described the hull of the ship that Serra saw with his father when he was four. It has the actions: to roll, to crease, to fold, to bend, to store, to twist, to curve, to rotate, to swirl, to enclose, to surround, to encircle, to weave, of waves, of tides, of time, to continue . . . . It described the exit rotary, like a turntable, a cartwheel, a bottleneck extension. Serra was told by the U.S. Copyright Office in 1987 that his arcs lacked sufficient “original artistic material” for him to claim cultural authorship. 24 ‘Familiar shapes, like arcs, cannot be copyrighted.’ Shapes, however, defined by lines, express weight for Serra and weight is how Serra expresses himself. Describing his drawings to filmmaker Lizzie Borden in 1977, Serra spoke in his language of lines, shapes, and weight, and revealed how line is spoken-forth as weight in the shape of his sculptures.
RS: The weight of the drawing doesn’t derive from the number of layers of paintstick but from the shape of the drawing. A square, for example, carries more weight as a mass than does a rectangle, for the most part, a trapezoid more than a diamond. A triangle is a very quick shape. Shapes themselves refer to their internal masses.
LB: How does line as the weight function in a sculpture?
RS: In the early work, line denotes the weight of the shapes as they incline. (It's very simply: a vertical mass does not reveal its weight in the same way as does an inclined plane, for the center of gravity has shifted. This is discernible on the edge.) For the most part, in the lead and steel structures, there is a convergence of lines at specific contact points and junctures that simultaneously gives the form its stability and equilibrium and formulates the structure of the drawing in its entirety. This idea of line as converging weight runs through the work from House of Cards to Sight Point and Terminal. 25
Serra’s drawings most often appear after their sculptural fact. They define what surprises him about his own massive expressions; they distill his experience of his worldly encounters. “Drawing is another kind of language,” Serra wrote in 1987. “Often, if you want to understand something, you have either to take it apart or to apply another kind of language to it.” 26 Serra frequently expressed this idea as follows:
Every language has a structure about which nothing critical can be said. To criticize a language, there must be a second language dealing with the structure of the first but possessing a new structure. 27
Do these abstract words accord with worldly realities like rusted steel arcs? The trouble with language structures, as expressed in the above quote, is visible in many of the preceding circumstances: in Eisenman and Serra’s exchange of words; in the legislation regarding moral rights; in the difference between property rights in the U.S. and Germany; in the courtroom conclusion that the “Tilted Arc” speech had no recognizable content; and in the copyright refusal based on insufficient “original artistic material.” Each of these instances acknowledged the existence of Serra’s rusted steel arcs within a given context, according to the language of that context, but not according to Serra’s language. Serra is free to speak in any form he wishes — within the given structures. If Serra wishes to speak about the structure, from outside its given context, the language within calls his speech ‘illegal’ or ‘incomprehensible.’ Serra’s speech is removed from the plaza not because of a courtroom decision but because the language spoken in the courtroom makes it disappear.
As a result, Serra’s personhood is also removed and he personally relocated to an old mining town on the western edge of the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Perhaps there are people there who speak his language. Certainly there is room to speak freely. But there is also a sadness placed in situ because Serra began in NYC and when he began he made a definite decision about working in an isolated site, saying, “No, I would rather be more vulnerable and deal directly with the reality of my living situation, which is urban.” 28 So, something is now missing in New York that yet awaits encounter in Berlin — what can be said about it? What types of things does the person of Richard Serra say?
In the final analysis it is good to hear his own words. What follows is like an illustrated lexicon, or a walk through his language, leading up to the speech acts “Tilted Arc” and “Berlin Junction.” It begins with an interview by art historian Hal Foster about Serra’s 1969 “House of Cards.” I will not interpret, but simply listen, and let Serra’s language speak for itself:
HF: Almost from the beginning you have oriented your various interests in relation to “sculpture.” Why?
RS: I think I can tell you. I started making my props. How do you hold something up against the wall? How do you use something on the wall to hold up something coming off the floor? How do you lean a couple of things together to make them free-stand? There weren’t any precedents for the props; they didn’t come out of “the specific object.” I had done rolls of lead on the floor; I understood I could take materia, roll it up, and it’d still be an object even though it was primarily about its own making. Minimalism was completely about divorced from process, whereas I was interested in manifestations of making, looking, and walking.
In a sense all the early props have a relation to the body in terms of balance and counterbalance; there an abstract reference to the body. Then I got to making House of Cards: even though it seemed it might collapse, it was in fact freestanding. You could see through it, look into it, walk around it, and I thought, “There’s no getting around it, this is sculpture.” 29
In 1969 Serra spent six weeks in Japan studying Zen temples. At the same time, he made a statement about using ‘no artificial building devices, only the necessary and relevant tools.’ 30 The following interview by Friedrich Teja Bach was published as “Skulptur als Platz” in 1978.
FB: What importance did your visit to Japan have for you in 1970?
RS: I lived in Kyoto, adjacent to the temple complexes at Myoshin-Ji. The work was built during the Kamakura period under the influence of the Daitoku-ji and the later Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. These complexes were organized with a rigorous mode of placement. The primary characteristic of both the temples and stone gardens was that the ambulatory paths around and through them were circular. The geometry of the sites prompted walking in arcs. The articulation of discrete elements within the field and the sense of the field as a whole emerged only by constant looking. The necessity of peripatetic perception is characteristic of Myoshin-Ji. Because one is forced to see discrete delineated compartments of space, this mode of perception is not Baroque, even though it involves circular movements. In a sense all the early props have a relation to the body in terms of balance and counterbalance; there an abstract reference to the body. Then I got to making House of Cards: even though it seemed it might collapse, it was in fact freestanding. You could see through it, look into it, walk around it, and I thought, “There’s no getting around it, this is sculpture.”
. . .
The same year, I placed a circular ring of steel flush with the ground in Japan, and a similar price in the Bronx. 31
In 1970 Serra wanted to build something in a New York street and was told, “Manhattan is out. Try the Bronx.” 32 Serra did not want a park or a site with any specific ideological connotation, so he chose a dead-end street in a broken-down neighborhood. The Bronx site was less than ideal, he told Douglas Crimp in a 1980 interview, but it helped develop his language.
DC: Ideally, then, you would choose a neutral site with which the sculpture would not have to compete?
RS: Except in sculptural terms. But there is no neutral site. Every context has its frame and its ideological overtones. It’s a matter of degrees. There is one condition that I want, which is a density of traffic flow. I wouldn’t go to a leftover, picturesque pier.
DC: Although the Bronx site was like that. Did that work have an audience?
RS: The place in the Bronx was sinister, used by the local criminals to torch the cars they’d stolen. There was no audience for the sculpture in the Bronx, and it was my misconception that the so-called art audience would seek the work out. But even in being problematic the work in the Bronx clarified the issue. 33
One of the experiences that impressed Serra at the Japanese gardens was a type of seeing that required constant walking and looking. The whole visual field, as seen from a central perspective, was unavailable; some parts of the garden were hidden until they were revealed by motion and time, through the viewer’s walking and looking. This is a different type of seeing than from an aerial photograph, a view Serra calls Baroque or Gestalt, like the view of a plaza from a tall office building — it requires participation, and frustrates a sense of total control. Serra experimented with this idea in “Shift,” from 1970–71. Like walking through a field, over one hill to see the next, this idea is expressed in the unfolding of a narrative.
We located Dufferin Road, which is in the eastern-most approach to the site from a topological survey map. Surrounded on three sides by trees and swamp, the site is a farming field consisting of two hills separated by a dogleg valley. In the summer of 1970, Joan and I spent five days walking the place. We discovered that two people walking the distance of the field opposite one another, attempting to keep each other in view despite the curvature of the land, would mutually determine a topological definition of the space. The boundaries of the work became the maximum distance two people could occupy and still keep each other in view. 34
Since Sight Point, I have continued to develop vertical structures. The essential quality of these works is that you can walk into, pass through, and move around them, I like the disjunction, the ambiguity between the exterior and the interior; also the quality of the vertical volume, the fact that it traps light. 35
“Shift” and “Sight Point” are two very different speech acts. Shift is rural and horizontal. Sight Point is urban and vertical. Both, however, are large-scale constructions. “What bothered me about the Props,” Serra told Alfred Pacquement, director of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, “was that you could walk all around them but you couldn’t move into their physical space. I wanted to increase the scale to be able to walk into, through, and around them.” 36
AP: How would you describe the difference between apprehending an urban site and a landscape?
RS: My main concern is the approach to the space. In an urban site, I take into account the traffic, the streets, and the surrounding architecture. I construct a kind of disjunction with a structure that will locate the place, that relates to and at the same time separates itself from the surrounding architecture.
In the landscape, even if I go through the same process of site analysis, the sculptures have more to do with movement than with location. The landscape pieces are usually open, the urban pieces generally closed. 37
In between the two concerns of Shift and Sight Point, movement and space, open and closed, is the curve: “A curve, having no beginning, no end, no back, no front, no right, no left, denies a starting point, and any hierarchy of views and viewing positions.” 38 Serra’s first rusted steel arc was “St. John’s Rotary Arc” in 1980. It is both a vertical construction and one that involves motion and time. Like moving through a Japanese garden the arc refuses a Gestalt sight-reading but reveals a multiplicity of successive views. For the driver exiting the Holland Tunnel the arc continues the curve of the rotary, becoming an “inseparable temporal and spatial continuum.” For the pedestrian walking up and across a footbridge the successive views become a multiplicity of images, to: “intuit, fill in, complete, reconstitute, reorder, reflect, refer to, relate to, interpret, compare, remember.” From either approach, the object itself remains ambiguous, indeterminable, and unknowable. 39
AP: Could you describe Clara-Clara, the large double arc you also conceived for the Paris exhibit?
RS: As far as arcs are concerned, I first built the Rotary Arc, which has a static quality: the arc stands vertical. It is a quarter of a cylinder. Then there is Tilted Arc, in Federal Plaza, which is also a section of a cylinder, but here the arc leans slightly, and creates a different sort of volume, because it is tilted into the ground. I have the impression that the contained volume of the tilted cylinder was better defined, more in motion. Through the leaning concavity, the physical space was easier to grasp.
In Clara-Clara, one of the plates will be concave and leaning toward you, as in Tilted Arc. The other plate will be inverted, and the concavity will lean away from you. I don’t know what kind of space it will create. It’s the first time I’ve experimented with this. The interior passage between the two curves will be a tunnel with parallel tilting walls, the walls will lean thirty centimeters. What interests me about the piece is its swiftness, the mobility of the design. This is the first time I’ve dealt with conical shapes. Hopefully, the more rapid circular movement and the wide curves will eliminate any stasis. 40
“Clara-Clara” took shape soon after Serra described it to Alfred Pacquement, director of Centre Pompidou, where Serra exhibited his work from October 26, 1983 to January 2, 1984. Although Serra planned to express his sculptural concern in front of the museum, it was decided, for structural reasons related to the building, that its weight would rest better in the garden. On one fall day the art historian Yves-Alain Bois visited the gardens, and spent time walking around and through the rusted steel curves, approaching the object from a variety of perspectives. Bois, according to his occupation, already had a working-knowledge of Serra’s language. He liked the sculpture’s “delicacy,” and thought the location in the garden was a fitting “lesson in urbanism” for Parisians. Other cities, he remembered, did not welcome Serra so well. 41
Two years earlier, in New York, Tilted Arc had been compared to the Berlin Wall. Six years later, in 1988, a year before both walls were destroyed, Berlin Junction was controversially placed near the Brandenburg Gate on the site of the former Nazi Aktion T4 euthanasia program. These are heavy places and names. In the case of Berlin, a change in the function of a place was certainly welcome. And how about the Federal Plaza in 1981?
Serra called the Federal Plaza, in front of the Javits Federal Building, a “pedestal site.” 42 He was worried that his expression would lose its sculptural meaning and become a symbol of the plaza, a recontextualization that would silence his voice as a steelworker speaking about the signs of his times.
The biggest break in the history of sculpture in the twentieth century was to remove the pedestal. The historical concept of placing sculpture on a pedestal was to establish a separation from the behavioral space of the viewer. “Pedestalized” sculpture invariably transfers the effect of power by subjugating the viewer to the idealized, memorialized or eulogized theme. As soon as art is forced or persuaded to serve alien values it ceases to serve its own needs. To deprive art of its usefulness is to make other than art. 43
Tilted Arc was 120 feet long, 12 feet tall, and weighed 73 tons. It leaned slightly, encompassing pedestrians on the plaza in its volume. 44 In contrast to the “swiftness” of Clara-Clara, Tilted Arc was “a very slow arc.” 45 In the language of the courtroom the arc was called hostile to its environment, ‘cutting a swath across the plaza, dividing it in two.’ 46 The arc, however, spoke a sculptural language outside of the site’s specific contextual structure: to split, to cut, to sever, were a few of its concerns, but also, to differ, to disarrange, to open . . . of reflection, of equilibrium, of symmetry . . . of location, of context, of time . . .
The doubt, anxiety, and frustration that a viewer might feel, in confronting a work and then carrying that confrontation home with him, could be the stimulus that would bring him back not to the same experience but to another experience of the work. Certitude and specificity might just smother any potential for individual fantasy in learning to enjoy works of art. We all grow up with works of art, and I think we grow up with them quite privately. We don't really need that private fantasy we have about particular objects — whether in memory or in anticipation of seeing them again — restructured for us. 47
“What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?” asked Bertrand Russell about language structure problems. 48 What relation must Serra’s speech have to remain free and not become the symbol of another? Russell’s answer — it must hold its ground against its surrounding context; it must not share the structure-of-words that make its expression the picture of another’s fact; only by speaking outside of the common language can it reveal its own fact, and by this difference, a difference in words, also reveal the otherwise invisible fact of another:
It is this common structure which makes it capable of being a picture of the fact, but the structure cannot itself be put into words, since it is a structure of words, as well as of the fact to which they refer. 49
Just as Tilted Arc risked being a symbol for U.S. public policy in New York City, Berlin Junction risked being a memorial for the lives of others in Berlin. Both a memorial plaque and an official T4 Memorial, a long, blue glass wall on a stone base, were installed by the German government to help disentangle Serra’s sculpture from an accidental public memorial context. Merely as found-objects, the two giant rusted steel arcs in situ of a memorial for 200,000 murders will certainly be read as a monument. But German legislation, which legally recognizes the expressed personhood of Richard Serra in the property, helped construct an understanding of Serra’s creative production according to his own personal context:
I don't want to discuss the question of monumental sculpture. It's not something I subscribe to; I don't think of my work as being monumental. 50
When we look at these pieces, are we asked to give any credence to the notion of a monument? They do not relate to the history of monuments. They do not memorialize anything. They relate to sculpture and nothing more. They do not cry out to be called monuments. A steel curve is not a monument. 51
In 1991 Serra was awarded the Lehmbruck Prize for excellence in public sculpture from the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum der Stadt in Duisburg. In his acceptance speech he voiced the difference between his sense of belonging in the U.S. and Germany: In New York City he felt that his personhood was bought and sold, an economic agenda that leads to a policy of exclusion; in Berlin he experienced an openness that enabled his full potential. In the final analysis, Richard Serra’s personhood in the two cities is best understood in his own words.
To follow the process of my work from inception to completion is the source of my potential to develop. Work can only come out of work, and I have had great opportunities here in Germany to conceive and realize works which were essential for me to build, in that they enabled me to take the next step. I have a history and will continue to have a history with Germany, which is not only important to my work but most meaningful to me personally.
The aspiration of artists cannot be to serve the consumer — to allow a system to dictate. It is obvious, though, that the more one betray one's language to commercial interests the greater the possibility that those in authority will reward one's efforts.
You might be asking yourself, “Why is Richard Serra using this occasion to voice a political diatribe against the cultural policies of his country?” It is simply that this event calls to mind the difference between the two cultural systems and how differently they have treated me. I have been victimized by one and greatly supported by the other. Once again, thank you. 52