"What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are, by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are." —Richard Serra
Concerns quintessentially sculptural have engaged Richard Serra for more than thirty years, although as a young artist in New York in the late 1960s he was strongly affected by the work of a number of contemporary dancers, above all Yvonne Rainer. Such work prompted him to consider "ways of relating movement to material and space," he has explained, in that it allowed him "to think about sculpture in an open and extended field in a way that is precluded when dealing with sculpture as an autonomous object. . . . I found very important the idea of the body passing through space, and the body's movement not being predicated totally on image or sight or optical awareness, but on physical awareness in relation to space, place, time, movement."1 A visit to a number of Zen gardens in Kyoto while on a trip to Japan in 1970 reinforced Serra's growing preoccupation with work that was defined through the processes of its reception. There he discovered that "your vision is peripatetic and not reduced to framing an image. It includes and is dependent upon memory and anticipation. . . . The relationship of time, space, walking, and looking—particularly in arcs and circles—constitutes the only way you can see certain Japanese gardens."2
Redefining this requirement of extended temporality and nomadic vision, Serra's recent series of Torqued Ellipses elaborates concerns with orientation and movement into tightly contained sculptures that radically challenge modernist notions of sculptural space. For in these works space shifts and moves in wholly unpredictable and unprecedented ways: so destabilizing yet so beguiling is this sensation of movement that the spectator quickly gets caught up in an exploration of extended duration.
Rolled-steel plates, each two inches thick and weighing twenty tons, stand abutted. This forthright, direct presentation, characteristic of Serra's aesthetic, gives little hint of the fundamental newness and potency of the experience offered in these monumental works—and also fails to betray the prolonged and difficult process of their realization. By Serra's account, the initial idea for this body of work was breathtakingly simple: take an elliptical volume of space and torque it. After an inspirational visit to Francesco Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church in Rome in the early 1990s, he began to try to devise such a space. Experimenting with two small wood ellipses held parallel but angled to each other by a dowel, he created a "wheel" from which he cut and rolled a template in lead. By varying the angles at which the ellipses were set to each other, or by modifying the overall proportions, or by introducing a second component within the first, he gradually assembled some thirty models for large-scale sculptures. With the aid of a computer program, he then calculated the positions and angles at which sheets of steel would need to be bent in order to realize such works at full scale.
The problem next confronting Serra was to find a steel mill capable of this exacting task, a difficulty compounded by the fact that the job required a special type of roller and by his need to work with the maximum-size plate available, that is, with sixteen-foot sheets. After considerable research, it became apparent that there were perhaps only two rollers in existence that could carry out the project. Beth Ship, a shipyard and rolling mill outside Baltimore, agreed to undertake the work without fully comprehending the complexities entailed. Several trials were required before the first sculpture was completed, in late 1996.
The results are informed by his signature clarity, stringency, and rigor. In tracking the exteriors of the sculptures (in the particular configuration installed in the former train depot at Beacon), one is always in close proximity to the steel skins, and this sets up a dramatic tension between one's bodily awareness and one's vision. Inside, the converse of what is occurring at one's feet seems to be happening over one's head; the works consequently generate bodily based movements and responses that are neither necessarily nor exclusively initiated by looking or seeing. Though it is arguably even more difficult to follow visually the motion of the curving walls leading to the interior of these works than to track the exterior modulations, only there do the footprint of the sculpture and the shape of its upper profile become evident. Each is a perfect ellipse, and each has the same radius; these ellipses never align, however, instead angling one to the other. Therein lie both the structural and the compositional sources of such unprecedented spatial experiences.
Union of the Torus and the Sphere (2001), one of the latest works to extend this vocabulary, presents a closed form, an exception in Serra's oeuvre: extravagantly tilting, obviously hollow, it encourages a kind of vertigo as the viewer edges around the deliberately constricted space, a site selected by the artist for its snug fit and for the dramatic immediacy of the encounter. In contrast, Elevational Wedge (2001) evolves directly from earlier bodies of work, as it subtly alters the proportions of the room in which it is located, testing perceptual and conceptual apprehension of the relation between the assumed horizontal plane and the ground, and tempering routine assumptions regarding the built environment and the spectator's relationship to it.
1. Richard Serra, in an interview with Lynne Cooke and Michael Govan, in Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1997), pp. 27–28.
2. Ibid, pp. 28–29.