|A publication of the International Sculpture Center
Defining, Dividing Space:
A Conversation with Richard
by Jonathan Peyser
the Torus and the Sphere, 2001. Weatherproof steel, 142 x 447
x 125 in.
Courtesy of Gagosian
Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres, the artists most extensive
exhibition of major sculpture in New York since his 1986 retrospective
at the Museum of Modern Art, took place last fall at the Gagosian Gallery.
The exhibition demonstrated once again that Serra is one of the major
artists of our time.
Many of the sculptures in this show are made to be entered. Why?
After I built the prop pieces in the late 60s, I decided to open
up the continuum of space. I wanted to remove the work from the limitations
of the object, or the definition of the specific object, as articulated
by Donald Judd and Minimalism, which remained predicated on a gestalt
reading. Having decided that, I then had to find a way of doing it. I
built a piece for Jasper Johns, about 1970, with a small plate that I
was using as a template to splash against. I placed the plate in the corner
and realized that it was freestanding. Then I took a single 8-by-24-foot
plate and just let it bisect the corner of a room (Strike, 1971),
which divided and declared the space. You had to walk around the room
to see the piece. You could not separate the perception of the piece from
its site or, in a more general sense, from the continuum of space. Once
I installed Strike, I decided that I might as well take four plates
and bisect the four corners of a room. The result was Circuit,
built for Documenta in 1972 from four 8-by-24-foot plates with an open
central core. Once you stepped into the room, you were in the volume of
the piece. After these installations, axiomatically propping elements
and creating constructions that were precariously balanced but did not
allow you to enter became less of an issue. Declaring, defining, and dividing
the space became the principle that I continue to work with. The context
there any historic precedent that led you to this notion of having people
participate by being able to walk through the art?
RS: No. Those
causalities never occurred to me. I simply found that with prop pieces
such as House of Cards (1969), but particularly with the wall props
in Castellis Warehouse show in 1968, where there was
a lot of propping overhead to hold up what was underneath, the viewer
had to maintain his distance from the pieces and could only relate to
them perceptually. I wanted to break that distance and create works that
you could walk into, through, and around, to open up the field. I thought
it would lead to a different kind of experience, and I tried to
find a way to articulate that.
To Roberta and Rudy, 1969.
Hot rolled steel, 96 x 288 x 1 in.
qualities or features of your sculptures compel us to react as we pass
RS: I was
in Kyoto maybe 35 years ago, at the beginning of the 70s. Looking
at the temple gardens I found that they reveal themselves only by walkingnothing
really happens without movement, which becomes the very basis of perception.
Being in Kyoto was very different from being in Florence and looking at
Piero della Francesca. Renaissance space is constructed by centralizing
the focus. In the temple gardens of Kyoto the field is open, and your
participation, observation, and concentration are based on movement, looking
is inseparable from walking. The essential difference is not only the
protracted time of looking, but the fact that you, your relationship to
the objects perceived, become the subject of perception. Once I began
to understand that this was a different kind of experience defined by
an essentially different relation of viewer to objectin that you,
the viewer, are the subject relating to an object in time and spaceit
shifted the focus for me. It sounds like a small thing, but I think it
was primary for my development. I came back and built a piece for the
Pulitzers (Pulitzer Piece, 1971) that extended over three or four
acres and was based on walking and looking in relation to a shifting horizon.
That development in my work would not have occurred if I had not been
been reading about the notion of bodily perception. Is this what you mean?
RS: My Kyoto discovery
coincided with my reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who talks about how
your body grasps space in relation to time and how the body becomes the
measure of your perceptions. He offered another analytical tool for breaking
the frontal/parallel orientation of Minimalism. That said, I also have
to say that for me Judd was an enormous figure. He was probably the artist
who best digested Barnett Newman and as a result did the most empowering
work, albeit still coming out of a gestalt planar reading. I found the
gestalt reading of a confined specific object in a room to be a great
limitation. I needed to open that space up and find a way of entering
into, through, and around it.
sculptures also feel communal. One frequently meets other viewers exploring
the interior corridors. What do you think elicits this response?
really hard for me to explain because I didnt anticipate the kind
of response that occurred with the torqued ellipses. Up to that point
there had been a lot of aggression or hostility toward the work, the kind
of bashing that you get for doing something that people find overbearing
or threatening. While the Dia show was up, I found people going back to
the same piece several times, and I found another kind of collective or
shared experience. All I knew was that when we built these pieces in the
shipyard, the workers who first saw them finished were startled by them
and kept going back inside. I think the ellipses provided an experience
that they hadnt had before, neither in nature nor in architecture.
It was new for them, and they wanted to figure out exactly what that experience
was. You dont need to be educated in the history of sculpture to
respond to work like this, because the understanding is basically behavioral
and experiential. Even though everyones experience is different
given what they bring to it, on a very basic level those experiences have
the potential of connecting and understanding. I watched a woman being
helped out of her wheelchair to slowly walk into one of the ellipses and
touch the walls. Things like that made me feel that there was something
that people related to that was different in kind, if not quality, to
the work that Id made before, but I have no way of explaining it.
These works are not predicated on images. I think if works are predicated
on images you collect the image: sometimes you can retain it, sometimes
not. For me, the better works make you go back for the fulfillment of
an experience thats not commensurate with what youve retained,
therefore the experience always remains vital. There are works I continually
go back to, whether its Matisses Red Room or a good Pollock.
There are other
works in which there is a certain kind of closure once youve grasped
the image. The ellipses and spirals do not deliver any particular defining
image. If you ask somebody which image or images they retained they will
invariably tell you that they retained an experience not an image. The
artists I found empowering for my development included Pollock and Newman,
who in their best works defy image retention. Experience is either evoked
through line and process or through color and plane. My generation was
probably more influenced by Pollock and Newman than the generation that
came after, which was more influenced by Johns and Warhol, namely image.
Sculpture was able to evolve by developing abstraction, whereas painting
seemed to dovetail back into representation because it was more vulnerable
to be media-ized whether it was by introducing printing
techniques or implicating photography. Most recent painting, with few
exceptions, has referenced print media; the prime mover for representational
painting has been media-ization, whereas abstract sculpture
remained immune from that influence.
you think your work precedes language also?
One Ton Prop
(House of Cards), 1969.
Lead antimony, four plates, each 48 x 48 in.
RS: In some
sense, yes. I started with a verb list, but that was about prescribing
activities. I have a problem with image because I always thought that
it was easy and that the photographas much as I think Warhol and
Richter have made big moves through their particular use of photographswas
a limitation, the limitation of the ready-made. Once you select and work
with a photograph, youre pretty much stuck with the surface and
the given composition. There is not much more you can do with the dialectic
of in and out, of figure and ground. I believe a lot has been lost since
Matisse and Picasso because of paintings reliance on photography.
But if you ask me if thats going to change, I
dont think so. Thats how we see the world now. But it does
seem a compositional limitation to me. You either emphasize the dot or
you blur the edge.
introduced the torus and combined it with the sphere. Where does the idea
for this shape come from?
RS: I got
the idea in a steel mill in Germany, where they were forming spherical
shapes. They used a torus as a forming tool to press a plate into a spheroid
section. Basically, any donut is a torus. In any regular donut the inside
and outside share the same radius, like the inside and outside of a ring.
I thought I might have happened upon an interesting proposition in that,
if you took a spheroid and a toroid section with identical radius they
would probably lock together, but I
wasnt sure. I couldnt study this combination because it didnt
exist anywhere, neither in industrial products nor in nature.
I had a steel donut
around, and I pounded some lead over it. I found that I could make the
torus shape and the spherical shape, and I could align and configure them
in ways that seemed interesting enough to go back to the steel mill and
ask if they could make small toroid sections, an inch to a foot, for me
to experiment with. They had never made toroid sections. But they thought
they might find some application for toroids down the line, so they humored
me and made a series of modules. I spent the better part of eight months
working with them, seeing what I could do, how I could combine spheroids
and toroids, which combinations made sense as sculpture. I decided that
the most straightforward thing was to juxtapose them, to make different
spaces to walk through. That is what happens in Betwixt the Torus and
The next logical,
almost didactical, step was to tightly join a torus and a sphere into
a closed volume that you could not enter. By showing Union of the Torus
and the Sphere and Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere in one exhibition
you understood the permutations; the juxtaposition of the two pieces demystified
the interior space of the Union of the Torus and the Sphere. Having walked
through Betwixt you could infer the interior of the closed shape.
I had never built
a closed form before. I was apprehensive about it because usually if you
close a form and there is a void on the inside, it quickly degenerates
into the realm of revealed/concealed, which seems to be a mainstay of
Surrealism. I was wary of that association. I considered opening the form
up to let people pass through it. But I had done that with conical shapes
and was more interested in the extreme disequilibrium of the conjoined
whole. It forced the experience of the skin, of the continuous differentiation
of the skin. As you pass by, the volume bends concavely in or obdurately
comes toward you. I wanted people to get close to the surface of the volume,
to walk around it and sense its disequilibrium as a weight in space even
though it was a closed form. I understood that I was up against tradition
in several ways. The fact that you could not enter the piece also called
up the recent history of the specific object. I had the piece erected
in the steel mill and looked at it both open and closed. I finally decided,
with the encouragement of David Sylvester and Harald Szeemann, to close
the volume. They both said: Look Richard, there is no reason not
to close this up. It may be a more radical move to close it than to leave
it open. I made the decision reluctantlylet the chips fall
where they may.
that why you closely set it in a room with a rectangular shape?
I put it in that room to bring people close to its volume, so that you
didnt see it as an object, but as a continuous surface. I had been
reading Deleuze and Leibnitzboth write about the fold and the continuousness
of surface, and how one side is basically the unfolding of the other side.
I got quite caught up in the idea of the fold. I think this piece is probably
an outgrowth of thinking in those terms. A lot of people have commented
on the tooling of that piece to me, they found that it was exquisitely
put together, more so than most pieces I make. I didnt particularly
care about that aspect. A lot of younger people in particular responded
to the Union in a way that they didnt respond to other pieces. I
cant explain why.
Weatherproof steel, 163 x 492 x 380 in.
Courtesy of Gagosian
has an overpowering quality about it, it subsumes you. You walk into the
room, and you feel like youre underneath it.
RS: That was very
deliberate. I built it for that space. When you enter, youre in
its space, you cant avoid its surface.
does light (natural and artificial) and darkness work on and in your sculpture?
In which light do you prefer the pieces to be shown?
RS: Basically, the
forms themselves, through the way they lean in or open up, define a certain
psychological continuance, and the light is an important factor. The light
either creates shadows or floods the spaces, especially the centers, which
accounts for the release you feel. I think if there were no release in
the spirals, if they were just wound into a tight concentric circle, they
might not have been appreciated as much as they have been. The enclosed
void is a space that undermines the notion of an axis mundi in that it
has no center. The double ellipses (e.g., Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997)
that preceded the spirals share the same center. In the spirals, theres
no center, so when you walk into the interior space you find yourself
trying to locate the center. Youre continually trying to grasp where
you ought to beto no avail. The spaces are large enough to allow
you to have a release and not feel confined, but you are kept off balance
trying to locate yourself in the space. I think that accounts for their
power and uneasy velocity.
word haptic frequently appears in discussions about your sculpture.
How does it relate to your work?
RS: On a basic level
it means touch. But, for me, it means psychologically extending yourself
to the material through the space or psychologically extending the feeling
of touch through the space, so that the space of the void becomes palpable
as a form. Negative space becomes psychologically loaded, so that you
could actually put your hand out and feel its presence. It occurs in some
architecture such as Hagia Sophia, Le Corbusiers Chapel of Notre
Dame du Haut in Ronchamps, and in some of Tadao Andos work. Simply
put, it is the difference in how you feel in a telephone booth and how
you feel in a football stadium. Theres a way of controlling that
difference in terms of a psychological response, which encompasses the
need to reach out, touch, and experience that space.
When the word haptic
comes up, its not just in relation to the steel, but in relation
to how the steel mediates the palpability of the space, the hapticness
of the space. The space actually feels charged like you might be able
to touch it, it affects your body: youre being implicated in it,
the space becomes a substance. There are very few works in which space
becomes the defining issue, in which its not just a volume thats
cut out by walls but a volume that connotes the content, the experience
of the content as space.
the exteriors as important as the interiors?
In the ellipses, spirals, toruses, and spheres you never have a total
comprehension of the piece until you walk it. Anticipation and memory
come into play. If you consider the early ellipses, they shift from looking
like a flowerpot on one side to looking like a lamp shade on the other
side as you walk around and follow the inversion. Its impossible
to recollect what you have been looking at while you were walking. Its
hard to re-construct their shape because it doesnt break itself
down into a narrative sequence of
images. In a sense they are unknowable in the round.
Weatherproof steel, two forged blocks,
Ali: 41 x 68 x 108.5 in.; Frazier: 41 x 60 x 108.5
in. Above: Elevational Wedge, 2001.
Hot rolled steel, 5 x 130 x 259.9 in.
Courtesy of Gagosian
are these sculptures made from steel?
RS: I started working
in steel mills while I was very young to pay my way through college, first
Berkeley and then Yale, and I made good money as a riveter. I worked on
the Crown Zellerbach building in San Francisco. I saw steel being used
for almost everything you could think of in industry.
I always thought
that sculpture had been the handmaiden to painting, that it derived its
strength, from González and Picasso up to Calder, through cutting,
folding, and arranging pieces in space through welding, which to me was
like gluing: it was false since it ignored gravitational load. Having
worked in industry and seen what had been done in terms of cantilever
and counterbalance to satisfy the internal structural necessities of building,
I knew that there was another way of coming at sculpturenot exactly
by putting the principles of engineering to work, but by using them in
a way that took the focus off the pictorial aspect and by using gravity,
weightload, and balance to redirect the viewer to a different way of thinking
about space and time in relation to material.
I dont get
off on steel. Its just a material I use to control and define space,
something Ive been around my entire life. I believe that the selection
of material has to do with ones sensibility: how you know the world
has to do with how you sense yourself in relation to material. Steel is
a material that Ive learned to use. I started handling it at a very
early age, and I thought I could use it in a way that I couldnt
use other materialsor lets say I didnt have a feeling
for using other materials. I worked with rubber, with lead, but steel
ended up being the material of my choice. Its strange. When I
see things written about me such as man-of-steel, thats
not how I see myself in relation to the material. I think of steel as
something thats useful in terms of defining space, but I dont
think of myself as being particularly enamored with it as a material in
and of itself. For me, its a means to an end. I happen to understand
its potential and I have a
direct connection to it.
created spaces that shape volume. To what degree has torquing made these
new volumes possible?
RS: I think
that without that minor invention none of this work would have been possible.
Because if you take a cone, the radius changes as it rises in elevation,
either outward or
inward, depending on whether its a flowerpot or lamp shade. Most
architecture in the last 50 years that deals with curves, deals with cones
or cylinders. No one has dealt with a torqued ellipse. In the torqued
ellipses, the radius doesnt change as it rises in elevation. And
thats hard for people to wrap their heads around, the fact that
the radius remains the same as it turns. When you say that something turns
on itself 90
degrees and its radius doesnt changeits hard to picture
what that actually means until you make a model of it. After I built the
first lead models, we were very startled, fascinated with its potential.
The problem of getting
the pieces built looked insurmountable. We went all over the world to
find steel fabricators able and willing to handle the problem. We were
worried they might never get built, but I didnt want to go to another
material. Had I gone to concrete it would have begged the comparison to
architecture, and any other flimsy material (whatever that might have
been) wouldnt have held the volume. We finally found a steel mill
in Baltimore on the brink of bankruptcy; it was desperate and for that
reason was willing to take on the problem. We had to teach people how
to make these torqued shapes, it was a long haul until we found a capable
fabricator in Germany.
Cor-ten steel, 158 x 669 x 2 in.
I had worked with
conical shapes and combined them so that they created spaces that one
could walk through. Think of a cone leaning toward you, if you just turn
it upside down, it then leans away from you. Based on this simple inversion
I built Olson (1986) and Call Me Ishmael (1986). Then I took that same
principle and added two inverted plates, making an interior space and
exterior passages that you could walk through (Intersection, 1992). After
those pieces, I needed to tie the space together into one continuum. I
didnt know how to close the volume, I think I was looking for something
that would point me in that direction. I wasnt looking to be influenced
by Borromini. I happened to walk into San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in
Rome through the side aisle and I misread the space. I thought, oh, isnt
that interesting, he curved the space vertically, in its vertical elevation.
When I got to the center of it, I realized that the vertical curvature
was an illusion. Influence, whether its in literature or art, is
often based on misinterpretation. Thats probably how every generation
relates to what came before. Every generation misinterprets the language
of the former generation and puts it to their own use.
That idea is certainly
not my idea. Harold Bloom talks about it in The Anxiety of Influence,
how Shakespeare is influential in relation to writers of later generations.
Even though Bloom has a
big Freudian subtext, I think misinterpretation has a lot to do with how
artists proceed decade by decade. I think the reason is that you cant
really use anybody elses tools if you want to do something new.
You have to use new tools or misinterpret the old tools and their use.
Because if you dont, youre pretty much stuck in the academy.
I think misinterpretation and the use of new tools and production methods
usually open up the situation. Artists who stay with the same production
methods or the same tools as their mentors from previous generations get
bogged down in the limitations and academicism of those tools and procedures.
the earlier prop pieces generate or influence the torqued spirals, toruses,
RS: I think
that balance and gravity were basic to the work very early on. They are
still prime concerns for me. How one body relates to balance and gravity.
The early pieces were axiomatically aligned so that you could figure out
what was holding what in place. Sometimes, when they made the most sense,
the weight would be released. If they achieved perfect balance, you would
think they were weightless. Thats always interested me. If you take
the spirals, which weigh upward of 120 tons, you never think about their
weight. You get implicated in their speed and their movement. In some
primary way my concern with gravity, weight or weightlessness, and balance
in the last pieces relates back to
the early prop pieces. When you try to talk about new work, language seems
very insufficientin a sense its true for this interview, a
lot remains unspoken, and it takes time for language to grasp whats
new. When you get into new work you dont have connections either
to works that came before or works that come later. Works that come later
often influence how we think of things that exist now. What comes later
makes us think about an earlier expression that we didnt fully understand
when it was first invented.
has the Gagosian exhibition been a departure point?
Torus and the Sphere, 2001.
Weatherproof steel, 142 x 450 x 319 in.
of Gagosian Gallery
RS: The exhibition
is a culmination of some work. There probably wont be too many more
spirals. Maybe one or two more. Im building one for the City of
Naples. I think the toruses and spheres still have potential for development.
The last piece I conceived is a vertical piece with seven torqued plates,
in which the module changes systematically. The engineering term node
applies to the point where a plate widens, which allows the plate to torque.
In each plate the node is located at a different height. Which means that
the piece not only leans and torques, but it continues to turn as it rises
in elevation. We just finished the model; hopefully the piece will be
installed in October in Fort Worth next to Andos new building for
the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Thats a big piece for me. What
were working on now, and I dont have the model sections made
yet, are sections of a bell shapebasically a flattened S, an S without
deep curves. If you stand the S up, you have a plane with a concavity
and a convexity: the lower half is a curve leaning away from you, the
upper half a curve leaning toward you, or vice versa. These kind of shapes
are used for the steel walls of nuclear reactors, but in a different scale
and with a different bend than the one I want. The steelmill is making
models for me, Ill see if they are useful.
is a writer living in New York.