The Weight of History

Richard Serra’s Sculpture and Drawings

Richard Serra told us that he came to a place in his work where he didn’t want people to be simply looking at a single object; he wanted them to experience the work by going through it. “Yes, the walk into, through and around,” he said, so on November 5, 2017, on the morning after the opening of his exhibition “Richard Serra Sculpture and Drawings” at David Zwirner in New York, we sat in the centre space created by Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017, forged steel, each weighing 82 tons, the tallest measuring 120.5 inches, the least tall measuring 45.75 inches. Ten feet, to less than four.

Richard Serra, his wife and colleague Clara Weyergraf-Serra, Robert Enright and me. We were through and in and the work was around us. It was Sunday, the gallery was closed. Two gallery staff were engaged elsewhere. This was the day of the New York City Marathon; the streets were largely empty of traffic. In Chelsea, on a Sunday, just a block from the Hudson River, there’s little traffic anyway. Where we were, the city was quiet, and with the low and clouded sky, the light was muted and soft, and we were inside.

The conversation started with language, that non-material stuff, literature being Richard Serra’s undergraduate degree, which he received from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance from 1841, with its emphasis on independence and nonconformity, was an early guide to which he has adhered since his student days. For the viewer in the presence of Serra’s work, words nevertheless fail. We are inclined to think metaphorically, to elaborate the event for ourselves, to use it as a means of communicating our experience to others, which of course can’t really be done. And here it is exactly. Without being prescriptive we would be better, here, to reside outside language and experience the work differently. As Richard Serra says in the interview that follows, “You’re caught between your sensory experience and an attempt to reconstruct it in language, which always fails. It is a conundrum. Explanations always fall short of sensations.” How not, if you think of it? No matter how accomplished the articulation, how poetic and precise, language is a transcription, not the event itself, and now we’re into shadows and reflections.

Richard Serra, Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017, installation view, “Richard Serra Sculpture and Drawings,” David Zwirner, New York, 2017. Photo: Cristiano Mascaro. © 2017 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

I had time alone in the gallery with Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure. I paced the space, weaving through the rounds, sidling up as close as “don’t touch” allows. Inclined to rest my cheek against the forged skins, I sniffed the steel instead and moved in the room, placing myself inside, if there is an inside, in the enfolding sculptures. I felt enfolded. I recognized language doesn’t apply, or wasn’t necessary. Standing alone with these monumental works, where language wasn’t the issue, or wasn’t necessary to the experience, I recognized that the artist had made an other thing, and with that, both the awe-provoking and reaffirming sense of the possibility of true creation, chthonic in the application, or primary and essential, and also, perhaps, mysterious.

Richard Serra does use language, with precision, but not metaphorically. Instead, it’s structural and also directive. There’s the piece Verb List from 1967—two 10 by 8-inch sheets on which he has written in graphite a program or map to follow. Here is some of what he lists: to roll, to crease, to fold, to cut, to splash, to knot, to spill, to swirl, to hook, to support. And also descriptive properties, which can become states: of tension, of layering, of felting, of inertia, of simultaneity, of equilibrium, of time, of context; the final instructive notation being “to continue,” and I think of Robert Frank and his own provisionally hopeful “and continue….”

Slow Roll: For Philip Glass, 1968, lead, 8 x 7.25 x 72.25 inches. Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Japan. Photo: Peter Moore.

In the book Richard Serra: Forged Steel, copublished by David Zwirner Books and Steidl in 2016, Richard Serra has an essay titled “Weight” and in it he has written another list, this time on the value of weight, a subject more compelling for him, he says, than lightness. He has more to say “about the balancing of weight, the diminishing of weight, the addition and subtraction of weight, the concentration of weight, the rigging of weight, the propping of weight,” and he goes on to include its placement, locking, psychological effects, disorientation, disequilibrium, rotation, movement, directionality and shape. As well as language’s utility, poetry enters here when he concludes that he can address the pleasure derived from the exactitude of the laws of gravity: “I have more to say about the processing of the weight of steel, more to say about the forge, the rolling mill, and the open hearth.”

An early forged steel work, Berlin Block (For Charlie Chaplin), 1977, engages weight in a thoroughgoing and thoroughly satisfying way, what Serra himself describes as “very absolute, the square of the square, the absolute of the absolute.” Skirting the limiting issue of context, Serra has created his own, setting Berlin Block on the terrace before Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, but, as Richard Shiff points out in his essay in Richard Serra: Forged Steel, off axis in all three dimensions. With this, Shiff tells us, Serra has sensitized viewers to the individual containment of the sculpture and the large architecture behind. He notes, “With the context so deeply violated, the sculpture, however small in relation to the building, breaks free perceptually.” Further to the success of this work, it is itself; that is, its molecular structure is cubic and its form is a cube, 75 by 75 by 75 inches. About Berlin Block, Serra wrote, “In effect, I was making and forming material from its molecular structure up.”

Grief and Reason (For Walter), 2013, forged steel, four blocks, installed in two stacks consisting of two blocks, two: 36 x 60 x 84 inches; two: 30 x 54 x 78 inches; each stack: 66 x 60 x 84 inches. Leonard and Louise Riggio, Bridgehampton, New York. Photo: Rob McKeever.

The “Rotterdam Drawings” and the “After Rotterdam Drawings” are recent series. The artist says they are all transfers, where he is drawing blind. The completed drawing is visible only when the sheet is lifted from its rich bed of etching ink, silica and paintstick, ground and cooked into a thick black paste. The handmade paper is laid down on this pigment and Serra presses his marks onto the blank sheet, one and then more, none in visible relation to another. His interest, he says, is in the mark. The results are revealed only after he’s done. Drawing itself teaches him how to see. Here, he identifies himself as part of an historic continuum, from Altamira to the present, whereas with his sculpture each subsequent work could take a new form. The black, the infinite black, he wrote in “Notes on Drawing,” 2011—“To use black is the clearest way of marking without creating associative meanings. A canvas covered in black remains an extension of drawing in that it is an extension of marking.” Metaphor has been dodged and the work remains autonomous.

A significant memory figures in Richard Serra’s thinking about and manifesting movement as a means to apprehend his sculptural work. He has talked about an incident where, as a child, he walked on the beach in San Francisco, and then walked back following his own footprints, but experienced the beach differently with the change in direction. I look at photographs of East-West/West-East, 2014, four weatherproof steel plates, two at almost 55 feet (to round out the dimensions) by 13 feet by 5.5 inches and two at just over 48 feet by 13 feet by 5.5 inches, commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, to be located in the Brouq Nature Reserve, and think of that walk taken as a child. Serra describes this single, four-part work that formally connects the two coasts of the peninsula and deals with the different elevations of the landscape. Although the rise of the ancient seabed varies, he has installed the plates to read such that they touch the horizon line uniformly, reaching from the once-sea to almost broach the sky. There is one photograph in the book Richard Serra, 2014, co-published by Qatar Museums and Steidl. It reads as topographically perfect: on the left side of the photograph stands one steel plate; we see part of the plateau in cross-section interrupted by the dry seabed and, to the right of the photograph, another steel plate. The plate, the plateau, the plate touch the horizon. It is a drawing.

Stacked Steel Slabs (Skullcracker Series), 1969, hot-rolled steel, 20 x 8 x 10 feet, temporary site-specific installation made on the grounds of the Kaiser Steel Corporation, Fontana, California, as part of the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1969.

Bellamy, 2001, is a torqued spiral of weatherproof steel. About moving, coiling through its space, Serra has asked, Has anyone engaging with this piece retained any one image? Richard Shiff includes in his essay in Richard Serra: Forged Steel sections from an interview that director John Waters had conducted with Serra in 2002. Serra had answered Waters regarding these torqued spirals, saying that “as you walk and move, they move and finally the subject matter probably becomes you in an empty space. The space really becomes the subject and the steel is just a vessel to contain, contract, or move the space.”

The experiencing body is the centre, then. Where else to begin but at, or with, the body, and then moving out? Richard Serra gives us this sense of ourselves, a generous, magnanimous gift, on his terms, if we’re receptive. Through the pantheon of art makers, his colleagues Goya, Rembrandt, Bernini, Titian, Velázquez, Serra, we are enriched as participants.

This interview was conducted with Richard Serra at David Zwirner Gallery in New York on November 5, 2017.

One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969, lead, four plates, 48 x 48 x 1 inches each. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Grinstein family, Los Angeles. Photo: Peter Moore.

Border Crossings: I want to start with a text that you’re familiar with: Charles Olson’s great book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael. He has that wonderful paragraph in the beginning of the book where he “takes space to be the condition of man born in America. I write it large because it comes large.” It occurred to me that Olson articulates an idea that you spend the rest of your life fulfilling.

Richard Serra: Actually, I summarized Olson’s language in a eulogy I wrote for Donald Judd. The eulogy talked about the relationship of space to Judd’s work, which I borrowed from Olson.

The idea of dealing with space has been absolutely central to your entire practice.

Yes, the rhythm of the body through space.

Olson provides not just the idea of space but, in “writing it large,” also dimension and proportion. Is there something in the American character that has to deal in a commensurate way with the size of the space itself?

I think Olson also has a macro vision of the world, and then down to a micro vision of New England and its particular specificity. So it goes from a grand view to a small view. My notion of space is pretty much the penetration of how someone walks in relationship to a sensory response and to their body response and to the scale of what they’re confronting.

What was it about literature that would have made it the first thing that attracted you in college?

I took one course in art at Berkeley and I understood that I wasn’t going to learn anything there. I played football and I broke my back, and I transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Their English department there was terrific and they had a host of visiting critics because everybody wanted to be by the sea. So Aldous Huxley was there and Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Isherwood and Margaret Mead, it just went on and on. The school was very small, and I thought I could get better educated through reading and writing than I could through the art practice I was doing at Berkeley. But then I took art classes from Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw. They were very good draughtsmen and they took me under their wing when they were doing a mural in the library in downtown Santa Barbara.

When you study literature you focus on the transcendentalists, including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne. I would have thought that Olson’s idea of Projective Verse and composition by field would have been a more congenial aesthetic.

Finally, Olson is more of a postmodernist than I am. I think he picks and chooses and elaborates and deals with attributes. I like Olson, but the structure of his artifice has more to do with the postmodernist idiom than where I’m coming from. I’m more grounded in existentialism, which probably goes back to Emerson. I wrote my senior thesis on Camus.

Untitled, 1978, forged steel, two blocks, 27.5 x 27.5 x 59 inches and 27.5 x 27.5 x 71 inches. Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl, Germany. Photo: Gerd Geyer.

You say that the move from transcendentalism to existentialism was an easy one. I don’t see going from Walden Pond to Pont Neuf as that obvious a shift. Why was it for you?

Because both are involved with the existence of time and space in relation to the now. I’m not so interested in the spiritual aspect of transcendence, but I am interested in focusing on what’s important, in how you value what you do when you do it, and how you value what you do knowing that it’s momentary. You have to put your effort into paying attention and focus on that moment.

You have no interest in the ethereal and the aspiration to that kind of transcendence?

Let’s just say I don’t believe in it. I’ve never given it much thought, although I have a lot of friends who are Buddhist and they absolutely believe in it. I’ve always found the hierarchies that exist in religion off-putting.

In Emerson’s Self-Reliance essay from 1841, he insists upon the need for nonconformity and to live by your own instincts. That notion would have been fairly appealing to you?

That and Giambattista Vico saying that the only things we truly know are the things we do ourselves. Emerson’s Self-Reliance was a big book for me and I still believe in it. It really ties in with Vico. I think most people find areas of investigation where they get an internal feedback, more so than in other investigations, and they have aptitudes for doing certain things and not others. If you find yourself in the condition where you feel those resources are reinforcing something that allows you to obtain more knowledge, why not investigate that rather than spending your time thinking you’re a Jack-of-all- trades? Which I was never good at.

Torqued Ellipse I, 1996; right: Torqued Ellipse II, 1996; and back: Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997, installation view, “Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses,” Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1997–98. Photo: Dirk Reinartz.

Emerson proposes that imitation is suicide, which suggests the necessity of doing something new. The idea to “make it new” is modernism’s marching order, which Ezra Pound comes up with in Paris.

What got me past all that was reading The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. He talks about precursors and he gives you about seven different ways of overcoming your precursors. Bloom and The Shape of Time by George Kubler. Those two books made me understand that if you wanted to do something, you had to break the chain of the hand-me-downs of art history.

Bloom’s book argues that one of the main causes of anxiety is the recognition that so much great work has already been made. The anxiety comes in the fear of not measuring up. You look at the trajectory of steel sculpture through Gonzalez, Picasso and Calder and decide not to go in that already trod direction. Did that particular trajectory not make any sense for you?

The welding didn’t make any sense. They were stitching pieces together, hanging them out in space in a way that alluded to pictorial painting. I thought, why not use the Industrial Revolution as a way of dealing with the force of gravity, and build in a way that went back to the tectonics of antiquity? I wanted to understand that tectonics really was the foundation of sculpture, not the illusion coming out of painting.

Or anything coming out of a constructivist ethos?

Yes. I see the whole minimalist movement as basically a constructivist movement coming out of painting, an illusionistic constructivist movement. I’m not taking anything away from them. I think some of those artists are very good, but, finally, when you look at Judd, he extends Barnett Newman off the wall, and if you look at LeWitt, although no one thinks of it, it’s painted white welded sculpture. Other than Carl Andre, I think all of them are dealing with some allusion to painting, whereas Andre is dealing with base materials, with matter. I always thought that matter informs form and I’ve applied that notion by putting matter through various processes. A couple of artists who made it clear to me that it was an interesting way to go were Pollock and Johns: Pollock because of process—he introduced the drip—and Johns because he introduced the stencil. Warhol later introduced photography in relation to silkscreen, and then Barbara Kruger brought advertising into painting. I think if you want to change art, you have to bring in procedures from outside. The only way to really critique art and to undermine the existing canon is to find a parallel language or techniques that, in and of themselves, might not have anything to do with art.

Inside Out, 2013, weatherproof steel, 13 feet, 2 inches x 80 feet, 9 inches x 40 feet, 2.5 inches; plates: 2 inches thick, Poyatos Americas, SA, Panama, Republic de Panama, 2014.

In that connection, is it true that one summer at Yale you read every art book in the art library?

I went through the stacks, yes. I didn’t read them all, page by page.

But you looked at the pictures.

I looked at the pictures. And I read a lot.

What was the compulsion?

The books were all there.

Yes, but not everybody did that. Was it a question of the mountain being there, so you had to climb it?

Well, I was an English major and Yale accepted me on a three-year and not a two-year fellowship. I had a degree in English literature but they wanted me to get their undergraduate degree in art history before I could do their MA and MFA. While I was in their MA and MFA program, I was competing with all these Yale students who were going for their PhDs in art history. So I thought, I have some catch-up to do. So every day during the summer I went to the library and started with A and went through to Z. The stacks weren’t that big then.

You were at Yale with a pretty amazing cohort, including Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold and Nancy Graves. Was it competitive?

It was heavily competitive in a good way. You know, we’d throw chairs at each other. And the best thing about it was the rotating visiting faculty. Guston, Morty Feldman, Frank Stella, Rauschenberg and Ad Reinhardt would all filter through. After a while you got to know that none of them could give you any specific advice, but they all could give you some advice. You didn’t want to imitate what they were doing, and they basically left it up to your devices. The good ones tried to enforce the direction they thought you were going in and the bad ones wanted you to do what they were doing.

You have said that two things interested you when you went to Paris: drawing in Brancusi’s studio during the day, and in the evening you and Philip Glass would see Giacometti come into La Coupole and he would have plaster in his hair. It gave you a sense of how artists actually worked in the studio.

He epitomized that. At Yale we had critics come up from New York, but somehow they didn’t bring the aura of the studio with them. Giacometti really was the studio artist. You could see it. I mean, he was just out of his studio with plaster all over him, eating his moules. He would be there with Beckett and we were like groupies with our tongues hanging out.

Was it a good time to be in Europe and specifically in Paris?

It was during the Algerian crisis. There were a lot of rallies, and the police would cordon off the streets and all the shop shutters would slam shut and then the police would move in, throw you in the back of the paddy wagon and then in jail, where they kept you all night. Then in the morning they would give you a hot cup of coffee, hose you down and throw you out on the street. It pissed me off. I didn’t like the police very much.

Double Rift #4, 2011, paintstick on three sheets of double-laminated Hiromi paper, 9 feet, 1.5 inches x 16 feet, 1.5 inches, unframed; 9 feet, 6.5 inches x 16 feet, 7 inches x 3.75 inches, framed. Photo: Rob McKeever.

You say that you had to deal with Brancusi and that you had to go through him. My favourite American football team in the ’60s was the Green Bay Packers. The coach at the time was Vince Lombardi and his offensive strategy was to continually attack the strongest part of the other team’s defensive line.

You run into the hardest linebacker.

Yes. I sense a little bit of Lombardi in the way you dealt with Brancusi.

Not quite like Lombardi. I thought I had to have him permeate my being so I could make a move and that took years. If you want a starting point or a foothold into sculpture, the interesting thing about Brancusi is it’s all there: whether you want to reduce something to abstraction, whether you want to deal with figuration, or whether you want to deal with volume.

You have talked about your admiration for Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe. In the MoMA sculpture show in 2015 we could see all six of its iterations, which haven’t been seen together since they were made in 1914. What is it about the Glass of Absinthe that makes it such an extraordinary sculpture?

I think the internal volumes, and the way it twists through those openings. Not so much the paint, but the fact that you have a spiralling internal volume that you can look through and down and into. It finally reaches its figurative apotheosis with Matisse’s La Serpentine. I don’t think it’s as inventive as Picasso’s Guitar but I think it’s the next big move. I saw the Picasso sculpture exhibition four times.

Why did you go to see it that often?

I wanted to size it up. To tell you the truth, I thought a lot of it was disappointing. I’m not particularly fond of assemblage and there was too much of that towards the end of the show. I thought there was also too much caricature. I think the iconic skull is a very good piece, as is the bust of the woman with a phallic nose. I thought the Boisgeloup sculptures, while they’re almost cartoonish, are very good. Picasso exaggerates Matisse’s Jeannette heads by punning and mocking them and turning them into some sort of simplistic, ironic statement, which everybody immediately latched onto.

In your essay “Weight” you say the painters you have more to say about are Mantegna, Cézanne and Picasso, not Botticelli, Renoir and Matisse. Is that because those painters have more instinct for form?

Gravity and form, yes. Volume. Weight. Downward compression.

The notion of compression comes up in the “Prop” works. You know the properties of the material you’re dealing with but a lot of those pieces are nerve-racking because they look like they’re not stable.

That’s not the intention.

I realize that, but you must have known that discomfort is one feeling that the work could convey. They have a sense of precarious balance.

Yes, if you’re talking about the “Props.” But people misapprehend things every day. If something reaches its true balance, it becomes weightless. Unless someone actually forces ill-will against them, those pieces are not going to fall over. If you push on them, they’ll collapse.

In Untitled (1978) the top block looks like it’s right at the point where it could tip. As a viewer, it gives me a sense of unease. But it doesn’t do that for you in the making?

No, because I know that the top block is three-quarters of an inch this side of the centre and it’s not going anywhere.

AR Horizontal #8, 2017, etching ink, silica and paintstick on handmade paper, 40.25 x 40.25 inches. Photo: Rob McKeever.

Rotterdam Vertical #10, 2017, etching ink, silica and paintstick on handmade paper, 39 x 39.25 inches. Photo: Rob McKeever.

This question of balance is interesting because when you return from Europe in the fall of 1966, you spend a lot of time going to see dance at Judson Memorial Church, where Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs are regularly performing. What was so interesting about this group?

Their movement in relation to form, to space, to material, their relation to propping, to holds, to gravity, and their relation to balance. They were really good. It seemed that I could take their bodily extension and move it right into my “Props.” Basically the “Props” come out of watching these performers deal with holds and catches. I would look at their performances and go home and think, I can do that with lead plates. They were by far the most progressive group of people working at the time.

You also associate with a group that includes Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. You describe yourselves as “down and dirty.” How were you different from what Carl Andre and Donald Judd were doing?

Judd, LeWitt and Flavin—not Andre—wanted to have the shiniest object out there, and they wanted to produce it in a way that competed with the newest Ford Thunderbird or whatever. The polished, anodized, lacquered paints did not show any trace of process. Myself and particularly Eva Hesse and Nauman and Smithson were more down and dirty and didn’t buy into removing your hand from the making.

You not only didn’t remove your hands, you use them in a series of videos in 1968, like Hand Catching Lead.

That was because somebody wanted to make a film of the installation of House of Cards and I was not interested in a documentary. I thought there was a better way to make a film that dealt with the principles of propping and entropy. Someone off-camera dropped shards of lead for me to catch. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It was hit or miss. It had a lot to do with how the props came together, or not. So this particular film came about because I wanted to avoid documentation and instead record the performance of my hand in relation to the material.

You must have been aware of the video work Bruce Nauman was doing in the ’60s.

Yes. He was doing a lot of walking, a lot of dancing, a lot of playing violin.

Circuit interests me because the points of entry and exit are quite constricted. It makes me think of Corridor, the video Nauman did in 1967. Did Circuit have any connection to that idea?

No. I’m dealing with a given context; he is making a space. When you walk into the corridor, you’re displaced by the videos. I’m dealing with the context of a room that you walk into, and as soon as you do, you’re the subject of the piece. Your body is the subject of moving through the space. And that piece comes right out of Strike, which is the single plate coming out of the corner. Actually, I think Strike was my breakthrough move into space.

“House of cards” is a common metaphor for something that could easily tumble down or collapse, which brings me back to the idea that the pieces deliver a sense of instability.**

But initially I called it One Ton Prop and put House of Cards in parentheses.

Are your titles indications about how things should be viewed?

The titles come after the work. Sometimes you feel like you have to give the viewer some hint.

One of the things I realized in looking at your work is that “viewer” doesn’t seem to be the right noun. It’s one-dimensional and too passive. We need a noun like “engager” or “experiencer.” Would that be closer to the way you think people should react to the work?

I can’t drop those words on people. I can’t say “the engager.” I can probably say “the pedestrian” or “the passer by.” But when you start to demand engagement, you’re telling people to be actively involved. I think that’s too much of a directive to give to people.

Yesterday and again today we were looking at the pieces in this gallery, and at times they seemed to read as if they were two-dimensional. Then, as you move around them, they keep opening up. Why does that happen?

I think it has to do with the placement and your relationship to your body, with how your body doesn’t really circle around these pieces, one by one. You shift or twist your body in relationship to the centre of the field and you might move from one corner to the other. When you do that, you see that the elevations rise, and you start dealing with the cross-sections of the elevations in relationship to verticality and horizontality. There’s both a lateral and a vertical movement in those pieces. I’ve made full-scale mock-ups and I still wasn’t sure they were going to work. You really can’t anticipate how your body absorbs this much weight and mass in relationship to your own movement. You measure yourself in relation to that weight and mass. If these were hollow pieces, that wouldn’t happen. But there’s another quality. They go from being very heavy to looking weightless. They can look like they’re floating on the floor. They have a downward thrust and an upward thrust, so you can get into their mass and their weight. But another aspect makes you think you could slide a piece of paper right underneath them.

It’s funny you say that because one of the “Rounds” has a lift at the bottom. Do you have any way of controlling that lovely rise?

No, it’s all happenstantial. I used to go to all the forgings, but I’ve stopped doing that lately because of health reasons. It’s a miracle that they’re done as well as they’re done. Forging is not an exact process. The forge is in effect an 80-foot-high hammer, which pounds steel that’s white hot. The piece in the forge has a nipple on one end so that it can be rotated with a chain hoist. It’s labour-intensive and it’s hot and it’s heavy. It can’t be precise.

You have said that you’re not interested in beauty.

It’s a funny word and a qualification. The idea of beauty eludes me. It’s too much of a cliché.

What word would you use?

I’m interested in tension. “Tension” would be a good word.

When you put pressure on “beauty,” it moves toward the idea of the sublime. I gather that’s not a place you want to go?

That’s too ethereal. But if you ask, do I think that other artists believe in it and make consequential work because of it, the answer is yes, absolutely. It was the basis for Newman and Rothko. Actually, I think that most artists of that generation, other than Pollock, believed in the sublime and that it was their grounding.

You talk about the idea of unknowingness. I wonder if that is a philosophical recognition of the human condition or an aesthetic aspiration?

It’s the limitation of language. Knowing seems to come down to verbal explication, but words are bound to fail. So you’re caught between your sensory experience and an attempt to reconstruct it in language, which always fails. It’s a conundrum. Explanations always fall short of sensations.

Rotterdam Horizontal #5/Right Angle, 2016, 2016, etching ink, silica and paintstick on handmade paper, 43.25 x 31.5 inches. Photo: Rob McKeever.

Your memory as you describe it in “Weight” of being four years old and seeing the ship sliding out of its chute is very compelling. You talk about it as a recurring dream.

I don’t have it anymore, but I had it for years. It has to do with something going from being heavy and obdurate to being afloat and drifting weightless. The discrepancy between a vessel on land and a vessel in the sea has always confounded me. The vessel in the sea is displacing its volume in the water; the vessel on land is grounded by gravity.

You did come to a point where you didn’t want people to be looking at a single object. You wanted them to experience the work by going through it.

Yes, to walk into, through and around.

Are those works more appealing because the viewer is fully engaged in that process?

I think so. The viewers become the content of their own experience.

Our experience of your work in the last three exhibitions here in New York has been unusual. There’s a complicated sense of vertigo and wanting to get outside the piece, combined with a feeling of being seduced to stay inside it. Is that how you want the viewer to experience the work?

I don’t want to prescribe anything. Different people come to those pieces with different assumptions, different memories and conflicts. So the pieces are open to as many interpretations as there are people. I’ve had people walk through my pieces and say, “It reminds me of walking along the shore in Scotland when the waves were coming in.” So you have to give people free rein. I don’t want the pieces to be defined to the point where “Thou shalt look at this and think that.” I think the pieces are open to whatever notion people bring to them, but the pieces do demand a certain viewing and re-viewing. If you don’t give them that kind of time, you’re not going to see anything. Also, there’s not much abstraction around, so for people brought up in media culture, these sculptures bring you back to the kinesiology and touch. I think that’s missing now. At Columbia they’re teaching people how to shake hands again. It’s come to that.

How do you experience the pieces? When you finish a piece, do you also walk through it?

Yes, but I’m really slow at understanding them. I’m slow at reading my own pieces and at reading everybody else’s pieces, because I never trust my first glance. I always have to ask myself, What is it that I don’t understand? And I come back again and say, What am I missing and why aren’t I seeing it? And I keep coming back until it starts to make some sense. In relation to perception, it’s a building experience. I don’t trust the first quick return from an image.

Your work isn’t causally connected, is it? You don’t do a body of work and then that body of work generates a subsequent body of work?

Some sequences aren’t closed, so you go back to see whether there still is an opening and a possibility to reinvestigate. To Lift, an early work made of a sheet of rubber, didn’t come up again until the Torqued Ellipses. There were 30 years between them. You find in the history of art a lot of artists who get to a certain point and then they spiral back. Brancusi has done it; Johns has done it. They pick up series that didn’t conclude, find an opening sequence and then extend that sequence.

East-West/West-East, 2014, weatherproof steel, four plates; two plates: 54 feet, 9.5 inches x 13 feet, 1.5 inches x 5.25 inches, each; two plates: 48 feet, 2.75 inches x 13 feet, 1.5 inches x 5.25 inches. Installed in Brouq Nature Reserve, Qatar. Qatar Museums Authority, Doha. Photo: Rik van Lent.

You’ve always said that you had to invent a form to deal with the way you made sculpture. Have you had to do the same thing with drawing?

I make drawings now without seeing what I’m doing. They’re all transfers. Basically I’m drawing blind.

Why is not-knowing useful to you?

If you’re making a mark and you want to make another mark, you’re always making it in relation to the mark that’s already made. You’re thinking about where the line should go, and you’re trying to pull the drawing together in a compositional way so that the making becomes a balancing act between your head and your marking. So I clear the board of all that and say, I’m just making marks here. Let’s see what that produces; let’s see if we can make a ground that allows for a diversity of mark-making; let’s see if we can use diverse materials to make that ground function in variable ways. I work with paintstick, litho-crayon and silicone ink. The ink gives it fluidity; the paintstick gives it viscosity. So the drawings go from very thick to very thin.

Is the failure rate among the drawings fairly high?

Some days it’s high; some days it’s not. It takes more time to actually set up, mix the material and get it on the board than to physically make a drawing. Sometimes drawings take a couple of days to make; sometimes an afternoon. But you can throw away 5 or 10 in one day; other days, if you’re lucky, you get two or three drawings. It’s pretty much hit or miss.

It seems to me that your pattern is to do a major sculpture and then you embark on a series of drawings. Is that a way for you to breathe again?

Drawing allows me to focus on an activity that gives me instantaneous feedback, gives me a place to concentrate, forget about the vagaries of daily life and get my head out of things that are useless. It’s a place I can go to for self-reflection.

What was it you needed to learn that the drawings could teach you?

The drawings teach me how to see what I’ve done. I don’t make descriptive drawings of a sculpture and then make the sculpture. Some people do that and are very good at it. For me, drawing and sculpture are two separate activities, and I see them as two very different conventions. The drawing convention is much more circumscribed in terms of marking on a piece of paper and framing it. What could be more conventional than that? Sculpture can redefine what sculpture is and what it has been. I don’t expect the drawings to redefine the definition of drawing. I hope that people will be interested in the drawings, in and of themselves, and as an extension of a body of drawing that has been going on since Altamira.

You’ve said you want to continually extend your own sense of the language of making. Why do you continue to put so much pressure on yourself?

Obstinacy. I mean, why would one want to be involved with one’s own replicas? That would seem a waste of time. You’ve got to be able to risk making something you haven’t made before, to concentrate on an activity, useless or not, that allows you to think thoughts you hadn’t thought before.

It goes back to Emerson’s idea that imitation is suicide.

You find you can’t. You try to do the same drawing over again and you can never do it. It’s impossible to make the same mark twice, so there’s no real replication.

Is it a fair question to ask if you feel that you’ve extended the language of sculpture in a way that no one else has?

I wouldn’t know. You can’t get into ascribing virtues to yourself, because there aren’t any guarantees about how historians are going to look at your work or how they’re going to critique it. There are works that get totally lost until someone reinvents a form that makes you see them afresh again. That happens all the time.

The Torqued Ellipses were clearly something new in sculpture. They hadn’t existed before.

They are a form that’s not in nature and not in architecture; that’s a real invention.

Is that a measure of the quality of the work and your place in the history of sculpture? Or does that even matter to you?

It’s hard for me to know. I would think so, but so is Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut. But if you asked most people what is Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut, they wouldn’t have the faintest clue. The number of people who pay attention to sculpture is minuscule compared with the number of people who pay attention to painting. You could probably name 20 sculptors in the history of the 20th to the 21st centuries, whereas you could easily name 100 painters. Sculpture is a slower, more protracted, labour-intensive endeavour.

Is East-West/West-East in Qatar an example of you pushing the limits of what can be done with outdoor sculpture?

What’s interesting about it formally is that the work connects the two coasts of the peninsula, and deals with the different elevations of this particular desert landscape: the ground plane of an ancient seabed and the mushroom-shaped plateaus rising from that plane, carved out by the receding waters centuries ago. The plates are aligned on an east/ west–west/east axis and are levelled to the top plane of the surrounding plateaus.

East-West/West-East, 2014, weatherproof steel, four plates; two plates: 54 feet, 9.5 inches x 13 feet, 1.5 inches x 5.25 inches, each; two plates: 48 feet, 2.75 inches x 13 feet, 1.5 inches x 5.25 inches. Installed in Brouq Nature Reserve, Qatar. Qatar Museums Authority, Doha. Photo: Rik van Lent._

From photographs, what you immediately get is you’ve made something that seems to have the grandeur and permanence of the pyramids. It seems like they’ll be there forever.

Unless the water of the Arabian Sea keeps rising because of global warming. Or the politics change.

I read a number of previous interviews with you and the thing that most surprised me is when you said your landscape work is more significant than what you’ve done in interior pieces. What is it about the landscape sculptures—from Shift, done in Canada in 1970–72, to the four-part piece in Qatar—that you found so compelling and different from what happens with your interior pieces?

I think they collect a bigger vision of walking and looking. And when they make a horizontal cut into the field, they gather the space in a different way, and they involve a different relationship to time. They have a different sensibility. They’re more complex and they’re more lyrical.

“Lyrical” is an interesting word. What makes them take on that quality?

They’re moving through the landscape in relation to the horizon. You don’t concentrate on the individual elements. You’re more involved with seeing across the landscape measured by sculptural elements that appear and disappear.

You seem to be working all the time. Your productivity is astonishing.

I could tell you about the health issues I have, but I don’t want to go there. It has a lot to do with the fact that I’m getting older. As you get into your eighth decade, there’s going to be diminishing returns.

If you change painting to sculpture, there is a wonderful set of lines in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” that sounds like it could have been written about you. “I, painting from myself and to myself / Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame / Or their praise either,” Browning says, and then he brings in the famous lines, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” In your work the gap between reach and grasp is getting narrower all the time.

Let’s say I’m in a good period right now. And when you’re in a good period, you know you’re in a good period. I think it has to do with the notion of late work. I’m in a period of late work and if later work exceeds the earlier work, or at least measures up to the earlier work, it gives the whole body of work another definition. If you think of artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse, Cézanne, their whole body of work seems to have risen because of the effort they put into late work. And artists I admire, like Goya, did late work that exceeded their early work.

And you’re there now?

Well, let’s say I would like to get there.

Are there situations that are, and I think the phrase you used is, “beyond the hope of achievement”?

I think you don’t write “achievement” on the wall. I don’t set out to achieve something. I set out to try to resolve a problem, and if it’s resolved in a way that fulfills me, then that’s a success, and then the question is, Where do we go from here?

Do you measure everything by weight? Is that the way you see the world?

To a large degree. You’ll find this interesting. Right now my cataracts are so bad that I’m starting to see shadows as objects. If there’s a form, there’s a shadow on the floor. I start seeing the shadow as an object that I should not step on. What also happens with cataracts is you can’t distinguish between dark blue and black.

You have a pretty profound reading of black.

Well, I understand it because I’ve been looking at it long enough. I don’t see the pieces in this gallery as being black. Forging is about whiteness going to orange redness, and white hot going to orange redness and then coming back to mill scale. It can be anywhere from grey to brown to rust, but it doesn’t go to black.

Two shows ago the mill scale stayed and the sculptures had a beautiful blue patina. You decided they were going to remain indoor sculptures because you didn’t want them to oxidize. That almost seems like an abdication to beauty.

I liked the tightness of the skin. The skins are very tight on those. It makes them flat.

But it also gives them that beautiful blue patina. I thought the surfaces seemed to be very painterly for the first time in your work.

I’m not going to deny that I like that gunmetal blue; I do. If the mill scale is tight, I’d just as soon conserve it. Often the mill scale is cracked and peeling and that’s when I decide to sandblast the surfaces to ensure even rusting.

Do you think of yourself as an American artist?

It doesn’t matter to me. In the same way that artists went back to African sculpture, I thought I’d take a deep dive into everything that had been made. I wanted to bring into sculpture things I didn’t know about. American sculpture seemed like a wide-open field; it didn’t seem like a lot had been done. It wasn’t a closed sequence. I wanted to go back to the tectonics of building, the very basic principles of how sculpture came into being. I wanted to avoid the pedestal, I wanted to avoid casting, and I wanted to avoid all those pitfalls that had made sculpture what it had become in the 20th century and was continuing to be.

You have to pardon the pun, but glass leads you to lead because it’s when Philip Glass was a plumber that he first introduced you to the idea of using lead.

Yes, he brought it into the studio and I immediately realized it was something I could work with. It wouldn’t have been a material I would have gone to, but it has an affinity with rubber, which I had been working with, in that you can bend, fold, cut and manipulate it.

I gather every material has specific properties to which you have to respond?

You know what the architect Louis Kahn said: “I see a brick and I ask it what it wants to be.” ❚