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.
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….”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.