"Edges were used as drawing elements, not to delineate shape, not to construct part-to-part relationships, but to point into space, or direct, or cut, or juxtapose volumes of space." Richard Serra1
Trained as a painter, Richard Serra's (b. San Francisco, CA, 1939) transformation into sculptor began while he lived in Paris from 1964 to 1965. Day after day, he visited Constantin Brancusi's studio, where he sat and sketched Brancusi's sculptures.2 Because of Brancusi, Serra became interested in sculpture, and how a sculptor "articulates a form in space, how he draws a volume. Volume in space has been something that has been primary in terms of what I think I've directed my energy toward."3
Much of Serra's early work, especially, was concerned with the "articulation of process," so that the steps in his process are apparent with no effort to conceal or hide from the viewer the way the work was made.4 Serra says that the idea for Circuit (1972) arose when he took a two-by-four-foot lead plate and put it in a corner "just to get it out of the way" and noticed that at the juncture of the corner walls, it became freestanding.
"And I thought, 'Isn't that interesting.' Once it's set into the corner, it can't fall to the right or it can't fall to the left. There's no way for it to physically move. The juncture of the wall is holding the plate up. And I thought, 'voila!' And I realized that if I took this to a bigger scale there was the potential to divide and declare a room."5
From there he moved to larger steel plates and expanded to four corners. He made several versions of Circuit that all consist of four steel plates wedged into the four corners of a square space. These four plates change the viewer's perception of the space of a room. Serra has said the piece has to do with "perceptual awareness-how an edge functions as a line, cutting cross-sectionally into space. Edges were used as drawing elements..."6
Brancusi's Torso from 1909-10 also lays bare the creative process through the lines it articulates. It was sculpted from white marble to imply the fragment of a woman's torso on one half but was left rough on the other. By leaving one half rough, so that the viewer can still see the raw block of marble, Brancusi's creative process is more apparent. The viewer notices more distinctly the hand of the artist through the lines he articulated in the finished half.7 The artist's process of creation becomes evident, even in a spiritual way; it is form and no-form, creation and chaos that are seen side by side.
1 Serra, Writings/Interviews, p. 46.
2 Fondation Beyeler, Brancusi Serra Information Sheets.
3 Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, "A Conversation with Richard Serra and Carmen Giménez," n.p.
4 MOMA.org, The Collection: Richard Serra: Circuit II, 1972-86.
5 MOMA.org, The Collection: Richard Serra: Circuit II, 1972-86.
6 Serra, Writings/Interviews, p. 46
7 The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue: Torso.
- Look together at Richard Serra’s Circuit (1972). What do students notice? What does the material remind them of? What do they think it would feel like if they could touch it? Tell them it is made of steel. Ask them what they encounter in their lives that is made of steel. What associations do they have with steel? (If possible, show the students a sample and allow them to touch it and describe its qualities.)
- Give students the dimensions of the piece and point out objects in the classroom that are the same height or width. (Each plate is 2.4 m x 1,15 m x 3 cm.) Ask students to try to imagine walking into the square room in which Circuit was displayed. How would it feel to navigate the sculpture’s plates? Where would they go in the space?
- Now look at Constantin Brancusi’s Torso. What do students notice about this piece?
- How would it feel to touch this piece if they could? (If possible, show students a sample of marble and allow them to touch it and describe its qualities.)
- This piece is made of marble. Where have students seen marble used? What associations do they have with it?
- Ask students to compare the two works, specifically the lines that define their volume in space. What do they have in common? What is different?
- Serra’s works are, in large part, about the viewer’s interaction with a physical object or space. He said about this piece: “And when you walk into the space, you are definitely in the confines of the work. There is nothing else but the work. So the room really becomes the condition of the piece. You have four plates coming out of four corners, and the piece forces you to its center to comprehend all four spaces.”1 Ask students to respond to this statement. How would they feel as the “you” he describes?
- Serra has said that the edges of this piece were used as “drawing elements.” Discuss the edges of the piece. Challenge students to create a drawing that could represent the piece. Tell them it does not have to look just like the piece but could reflect its lines and division of space. Share the drawings as a group. What do they imply about the piece and how it functions in the space?
- Now, ask students to draw Brancusi’s Torso. What do they notice about its lines or about how Brancusi creates volume in space?
- Curators have said that Brancusi’s Torso invites the viewer to participate in the artist’s process because we can see both a raw slab of marble and a sculpted, polished half. What can students tell about his process by looking at this piece? Do they think he should have considered this piece finished? Why or why not?
- See and comment on images of Brancusi’s studioto see how he arranged sculptures in his studio in order to make a bird in space become a revelation of perfection.
- Serra’s process has often involved drawing and observing other sculptors’ works, but it has also been motivated by language. Serra has said: “When I first started, what was very, very important to me was dealing with the nature of the process. So what I had done is I’d written a verb list: to roll, to fold, to cut, to dangle, to twist… and I really just worked out pieces in relation to the verb list physically in a space.”1 Ask students what they think it might be like to work this way. How would it be different than the way they’ve made artwork in the past?
- Hand students a copy of Serra’s “Verb List” from 1967-68.2
- Ask them to talk to a partner about how these verbs could translate into an artwork. What materials and/or methods could be used?
- Next, pass out a piece of clay, or cardboard, or metal foil to every student and ask them to make three different pieces responding to verbs on the list. When they are finished, reflect on the process and the products. How are the process and products similar or different to art they have made in the past?
- To add an element of fun to this activity, you might want to put verbs in a bag and have students select one. They can then create their sculpture based on the verb and other students can guess which verb their sculpture was inspired by.
- Serra has said that this “verb list” method helped him to not “become involved with the psychology of what” he was making or with what it was “going to look like.” How do your students’ experiences relate to these statements?
Verb List Part II
- For older students, this activity will explore the part of Serra’s verb list that is more abstract. Most of the list consists of verbs in their infinitive form (i.e. “to twist”), but at the end of the list are phrases beginning with “of”. Ask students to look with a partner at these phrases and reflect on why these are included in a verb list. What kinds of actions or movements do students think they imply?
- They can then make sculptures, or even drawings, to respond to these phrases. How do their sculptures or drawings suggest actions or movements?
- List of verbs for attached pdf:
Richard Serra, “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself” (1967-68)
1 PBS.org, Art21: Richard Serra: Interview and Videos.
2 Serra, Writings/Interviews, p. 3.