The artist and his work
“ To make sculpture means a life-long commitment, that’s what it means. It means to follow the direction of the work that I opened myself and to try to make the most abstract proposals inside of it. To develop my own work and incorporate what is necessary to keep it being open and vital”.(1)
Mary Ellen Clark
On June 2005 the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened to the public a permanent installation: The Matter of Time by sculptor Richard Serra (San Francisco, USA 1939). It includes seven monumental site-specific sculptures commissioned by the Museum for its Permanent Collection. Installed in the largest gallery of the Museum designed by Frank Gehry, they would join Serra’s Snake, 1994–7 (created for the opening of the Museum), in a site–specific indoors installation of a scale and dimension without precedent in modern history. The eight sculptures altogether generate an experience that also includes the large exhibition space where they are shown.
Serra’s artistic activity in the 1960s coincided with the emergence of minimalism, a movement with which he shared many interests. This art movement attempted to achieve the maximum expression through the minimum means, giving great importance to the properties of the material and to the process of fabrication. These artists sought to liberate sculpture from its symbolic role and from the traditional base or pedestal, so that the work takes on a new relationship with the viewer. Experiencing the object becomes an essential part of the work. Like minimalists, Serra used industrial materials, uncommon for sculpture at the time; he created works in fiberglass, neon and rubber. In his sculpture Belts, 1966–1967, he used tangled pieces of vulcanized rubber lit with curved neon tubes, and then suspends them from hooks throughout a wall. By hanging them, Serra explores the flexibility of these urban, industrial materials and the effect of gravity on them. The importance he gave to the physical qualities of material continues to characterize his later work.
In 1967 and 1968, the artist developed a list of infinitives, such as “to spread”, “to roll”, “to lean”, “to cut” and “to fold”, which described many of the working processes that he would later use throughout his career, either with his own hands or through methods of industrial fabrication. They are actions materialized in sculptures. It’s like this that he created around one hundred lead sculptures similar to Splashing, 1969. This work was created in the storage area of Leo Castelli gallery in New York, throwing melted lead against a wall and over the floor—covering the angle in between—so that the metal would collapse into the floor before solidifying. Serra gives a lot of importance to the formation and transformation process of materials and to the way in which these react to external conditions such as gravity or temperature.
Realizing that these initial pieces still had the traditional pictorial relationship between figure and background in relation to the wall or the floor, he started to move in a different direction. One–Ton Prop (House of Cards), created in 1969, is made of four lead plates that stand vertically by their own weight, leaned ones against the others, like a house of cards. This work—part of a series titled Props—shows his interest in the tension between the elements that form a sculpture. In his series of props, the artist manifests the principles of balance and gravity and their importance in the production of sculpture.
From 1970 until today, he has worked mainly with steel, a material usually associated with architecture and engineering, both disciplines to which the artist often turns to understand the origin of sculpture. When using steel, the scale of his works increases drastically. The pieces can no longer be considered discreet objects; their meaning and construction cannot be separated from their environment and cannot be experienced without walking around them. This creates a radical change in perception for the viewer, who must move through the work in order to understand the totality of the piece. Many of Serra’s works are exhibited in open spaces, such as parks or plazas, where the public can go around them and experience the pieces. In 2005, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao commissioned Serra to create seven monumental steel sculptures to be exhibited by his work Snake, 1994–97, under the title of The Matter of Time.
As well as sculptures, Serra has produced many drawings and films. During the late sixties he created a series of films, amongst them Hand Catching Lead and Hands Tied, which focus on the repetition of simple tasks, where the camera is focused constantly on one single object. Drawing and film allow him to explore the same subjects with different languages which also express his interest in the production process and in other aspects such as weight, tension, balance or movement. Serra considers his cinema and video production as a parallel and independent research endeavor.
1. Richard Serra. Exhibition Catalogue. Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999, p. 59.
What is a sculpture for you? Working with your classmates try to create a definition. What are the differences between a sculpture and a painting? And the differences between a sculpture and an architectural space? What do they have in common?
Describe a sculpture that you remember or that you have seen recently. Compare it with Serra’s works: what differences or similarities do you see?
Think of different materials used in every day life. Talk about where you can find them and for what they are used. Do you think a material can be a symbol for something? As a class generate a list of materials. Then individually assign an adjective to each material. When done compare the adjectives that students associated with each material. Were there any surprises? Discuss why does an artist might decide to use a specific material.
Discuss how the meaning of a work of art changes depending on its location: how does the perception of a sculpture change if it is placed in a closed space or in open air? In a natural environment or an urban one? Why do you think Serra has chosen outdoor locations for many of his sculptures?