Richard Serra La materia del tiempo 1024x806

The Matter of Time

“ To work with steel, not as an element to build a landscape, but as a construction material in terms of its mass, counterweight, loading capacity, concentrated loading, compression, friction and static, that, has always been separated from the history of sculpture. However, it has had direct applications in the history of architecture, technology and industrial construction. It’s the logic of towers, dams, bridges, skyscrapers, tunnels...”(1).

The Matter of Time
Photo: © Robert Polidori


In his installation The Matter of Time and for most of his works, Richard Serra(San Francisco, USA 1939) has used weathered steel, a type of steel usually used in the construction industry and that changes over time. However, for Serra, the main material in these works is space.

All the pieces that create the installation of The Matter of Time are made from weathered steel, a type of steel usually used in the construction industry for bridges and buildings. These materials are traditionally related to the fields of architecture and engineering. When outdoors, the color of this material slowly changes turning from grey to orange to finally adopt a dark brownish tone, a process that takes about seven or eight years. After 10 years (indoors the process takes longer than outdoors), when the rusting process is completed, all the pieces have a homogeneous, soft and continuous surface. Serra’s working process begins with testing his ideas in models and after that, through a computer based calculation program named CATIA. This software calculates the position and the angles of the steel plates that form the sculptures. Lastly, the works are created at a large scale in factories that produce the steel plates. The artist, therefore, conceives the work but, due to its dimension, weight and qualities, needs to be helped by other workers to materialize his idea.

The materials that Serra has used the most throughout his career have been lead and steel, and from the seventies on, he started using steel more frequently. These are all familiar materials for Serra, since as a student he used to work as a steelworker to cover his college expenses. Serra, has stated that the essential material in his works is space and so he says: “I consider that space is a material. The articulation of space has prevailed over other aspects. I try to use sculptural shapes to differentiate a space.”(2)

The unfinished series of Torqued Ellipses, 1996–, (the installation The Matter of Time includes two of these pieces), continues to be related to Serra’s artistic vocabulary, but reflects a considerable change in comparison with his previous work. While the physicality of space has always been one of the recurrent themes in these works space turns into a material. “In most of the works that I did before Torques Ellipses, I formed the space with the material that I was using and I focused on the measure and positioning of the work in relation to a given context. In these works, however, I started with the void, that is, I started with space, starting from the inside towards the outside, not from outside towards the inside, to be able to find the skin"(3). In Torqued Ellipses the steel curves, acting as a skin that encloses the elliptical voids. In fact, Serra himself calls them “receptacles”. The steel curves to act as a skin that holds the elliptical voids.

Serra conceives his sculptures to be installed in specific sites, both outdoors, indoors, in galleries or museums. The series of Torqued Ellipses, as well as Spirals, have been created for the largest room of the Guggenheim Bilbao building, designed by architect Frank Gehry. For Serra, this is the only place in the world where he could have installed them. He has therefore created his eight sculptures so that they are perceived as a group, including the space in which they are. The works generate a dialog and redefine the architectural environment in which they are set. When entering the enormous room, the visitor is actually entering the sculpture. The elongated space of the room is, in fact, part of the spatial field of the works.


1 Richard Serra. Exhibition Catalogue. Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999, p.59.

2 Richard Serra. Exhibition Catalogue. Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999, p.57

3 Lynne Cooke y Michael Govan. "Interview with Richard Serra", in Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses. New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1997, p. 13.


List objects made from steel. What characteristics does this material have? What qualities does it suggest to you? Weathered steel changes color with time. What does this specific behavior of the material add to the work? Why do you think Serra has chosen weathered steel for his sculptures? What does the changing of colors of this material suggest to you?

Show your students images of The Matter of Time installation and ask them: What words would you use to describe the surface of the material? What does the artist mean when he says that the essential material of these works is space? Why do you think that the artist wants to include space in his works? When you visit the installation, identify the spaces that form part of the sculpture, inside and outside of it.

Serra conceives the work but, due to its dimensions, weight and characteristics, needs the help of other workers to materialize his idea. What do you think of Serra’s working process? What advantages does it have? What disadvantages? Why do you think he has chosen to work like this?

What materials do you consider typical for sculpture? And for architecture? And for engineering? Which ones can be common to all? What can be the advantages or disadvantages of interchanging materials from one discipline or the other?