Selected Interview: Richard Serra
New York City, 1989
Klaus Ottmann: Who is your audience?
Richard Serra: The first audience is the people involved in the process. That would be the steel engineers, the steel mill workers, and the riggers. I don’t make the sculpture particularly for them, but the riggers are the first audience. The people who put the work together know more about it than anyone else.
The second audience is the interpretive audience, whoever happens upon the work, as with the Maillart piece in Grandfey Viaduct in Switzerland. This particular work is accessible to anyone, whether you know anything about sculpture or not. It cannot be misread as part of the function of the bridge.
I think what has happened now is that instead of art dealing with invention of form, we have the reverse. We have art that is predicated on being the appropriate solution or entertainment. It has to do with the exchange value of the commodity — I’m not saying that site-specific works aren’t commodities — but as commodities they are nonstarters. Their circulation is by definition limited. I think most of the work being built right now is really predicated on secondary-market sales.
Ottmann: How do you define site-specificity? Not all your work is site-specific.
Serra: No, Some pieces are just generic. Usually my commissioned work is site-specific. I’ve just done two site specific installations, one in Munich — where I built seven pieces in seven rooms and one in Eindhoven, ten pieces for ten rooms. Most of the conical pieces I built are based on the relationship of one part to another, and all that is required is an open space and a flat floor. The problems that the cones present interest me in terms of the possibilities of invention. But if I had my druthers, my aspiration would be to build pieces for a given contexts — to try to open up a new way of seeing into those contexts. I don’t believe in affirmation and I don’t believe in complicity. That’s what’s wrong with prescripted or applied art . . .
Ottmann: You’ve talked about creating “anti-environments.”
Serra: What I mean is any given place has a preexisting character and identity and when you intervene with a form, that form necessarily changes the character and description of the space and place giving it a new sculptural identity. Often this new identity is considered to be anti-environmental because it alters and changes the existing condition, whether it is urban, architectural or a landscape. It changes how one relates to those spaces and places both perceptually and conceptually. People become annoyed because they feel that they have a proprietary right over their environment. When it’s altered by an interjection that is utilitarian, people don’t mind. If you give them a nonworking fountain or a signboard or an advertisement, it is totally acceptable, but if it’s a work of art, which is by definition useless, then they protest. I have never completely understood the logic of the protest. Calvinist logic of utilitarian purposefulness continues to be the subtext of most people’s reluctance to deal with art in public places.
Serra: So you would always prefer site-specific works.
Ottmann: Yes, if I was given commissions, certainly. In this country my options are fairly limited although I have currently two interesting projects, one to build in Yale University’s old Gothic library, and the other, in Des Moines, Iowa, where I have been asked to build a landscape work that fronts the museum. There are a few other possibilities to build here but most of the work I’ve done in the last twenty years has been in Europe.
Ottmann: Now there were some relocations.
Serra: When people have taken pieces out and moved them? Yes.
Ottmann: There is a piece in Paris that I understand is not site-specific.
Serra: Most of the conical pieces I’ve built haven’t been site-specific. What happened at the Beaubourg is that there was a possibility to build in the pit inside the Centre Pompidou and during the negotiations, the work was cancelled. Dominique Bozo chose a new location, in the Tuileries, and as it worked out, it was quite successful. Being on the main axis with the Champs Elyses, the sculpture brought people into an engagement with the entire scale of the larger urban context. Originally, this piece was never intended for the Tuileries. It was intended to be viewed in an open flat space. These pieces can go in various places as long as the ground remains flat and has a context that I find acceptable. Now that piece has been moved to the Parc de Choisy. I’m not sure it’s as successful as it was in the Tuileries, but I never thought it was going to remain there. I only had a temporary permit.
Ottmann: Then there was the piece you designed for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Sight Point, which was site-specific but was never placed there.
Serra: Yes the work was cancelled in a preliminary phase. What happened was that the campus architect objected to the fact that the proposed sculpture was higher than the surrounding buildings. Later, when Eddy de Wilde asked me if I could build a piece for the garden of the Stedelijk, I thought that I could site the work in that space. Basically, the garden is a very flat generic space, and I thought that this piece could deal with the scale of the context as equally as well.
Ottmann: But the piece hadn’t been built yet.
Ottmann: So did you make any changes or adjustments to the work?
Serra: I think I may have made the interior space larger, but I didn’t make any significant changes.
Ottmann: You didn’t try to make it more site-specific?
Serra: No, but I located the openings to connect to the surrounding paths that come into the park and the one that goes toward the pool. The installation was difficult because of the sub surface condition. There was water four feet below grade and we had to build a pier with pylons. But I was happy that de Wilde asked me to build Site Point. It was the first vertical piece I installed and since then I have been able to build five or six more, most recently in London, in the Stock Exchange, 55 feet high, with an interior space of about 20 feet across. Of the vertical pieces, that one is the most successful because of its context. It’s called Fulcrum.
Ottmann: How do you see the role of American museums right now?
Serra: The collectors have a great deal of control over the museums, and there is collusion between the collectors, trustees, and museum directors. Museums are becoming showcases for collectors, in effect, museums not only collect collectors, they collect collector’s collections. In the sixties, there was an acute critical awareness and dialogue that challenged the authority and presumptions of museums which today has been usurped by the market.
Warhol had an enormous effect on the younger generation. Some of it has been positive, but a lot of it has just turned the younger generation into having the eye on the dollar. The art world has become synonymous with a star system in terms of monetary reward. You only find the equivalent in Hollywood and athletics. That difference in monetary reward you don’t find in other serious professions such as writing, filmmaking and music. The marketing trend that is going on right now needs to be looked at with a great deal of reservation. It may be that America is in a mannerist decline. I’m not sure — let’s say every generation gets what it needs.
Ottmann: Also, the art world is not isolated. It reflects a general climate in America that has changed from a social consciousness to mere greed.
Serra: Do you think it has goose-stepped with the Reagan administration?
Ottmann: I think so.
Serra: I’m not inclined to make those correlations because it could be that such moments of strict repression spawn resistance. But I would say in this country there is no left and there is certainly no resistance.
Ottmann: Will the decision on the removal of Tilted Arc create a precedent and encourage other individuals to attempt to remove public artworks?
Serra: That may be but the other thing that may happen is that young artists who were looking for alternative ways of confronting a growing market will be inhibited from pursuing the character, nature, and direction of site-specific work for fear that it will be destroyed. Or the opposite will happen — that people who make work that will go hand in hand with the architects and city planners and designers who have a need to either advertise their “liberalism” or the commodities of the building, as you have on Sixth Avenue now; empty symbols representing corporate power.
Ottmann: I can think of a number of young artists who would have no problem doing that.
Serra: And then there is another kind of work going on that seems to engage what you would call the social benefit of the populace, and you’ll probably have more of those kinds of wholesome activities being carried out. You know art for the people.
Ottmann: You seem to be closer to architects and engineers than to other sculptors?
Serra: I’m interested in the clarity of building, in gravity, in the tendency to overturn, in the exactitude of measure, the addition and subtraction of weight, the rotation of weight. I’m interested in mass. I admire Mies and Corbusier for dealing with tectonics in a straight forward way. They extended their raw material whether concrete or steel to invent new forms. Most building doesn’t deal with invention in the engineering. It’s just cladding, putting a new physiognomy, a new face, on a building. Basically, Maillart and Sharoun still interest me. The history of sculpture has been limited by either modeling and casting or cutting and welding. From Gonzalez, Picasso, Smith, and Calder up to the present, sculpture has still dealt with a pictorial relation to the plane that may be of interest, but not to me. It seems a dead end. I am much more interested in the fundamentals of building, than in three dimensional pictoralism as sculpture
Ottmann: Didn’t classical sculptors like Michelangelo also experience that struggle with the material.
Serra: One of the things that are evident with sculptors is how they deal with weight, mass, and gravity. These are givens that you have to deal with. The question of gravity applies and defines the individual work no matter who the sculptor is. Consider Brancusi, Picasso, Giacometti, Calder, Smithson, or Judd. You can immediately see whether gravity/balance is an issue in their work or not, and whether or not it defines the content of their work. I tend to isolate particular aspects of weight, mass, and gravity.
Ottmann: Do you feel your work has an existential character?
Serra: I majored in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara and wrote my senior thesis on Camus, but I don’t consider myself part of the existential tradition. That was a movement that occurred after the war when there was a need for people to define themselves continuously in the absurdity of a given moment. Giacometti epitomized that moment.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.
Interview Source: http://www.jca-online.com/serra.html