Progression of Art
Gutter Corner Splash: Late Shift
Gutter Corner Splash marks the debut of Serra's work in metal sculpture and demonstrates his experimenting with the various properties of the medium. Partly inspired by the example of Jackson Pollock and Action Painting, Serra has explained that the Splash series grew out of his interest in an implied, reciprocal relationship between the artist, the work of art, and the subsequent viewer: "I was interested in my ability to move in relation to material and have that material move me." As though Serra were pouring liquid pigments or sketching, Gutter suggests multiple traditions of sculpture, from ancient bronze casting methods to some of the most recent (at that time) reductive concepts of 20th-century Minimalism. The series also demonstrates Serra's evolving interest in site-specificity, as well as his preoccupation with the natural force of gravity, both of which have retained their importance in most of Serra's subsequent work.
Lead - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Although usually regarded as an artist's statement (akin to a private, reflective diary entry), Verb List might also be regarded as the artist's chronological, aesthetic agenda, setting out his subsequent development in sculpture. If the "to" verbs are thought of as denoting acts already accomplished, and the "of" verbs as connoting those he has yet to undertake, Verb List may also be viewed as a shorthand, visual retrospective of Serra's entire career, compressing past, present, and future into a single material object. Like a map, or a theoretical diagram, Verb List finally "stands in," as a visual and conceptual proxy for something more physically tangible, or virtually touchable: sculpture itself. Serra's later, monumental walls in steel would ultimately come to embody, in more abstract and open-ended terms, what the artist has chosen to conjure here in the "mind's eye" of the beholder, indeed by way of strictly linguistic medium.
One Ton Prop (House of Cards)
Considered in retrospect, One Ton Prop suggests the outcome of Serra's mature works, where various properties of gravity, weight, counterforce, sinuous movement, and other physical and visual properties are embodied by steel, a material commonly assumed the stuff of architectural skeletons rather than objects, in their own right, of visual attention. Arising out of the recent, rather deadpan history of Minimalism, One Ton Prop reintroduces to sculpture a comparatively witty and even whimsical sense of bodily pleasure, each plate of lead leaning gently against the other (who, here, is doing the "hard work" of supporting?) as though in a continuous round-robin of "passing the buck" along to the next guy. One even thinks of a long tradition of visual riddles, such as an endless staircase by the contemporary Dutch graphic artist, M. C. Escher (1898-1972), where it is impossible to ascertain beginning or ending, origin or destination, or (to be cosmic about it) genesis or death. One Ton Prop has also assumed a place in history as a centerpiece in a larger discussion of gender representation in art, ever since one viewer (presumably female) scribbled "DICK ART" on one of its sides, which drew attention to the work's imposing, even "machismo" bravado (this element recalls the recent, largely male-dominated legacy of Abstract Expressionism). The work's reliance on "dangerous" processes of iron welding, along with its large, or monumental scale has often been associated with masculine bravado (as was the former era's obsession with the mural-sized canvas, as though "size always matters"). Other observers, however, find the sinuous, arabesque curves of much of Serra's sculpture notably reminiscent of the female figure.
Lead - Museum of Modern Art, New York
According to its critics, Tilted Arc forced people to walk around, rather than directly across its chosen site of Federal Plaza, in a downtown New York City business district (where indeed global powerbrokers are accustomed to walking in very straight, or goal-oriented trajectories). There can be no doubt, then, that Tilted Arc is Serra's most successful (if ultimately publicly vilified) expression of his underlying desire to incorporate direct viewer participation into the sculptural experience, or his work as an unavoidably material and visual "phenomenon." When asked what he thought people found so problematic in this work, Serra laughed and replied, with typical impatience for too much interpretation over the art work's own "meaning," that it was the curve to which the general public was negatively responding: "They hadn't seen that before. Modernism was at a right angle; the whole 20th century was a right angle." He might as well been referring to the city itself (no less to a large part of 20th-century architectural history), as New York is virtually a methodical grid upon which Serra had, without doubt, boldly trespassed. Tilted Arc indeed traffics in an entire spectrum of "interruptive" experiences, such as a train passing, a ship pulling into harbor, a road sign speaking "DETOUR," or a herculean water dam holding back extremely powerful, natural forces. Indeed, deep beneath Lower Manhattan's own geographies there are industrial walls brutally inserted into the found landscape, so as to reclaim entire portions of the Hudson River for human expansion. It is hardly a wonder, therefore, that Tilted Arc aroused such antipathy in an era unaccustomed to such bold displays of artistic, site-specific intervention.
Created specifically for the Guggenheim Bilbao, Snake is another example of how the natural and built environment factors into the conception and subsequent experience of Serra's sculpture. The pathways created by each portion of the sculpture direct one's attention to the spaces between them, rather than to the materials themselves. Is not the art work, then, composed of air as well as steel itself? In fact, the winding, narrow routes (to which artists commonly refer as "negative space") and tilted walls of Snake offer a heightened perception of human vulnerability, or physical precariousness, no matter the work's secure grounding. Thus they draw a viewer's attention to the potential instability and danger implied in all structures of astounding tonnage.
Weatherproof steel - Guggenheim Bilbao
Recalling his experience of Italy, Serra regards his Torqued Ellipse series as a logical conclusion to the architectural problems, or, as it were, visual irresolution, suggested by San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane [Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains], a Roman Catholic church dating from the Baroque era, by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Although the church's dynamic, undulating facade is recapitulated in the bending walls of Snake, the latter's embracing contours evokes the artist's achievement of security and serenity, after he had long pondered his predecessor's expression, in Travertine limestone, of restless spiritual ambition.
Weatherproof steel - Dia Art Foundation, New York