January 03, 2014



‘’ Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.’’
 —Scholastic Principle
Richard Serra’s work in general and his more recent sculptures in particular articulate space in a manner that intends to make the perspectivity of perception experienceable—but not the perspectivity that, mastered by geometric construction, has dominated Western seeing and thinking since the early modern era in the form of central perspective. Serra uses his works to exhibit a fundamentally different perspectivity that is radically grounded in the body and makes the contingency of every experience visible. He articulates the experience of perspectivity in sculptures whose form is perceived in a spatiotemporal sequence of aspects that cannot possibly be taken in and seen as a gestalt or synthesized and grasped as a whole in an ordinary perceptual situation.1
In what follows, I develop a series of reflections on Serra’s interest in the perspectivity of perception. I show that this interest is rooted in two central aspects of modern aesthetics: the revalorization of sensuousness as opposed to rationality and—related to this—the autonomization of art as an originary sphere of cognition.2 The recognition of Serra’s affinity with these archetypally modern conceptions prompted me to reexamine the prevailing Anglo-American view of the sculptor as an exemplary representative of the break with modernism. He was promoted to this status in the framework of discussions of postmodernism in art in the circle surrounding the American journal October.
I begin by analyzing recent changes in Serra’s work, since they reveal the relatively traditional character of his artistic position. The qualities of his sculptures that are generally regarded as postmodern—site-specificity and truth to materials (Materialgerechtigkeit)—either play no role at all in the most recent phase of his work or else are of purely secondary importance.
I then go on to present a lesser known perspective on Serra’s relationship with modernity. It is a view that deserves more attention, and not just in connection with the newest developments in his work. In contrast to the October group, a group of West German art critics surrounding the art historian Max Imdahl regards Serra’s work of the same period—the late 1970s and 1980s—as a logical continuation of modern aesthetic questions. In order to show how such a discrepancy was possible, I explore the premises and arguments of this specifically German view of Serra, which reach back to the beginnings of modern aesthetics and theory of art at the end of the eighteenth century.
Finally, I use the example of Joseph Albers to show the routes by which the quintessentially modern interest in the complexity of perception was able to reach postwar American art and find new expression there. For Albers’s basic artistic principles, which Serra encountered as a student at Yale and which had a deep and lasting influence on his art, spring from the same sources as the German critical reception of the sculptor’s work. Thus, my essay deals with two different instances of conditionality: the historical roots of perspectivity in Serra’s work and the cultural perspectivity of its interpretation.
In the Torqued Ellipses and Torqued Spirals produced beginning in 1996 and the Toruses and Spheres (fig. 1) that followed them, a change has taken place in Serra’s artistic language. Two of the principles most fundamental to Serra’s work thus far—site-specificity and truth to materials—are either completely absent or only present as secondary aspects.
Let us first consider what has happened to the principle of site-specificity, that is, how the sculptures’ relationship with their environment has changed. In site-specific sculptures, the size, form, and placement of the work or its elements were ideally prescribed by the site and served to make its structure visible. “I think you read the site via the sculpture,” says Serra of St. John’s Rotary Arc.3 And also: “Most of my work (drawings and sculptures) is site-related. The site determines how I think about what I am going to do, whether it be an urban or landscape site, a room, or other architectural enclosure. All the site defining information that’s available is gathered. . .”4
Almost totally self-contained, the new series of Ellipses and Spirals completely dispense with any specific connection to their site—with their centered forms, they are largely hermetic. They set themselves off self-sufficiently from the scenery around them. This visual impression reflects the fact that they were not conceived for any particular site. This autonomization of sculpture with respect to its site already begins to emerge in some of the Arcs of the 1980s, which, however, almost inevitably enter into a dialogue with their immediate surroundings as a result of their spatial orientation. This quality is often taken into account when the works are installed, so that it can sometimes seem as if they were actually designed for their ultimate location.
Serra confirms, however, that “[n]one of the coneshapes were built for particular sites; the ellipses are a continuation of that series. That’s how I got involved with the problem of a vessel that would entirely surround a volume. Neither the cones nor the ellipses are dependent on their place. They are not site-specific pieces. Nor do they need be.”5 And even when he describes what he considers to be an appropriate site for the ellipses,6 that should not be confused with his earlier concept of sitespecificity. In Serra’s more recent works, the environment only plays a role for the artist insofar as it is called upon to support the visibility of the sculptural form.
The Ellipses and Spirals also exhibit a changed relationship of form and material compared to the earlier works. While that relationship, unlike the site, still plays an important role, the principle of truth to materials has undergone a critical modification. This principle was first defined as an ideal for architecture and the production of useful objects by the Arts and Crafts movement and only then adopted by the fine arts. In the broadest sense, working in a way that is true to one’s materials means that form should follow material. Essential consequences of this approach are that the material’s native character should be revealed and become aesthetically effective, and that alterations to the material should be kept to a minimum. In contrast to this strict interpretation of the principle of truth to materials, in Serra’s recent works it is no longer the resistance, unwieldiness, and above all the cumbersome weight—as it were, the self-will—of steel that are made visible by the work, as was still the case with the balanced or tilted slabs with their rough, unfinished surfaces that deliberately show the traces of their industrial production. Instead, the characteristics that come to light in the newer works are those that make steel such a versatile and adaptable material for the construction industry and technology, including, for example, the fact that it is relatively malleable but rigid in its final state. The frozen elasticity of the elliptical walls, which sometimes approach and then recede from the observer, can even produce an impression of dancelike, animated lightness.7 What is important is that in this new interpretation, the treatment of the material no longer reflects the ideal that form should follow material. On the contrary, here that principle is subordinated to the realization of a formal idea initially conceived independently of the material aspect of its execution. Thus, the artist sometimes uses oil to make the color variations between the individual components of the ellipses and the traces of their handling less visible so as not to disturb the novel form of spatial perception the sculptures seek to provoke.8 And yet it is one of the most fundamental axioms of truth to materials that alterations of the material should be kept to a minimum. Apparently, in his more recent works, Serra’s primary interest has shifted from the material to the form, which dictates the choice of the material as well as its treatment. This shift in the relationship of form and material is thus analogous to that in the relationship of form and environment: The determining factor becomes the one determined and vice versa.9
Serra’s abandonment of site-specificity and the change in his treatment of material are so noteworthy because these characteristics, which clearly contradicted the modernist ideal defined by Clement Greenberg, were the very ones that justified his reputation as a postmodernist. In Greenberg’s modernism—one of the most influential “grand narratives” of the development of modern art—the only kind of sculpture that is progressive and therefore contemporary is sculpture that emphasizes purely visual qualities and thus in principle approaches the status of painting. A modernist sculpture seems weightless, almost immaterial, and it is often intended to be seen from a single perspective. The desired convergence with painting is achieved not only by means of this mimicry of two-dimensionality but also through the use of paint, which covers and conceals the actual material of sculpture. In this way, despite the fact that it occupies the same space as the observer, sculpture remains autonomous vis-à-vis the world of everyday life and experience that surrounds it (the world of non-art and design): It does not cross the aesthetic boundary.10
Thus, site-specificity and crude materiality are the qualities of Serra’s works that understandably made them such a success with the American art critics who, in the 1970s, were starting to rebel against the dominance of Greenberg’s doctrine and to proclaim that a new era was at hand. Particularly authors associated with the journal October, such as Krauss, Douglas Crimp, and Hal Foster, regarded the sculptor as one of the most important protagonists in the replacement of modernism by postmodernism.11
Through site-specificity and truth to materials, Serra’s earlier sculptures consciously and rigorously accentuate their palpable presence within the observer’s spatial and temporal situation. As we can now see, the more recent phase of Richard Serra’s work, with its focus on formal questions, clearly emphasizes a certain autonomy of sculpture and its reception. Serra himself confirms that this impression is intentional: “As the pieces become more complex, so too does the temporality they create. It’s not time on the clock, not literal time; it’s subliminal, it’s subjective, and it differentiates the experience of the sculptures from daily experience.”12 With the primacy of form over the material aspects of sculpture and with the autonomization of aesthetic experience, Serra’s work— despite undeniable differences—begins to approach Greenberg’s conception of modernist sculpture.13
The recent formal change in Serra’s work has not gone unnoticed by American critics. Curiously, however, they never mention Serra’s abandonment of sitespecificity and truth to materials, the very qualities for which they have thus far admired him. As if to protect the artist from the accusation of traditionalism, they focus exclusively on the continuity between this new phase and the more rebellious ones that preceded it. They often see the principle of that continuity in the “incommensurability between knowledge, particularly the type of eidetic knowledge that is the stuff of geometry, and perception,” to quote Yve-Alain Bois.14 In Foster’s essay on the Torques and Toruses, the emphasis on continuity clearly serves to allow the author to go on interpreting Serra’s work as a break with the modernist tradition, even if the term “postmodernism” is no longer used. Characteristically, Foster maintains that Minimalist art—among whose representatives he seems to number Serra—has nothing to do with modernist purity, even if it may seem to at first glance: “Minimalists deployed pure forms . . . in order to show how they are transformed by our impure perception, complicated as it always is by embodiment, placement, and context.”15 Foster evaluates the visual complexity of Serra’s works as an unambiguously positive feature that differentiates it from European modernist purity, which is seen as unambiguously negative. However, this simplifying dichotomy ignores the fact that precisely the discrepancy between perception and knowledge is a topical motif of certain strands of modern aesthetic reflection and artistic production. But the topos of the disparateness of sensuousness and rationality—or art and science—has no place in Greenberg’s modernism. Foster’s tacit appeal to a two-period model is characteristic of the profound extent to which Greenberg’s construction of aesthetic modernity as modernism has shaped American criticism. By contrast, I will argue that while Serra’s work may be understood as antimodernist and even postmodernist with respect to Greenberg’s modernism, it should not be seen as postmodern in the sense of marking an (epochal) break with European modernity as a whole.16

The attempt to situate Serra within a broader concept of modernity was undertaken in West Germany as early as the late 1970s by the art historian Max Imdahl,17 whose interpretive model shaped the perception of Serra in the German-speaking world until the late 1980s. This shows that where Greenberg’s conception of art was not widely received and hence did not possess the authority to shape opinions, it was eminently possible to view Richard Serra’s works as a reinterpretation of existing artistic questions. Imdahl views Serra from the partisan perspective of a champion of nonobjective art, in particular the form of nonobjectivity that Theo van Doesburg described in 1930 as concrete art. Imdahl cites Doesburg’s distinction between abstract and concrete in several of his essays:
‘ We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface.
A woman, a tree, a cow: are these concrete elements in painting? No. A woman, a tree and a cow are concrete only in nature; in painting they are abstract, illusionistic, vague and speculative.18
According to Doesburg, unlike merely abstract art, which continues to draw on structures of visible reality, concrete art creates an autonomous reality entirely free of any attachment to an extrapictorial reality. Thus, while the former has a reference point outside itself, the latter is purely self-referential and uses line, color, and plane without any objective association whatsoever, as autonomous artistic means. Imdahl, however, clearly is not interested in a further aspect of concrete art that Doesburg describes in the same manifesto, an aspect that would go on to have an enormous influence on the appearance of concrete art in postwar Europe. According to this guideline, concrete art should develop a universal language on the basis of mathematics as a universal science.
Against this backdrop, it seems astonishing at first that Richard Serra’s works, which avoid all logical or mathematical transparency, should have come to be seen in Germany as the embodiment of concrete art. Thus, in a conversation with Imdahl, Michael Fehr cites the American sculptor’s works as a contemporary example of concrete art.19 This classification has its origins in Imdahl’s essay on “Serra’s Right Angle Prop and Tot: Concrete Art and Paradigm,” which appeared in the catalogue of the artist’s first large exhibition in Germany.20 That exhibition took place in 1978, one year after the sculpture Terminal was prestigiously displayed at Documenta 6 in front of the Fridericianum and the same year that it was installed in Bochum, where it caused a sensation and drew protests from the populace.21 The circumstances of the show were no doubt partially responsible for the fact that Imdahl’s essay met with the lively interest and that the interpretation presented in it soon became widely known.
But how was Imdahl able to depict Serra’s work, which was so different from geometric nonobjectivity à la Doesburg, as an example of concrete art? The argumentative trick was that he only took the first half of Doesburg’s definition—the self-referentiality of concrete art—seriously. Imdahl criticizes the fact that Doesburg’s call for a mathematically structured art is, as he sees it, essentially in conflict with his first call for pure selfreferentiality. Mathematically structured form remains in a certain sense referential and illusionistic, in that in place of material “subjects” it delivers ideal ones, which are not the quasi-tautological result of the medial character of the painting or sculpture. The result is that the artwork does not take the material sufficiently into account but subordinates it to the ideal subject.22 By contrast, Serra’s sculptures are consummate examples of a more radical form of concrete art:
in that they possess immediate evidence independent of all phenomenal or imaginative correlatives outside themselves. . . . Serra’s sculptures Right Angle Prop and Tot are works of concrete art of a distinctive and radical kind: in them, the “per se” of concrete art which is for the work to exist by itself and to need no other explanation is radicalized into self-evidence not only of the form but also of the material. The material cannot be substituted.23
In Serra’s Right Angle Prop (fig. 2), Imdahl sees the self-evidence and nonsubstitutable character of the material realized in the fact that the characteristics of the material—lead, its heaviness and simultaneous softness and relative flexibility—are deliberately exposed. This means that a form is not “imposed on” the material; instead, the latter “actively” participates in the production of its own form. The characteristics of the material are also thematized in the sculpture Tot (fig. 3). In this work, Serra employs a semifinished steel panel with a rectangular cross section that would normally be further transformed in the process of industrial production. It is lightly embedded in the ground and therefore cannot be seen in its entirety. The viewer, however, is able to infer that it is rectangular from the right angles at the top:
[T]he heaviness of steel becomes apparent as the rectangular form stands inclined. And the rigidity of steel as a material is exposed as the form is, in spite of its inclined position, still rectangular or may at least be perceived as a rectangle.24
What Imdahl describes here as the consummation of concrete art is none other than the principle of truth to materials that I discussed at the beginning of this essay, which is rolled back in Serra’s more recent work and constitutes one of the genuine elements of the mediaspecific self-reflection of the arts.
Imdahl interprets the concept of concrete art very broadly. He includes in it both the geometric and expressive tendencies of European nonobjectivity as well as a few positions of postwar American art.25 This enables him to view concrete art as a defining trend of the development of art in the twentieth century, which then permits him to devote his attention almost exclusively to it. However, Imdahl’s all-embracing notion of concrete art does not fully explain why he largely ignores the other artistic positions of modernity—expressionism, Dadaism, conceptual art, and so on. The reason he attributes such enormous significance to concrete art in general and to Serra’s work in particular is that they refrain from representing “previous knowledge” and therefore make it possible to demonstrate the specific capabilities of the visual communication of meaning. For in claiming to communicate meaning, the concrete artwork demonstrates that meaning is located in the sensuous rather than the conceptual. It is precisely this paradoxical nexus of the self-reflexive sensuous presence of the work and its capacity for self-transcendence that constitutes the special value of the concrete artwork. Imdahl regards a number of Serra’s sculptures as exemplary realizations of this paradoxical nexus. For example, he admires Right Angle Prop more than the much better known One Ton Prop / House of Cards, because the latter can be described with a lexical term that is given in advance—precisely as a “house of cards.”26 He writes: “In so far, however, as a ‘house of cards’ is denoted, the structure of a sculpture threatens to be (mis)apprehended as the mere variant of an object already defined by a definite term: the structure of the sculpture is in danger of no longer being discovered but merely recovered. . .”27 It is easy to recognize the kinship between Imdahl’s interpretation and what has lately become the favorite motif of Serra scholarship, the previously mentioned “incommensurability between knowledge . . . and perception.”28 For Imdahl, however, the “deconceptualization” of art not only constitutes a feature of Serra’s work but the most important hallmark of modernity itself.29 Thus, Serra’s contribution to this tendency—just like the self-evidence of his materials—shows him to be a follower of the tradition of modernity and even, in a certain sense, one who carries that tradition to completion. What distinguishes Imdahl’s interpretation from those of Bois and Foster, however, is his almost metaphysical semanticizing of the nonobjective works. For him, deconceptualization does not mean the renunciation of knowledge—on the contrary, it means the introduction of another, no longer rational or logical form of cognition, as Imdahl explains in his interpretation of Right Angle Prop:
Stability and durability of the sculpture appear as nondeformation midst a potential of deformation. In so far, however, as stability and durability are thematic under the horizon of deformation and deformation is thematic under the horizon of stability and durability, a basic structure of existence is present which becomes the subject of reflection through the sculpture, i.e., through the material disposition of lead, without thereby suppressing the factual presence of the sculpture as such. . . . What really is of interest in Serra’s sculpture Right Angle Prop is not only the material disposition of lead but also a structure which has its paradigm in the material disposition of lead.30
Imdahl uses his central notion of the “paradigm” to describe the special way that concrete artworks relate to their meaning. They differ from copying, mimetic representations in that they exemplify their signified selves—they themselves are models or paradigms of it: “Serra’s sculpture is not the image but a real instance of an existential structure.”31
This kind of semantic potentiation of the artwork presupposes a belief that the work possesses a level of meaning that goes beyond what is factually present and aims at universal structures of human existence. Art’s communication of meaning remains essentially irreplaceable and untranslatable. As Imdahl says himself, this belief may be regarded as the foundation of the hermeneutic conception of art:
It is a fundamental content of the visual arts . . . not just to formulate the otherwise unavailable ideal but also to provide concrete data for intuition [Anschauungsgegebenheiten]— accessible and comprehensible to sense perception—of what is otherwise unimaginable and indemonstrable, indeed simply to draw attention to what is otherwise unimaginable and indemonstrable. It would be easy to see the artwork as legitimated precisely by its ability to bring structures to light—to make them an experience for intuition [Anschauung] and an object of reflection—that are otherwise closed to us and ignored, indeed perhaps even unconceived of.32
However, Imdahl remains consistent with the notion that art is irreplaceable—the aesthetic experience33 made possible by art cannot be replaced by the experience of nature or other realms of everyday life. Art alone makes the “unimaginable,” the “indemonstrable,” and even—as he writes on another occasion—the otherwise “invisible” visible.34 At the same time, the autonomy of art, which for Imdahl lies primarily in the uniqueness of its cognitive potential, is defined as mediated rather than absolute; for a hermeneutician the umbilical cord between art and life remains uncut.
Just as the American interpretation of Serra is partially determined by its intellectual context— Greenberg’s modernism and the emerging theories of postmodernity—so Imdahl also draws on other theoretical positions. For example, the claim that art is a form of cognition betrays the direct influence of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Thus, the first part of Gadamer’s major work, Truth and Method, is devoted to the “question of truth as it emerges in the experience of art.” Art is depicted there as the exemplary sphere that allows one to distinguish the hermeneutic comprehension of the world from the methodical explanation characteristic of the natural sciences.35 Gadamer espouses a moderate epistemological constructivism—for him, the artwork is not a purely mimetic representation of the world but a necessarily biased interpretation of it. According to this view, the function of a picture (Bild) is not merely to refer to an original (Ur-Bild)—what is important is precisely how it shows what it represents. The original undergoes an “increase in being”36 in the picture, in that the picture says something about its model that would not exist in precisely that way in the absence of the pictorial representation: “[N]on-differentiation of presentation and what is represented” remains an essential characteristic of all pictorial experience. At this juncture, Gadamer speaks of the “irreplaceability of the picture,” a conception that, as we have seen, also plays a central role for Imdahl.37
However, it would be a mistake to view Imdahl’s notion of art as exclusively derived from Gadamer’s position.38 The genealogy of Imdahl’s art-theoretical convictions reaches back to German Idealism, which especially affects the semantic plane of many of his interpretations of individual works. The notion of the paradigm, which Imdahl employs in his discussions of Serra’s works, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the notion of the symbol as developed by Goethe and Karl Philipp Moritz and expanded into a universal aesthetic principle by Idealist philosophy.39 In the aesthetics of German Idealism, the symbol must fulfill two requirements: clarity and a representative meaning, that is, the delegation and making present of something universal by a particular existent that is an eminent and characteristic part of that universal. A particular thing of this kind can make the universal present.40 In this understanding of the symbol, it is essential that the latter have a dual character, because it is both itself—a specific and inherently meaningful individual thing—as well as the objectification of an abstract universal principle.41 Imdahl has this same dual character in view when, writing of Serra’s sculptures, he observes both the work’s “self-evidence” and “a meaning which transcends such mere self-containedness,” a meaning that is “present” in the work.42

If Imdahl avoids the word “symbol,” that may be because it was strongly criticized precisely by Gadamer.43 However, this does nothing to alter the fact that Imdahl assigns a cognitive importance to art that is otherwise only attributed to philosophy. This too is a legacy of Idealist aesthetics, as formulated, for example, by Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling.44 For the aestheticians of Weimar classicism and Idealism as well as for Imdahl, the intimate unity of ideal and appearance implies the irreplaceability of the artwork, since a linguistic rendering of the artwork can only ever yield an approximation of its content. Thus, for Goethe, “a true work of art . . . always [has] something of infinity in it to our minds, as well as a work of nature. We contemplate it, we perceive and relish its beauties, it makes an impression, but it cannot be thoroughly understood, nor its essence nor its merit be clearly defined by words.”45
Of course, the artworks referred to by Goethe and subsequent theories of the symbol bear little if any resemblance to the works of concrete art. Moreover, in the nineteenth century the notion of the symbol acquired a definitional subtlety that is missing from Imdahl’s notion. For him too, however, it remains the case that the perception of art stands in the service of something higher that can only be attained through intuition (Anschauung).46 In fact, this “elevating” concept of intuition is already outmoded when Imdahl presents his conception of art. It was constitutive for aesthetics until the advent of the structuralist theory of meaning, at which point it was replaced by a “sober” notion of intuition. For in structuralism’s view, the visual sign does not lead to a higher and otherwise inaccessible realm but translates something of equal value from another “language.” While the translation can never replace the original medium and thus in no way negates the basic disparity of media, it does not lead to a higher valuation of one medium or the other.47 The almost metaphysical inflation of the cognitive potential of art is a weakness of Imdahl’s approach, which is epistemologically anachronistic.48 Imdahl’s semanticization of Serra’s works is also an important difference between his interpretations and those of American critics.
Imdahl argues for Serra’s modernity by pointing out the affinity between the artistic problems that interest him and principles of modern aesthetics and theory of art. But are there concrete historical indications that Serra’s interest in the complexity of perception and in material is more than a merely parallel position? This question may be answered in the affirmative if we consider Serra’s connection with Josef Albers. When Serra first came to Yale, the former Bauhaus teacher had just retired. However, Serra studied Albers’s theory of color when he taught his class on color in his final year. Afterward, Albers invited him to work on the publication of his textbook on the Interaction of Color. 49 Nevertheless, a comparison of Serra with the former Bauhaus teacher and champion of a European “geometric” painting that was strongly criticized by some in the United States may at first seem strange. The initial surprise disappears, however, when we leave aside the generic and formal differences between the artworks and instead consider the artists’ intellectual premises, their conceptions of the mission of art and of the meaning of visual perception and its reformulation in art.
Albers saw it as the aim of his pedagogical work to open his students’ eyes, and similarly he saw the aim of art as the “revelation and evocation of vision.”50 However, both his didactic and his artistic efforts have often been misunderstood as geometric, cold, and devoid of sensuality. In actual fact, the opposite is the case: For Albers, as for Serra, simple geometric forms and working in series are not ends in themselves but serve precisely to draw the viewer’s attention to the unsystematizable sensation of seeing. Serra recalls Albers’s central importance to his own conception of material and process:
What I admired about Albers was that even though his format was strict and logical, within it there was room for play. His color course was not taught dogmatically—. . . the range of experiments helped you to understand that you could use material in such a way that it would inform whatever you were making. . . . And once you understood the basic lesson that procedure was dictated by material, you also realized that matter imposed its own form on form. That’s a lesson I never forgot.51
Albers himself writes of color:
Color, when practically applied, not only appears in uncountable shades and tints, but is additionally characterized by shape and size, by recurrence and placement, and so on. . . . All this may signify why any color composition naturally defies such diagrammatic registration as notation in music and choreography in dance.52
For Albers, perception in general and color perception in particular are relative, change over time, and cannot be fixed in systems. Perception delivers “actual facts,” by contrast with the objective, measurable, and constant knowledge of science, which Albers calls “factual facts.” This binary opposition reflects the most important basis of Albers’s conception of art, the discrepancy between physical facts and “psychical” effects.53 Or as he expresses it figuratively elsewhere: “In the sciences 1 + 1 is always 2—in art it can also be 3.”54 Precisely in the use of the mathematical metaphor, it is easy to recognize the modern topos of art’s alogical character, as formulated even more pointedly by the Russian Ivan Puni in 1915: “2 x 2 is whatever you like, just not four.”55 Not only Josef Albers but also a substantial number of artists of the early twentieth century defined themselves in conscious opposition to the realm of logic and rationality, recasting the alogical character of their own sphere as an advantage:
The object has no absolute form. It can have various forms. They do not coincide with the geometric form. Geometry is science, painting—art. The former is absolute and the second necessarily relative. If it contradicts logic, so much the worse (for logic).56
What is here asserted of painting determines Serra’s conception of art from the very beginning of his career. He writes in one of his earliest texts, recalling Albers and other modern precursors:
The perception of the work . . . does not give one calculable truth like geometry, but a sense of presence, an isolated time. The apparent potential for disorder, for movement endows the structure with a quality outside of its physical or relational definition.57
He even goes on to support this formulation with quotations:
“We experience more than we can analyse” (A. N. Whitehead). “Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness” (Anonymous). In San Francisco they say, “Flash on it.”58
In the years that follow, Serra seeks to do justice to his “plea for perceptual wholeness”59 on various levels. He refuses to design his works before producing them, allows the material to play a constitutive role in the production of his forms, and incorporates the site into the genesis of the work. Finally, he designs formal constellations that reveal the radical perspectivity of perception. He chooses the unsystematizable character of seeing as his primary field of investigation and seeks with his work to make the viewer conscious of the complexity of perceptual data and processes, which is overlooked in everyday life. It is almost a necessary consequence of this attitude that seeing is slowed down and made more difficult.60 In this context, site-specificity and truth to materials—the dominant qualities in Serra’s earlier work—and the radical perspectivity of the current phase, which began in 1996 with the Torqued Ellipses, are revealed to be different original solutions to the task of investigating perception in all its complexity. If the renunciation of the earlier strategies signals a prominent break in Serra’s oeuvre, that only makes all the clearer his constant, unwavering reference to the modern aesthetics of autonomy, whose chief concern was to establish aesthetics as a sphere of cognition with its own independent laws.
As I have shown, the discrepancy between perception and concept is also recognized by American critics as a fundamental aspect of Serra’s work. But while here—under the influence of Greenberg’s concept of modernism—Serra’s “impure perception” is interpreted as a break with modernism, from the German perspective the very same quality may be regarded as a high point in the development of modern art. This diametrically opposed assessment is based on a conception of art that is rooted in German Idealism and philosophical hermeneutics. In this conception, art differentiates itself from science and logic, focuses on its own sensuous cognitive possibilities, and confidently defines itself as an independent and autonomous sphere of cognition.
In postwar American art, the “declaration of independence” from the generation of the European fathers plays an important role,61 and “patricide” is very much regarded as a virtuous act, even if the artists’ selfperception is primarily wishful thinking. For precisely the example of Serra’s current development points to a line connecting postwar American art to the aesthetic ideas of the older generation of European artists, as I have demonstrated with the example of Josef Albers. However, in addition to the rejection of modernism, the anti-European rhetoric is probably also partially responsible for the fact that the connections are hardly ever thematized in Anglo-American criticism. The constant theme of Serra’s entire oeuvre, which comes to light all the more powerfully in his more recent, radically perspectival and yet in a certain sense more traditional works—the discrepancy between perception and concept—represents an almost topical line of this kind connecting modern artistic theory and practice on either side of the Atlantic.
—Translated from the German by James Gussen
I wish to thank Joseph Leo Koerner for his guidance and support in the writing of this essay.
1-     The importance of the perspectivity of perception for Serra’s conception of sculpture is thematized by several of his interpreters. These interpreters tend to point to the kinship of Serra’s position with that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as presented in the latter’s Phenomenology of Perception. Characteristically, Rosalind E. Krauss places the following quotation from Merleau-Ponty at the beginning of her essay on Serra: “But the system of experience is not arrayed before me as if I were God, it is lived by me from a certain point of view; I am not the spectator, I am involved, and it is my involvement in a point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception.” See R. Krauss, “Richard Serra, a Translation,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 1985), p. 261. Other examples of a “phenomenological” interpretation of Serra’s work include: D. Craven, “Richard Serra and the Phenomenology of Perception,” Arts Magazine 60, no. 7 (March 1986) and N. P. Griffith, “Richard Serra and Robert Irwin: Phenomenology in the Age of Art and Objecthood” (Ph.D. diss., The University of Michigan, 1993). The “phenomenological” interpretation emphasizes Serra’s rejection of the “Gestalt reading” of the form of his sculptures.
2-     Serra’s embrace of the notion of a (relative) autonomy of art with respect to other spheres of social reality and practice is touched on in passing by Stephen Melville in his 2004 essay for RES: “Richard Serra: Thinking the Measure of the Impossible,” RES 46 (Autumn 2004):188.
3-     R. Serra, “Richard Serra’s Urban Sculpture,” interview by Douglas Crimp (1980), in Richard Serra, Writings/Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 136.
4-     R. Serra, interview by Bernard Lamarche-Vadel (1980), in Serra (ibid.), p. 115.
5-     R. Serra, interview by David Sylvester in Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998, ed. Russell Ferguson, Anthony McCall, and Clara Weyergraf-Serra (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999), p. 194.

6-    “I am interested in an external architectural referent; the outside of the form reads better, its definition is clearer, in relation to a vertical plane than it would be in relation to a flat open landscape.” R. Serra, interview by Lynne Cooke and Michael Govan, Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1997), p. 16. 

7-     When asked by David Sylvester if he “would agree that the ellipses seem to be in perpetual movement,” Serra gives an apt description of the impression they produce: “I think they implicate you in their movement. They have a torque, and when you walk into them, in order to understand their torque, you move, and as you move they move, so you’re always trying to play catch-up with them.” Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998 (see note 5), p. 203.
8- With regard to the surface treatment of one of his ellipses, Serra tells David Sylvester: “I did something there that I’m usually very reluctant to do. The crew at Beth Ship had great difficulties bending these pieces precisely, especially the one where the top ellipse is at a right angle to the bottom ellipse. That piece had to be line-heated to bring it together. . . . The scars on the piece were so bad that they interfered with the reading of the internal spin. We didn’t have a choice, I had to sandblast the whole surface inside and out. But even after sandblasting and after the plates had been outside and weathered and rusted, the line-heating marks were still visible. I needed to erase the scars so that you read the torque, that’s why we decided to oil this piece. As I said, I have been reluctant to do that in most of my pieces, but here it was a trade-off. . . . I don’t like to obliterate the process that goes into the work, but if the manufacture interferes with the perception and putting oil on the piece can correct the problem, I thought, why not.” Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998 (see note 5), p. 201.
9-     Thus, the material still plays an important role for Serra. He has reflected on the choice of materials on a number of occasions, for example, in an interview by Lynne Cooke and Michael Govan: “When I thought I was not going to be able to make these pieces in steel, several architects advised me to build them in concrete. But the problem with making them in concrete . . . would have been that they would be compared to architecture. I wanted to keep them within the definition of sculpture, I did not want to start begging issues that seem irrelevant to sculpture. . . . Also, built in concrete, these pieces would totally lose the tension of the torqued steel, which affects your experience of their space.” And also: “I’m using steel now almost like you would use rubber, in a very elastic way. . . . We made lead models of the elliptical pieces, because lead is malleable, and once we could make smallscale lead models with the wheel, we figured it might be possible with a dense enough roller with great compression to make them in steel. If there was another material that I thought would give me the same compression and torquing of space, I would have no reason not to use it.” Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses (see note 6), pp. 17 and 22ff.
Though Serra admits that the hierarchy of his concerns and his concept of how to handle steel have changed, he would probably disagree with my view that his new approach to material is fundamentally distinct from his former practice: “The articulation of space has come to take precedence over other concerns. . . . I want to emphasize that I am not interested in form as pure abstraction. I am interested in form as a conjunction between space and matter. Matter, any material whatsoever, imposes its own form on form. To me Louis Kahn’s brick is still relevant.” R. Serra, “Questions, Contradictions, Solutions: Early Work,” in Richard Serra: The Matter of Time (Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum, 2005), p. 54.
10-      C. Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” Partisan Review 16 (June 1949):637–642; also by him: “Sculpture in Our Time,” Arts Magazine 32, no. 10 (June 1958):22–25; “Recentness of Sculpture,” in American Sculpture of the Sixties (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967).
11-      See for example: R. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, no. 8 (1979): 31–44; Krauss, “Richard Serra: Sculpture,” in Richard Serra: Sculpture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986); D. Crimp, “Richard Serra: Sculpture Exceeded,” October, no. 18 (1981):67–78; Crimp, “Redefining Site Specificity,” in Richard Serra: Sculpture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986); H. Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” in Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art 1945–1986, ed. Howard Singerman (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986).
12-      R. Serra, “On ‘The Matter of Time,’” interview by Hal Foster, Artforum 44, no. 1 (Sept. 2005):271.
13-      “Being relaxed about the very principles on which his art is grounded . . . allowed Serra to think about the process of engendering sculptural forms in ways he would likely have condemned before. Indeed the purely geometrical issue he began with . . . may explain why, for once, the rhetoric of weight that has always (unnecessarily) encumbered the appreciation of his work is irrelevant. ‘Each sculpture [weighs] forty tons, yet they don’t seem heavy. . . . There’s a certain weightlessness to them,’ he says, and the plates ‘could be thinner.’ How unusual of Serra, and how remarkably unself-conscious, to be able to speak that way. It almost sounds like Greenberg’s old notion of sculpture as optical mirage, something that Serra, among others, has always rejected, and for good reason.” Y.-A. Bois, “Richard Serra. Dia Center for the Arts,” Artforum 36, no. 5 (January 1998):97. Though I agree with Bois’s keen observation, I am not convinced by his marginalization of the role of weight in Serra’s earlier works. This seems to be a subsequent projection. Serra consistently emphasizes the importance of weight for his sculptural work: “Weight is a value for me, not that it is any more compelling than lightness, but I simply know more about weight than lightness and therefore I have more to say about it. . .” R. Serra, “Weight” [1988], in Serra (note 3), p. 184.
14-     Bois (ibid.), p. 97.
15-     H. Foster, “Torques and Toruses,” in Richard Serra: Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2001), p. 7.
16- My view shares certain points in common with other lines of argument. For example, in an earlier text Bois develops a parallel between Serra’s interest in the temporality and multiplicity of visual experience and the idea of the picturesque garden in the eighteenth century (see Y.-A. Bois, “Promenade pittoresque autour de Clara-Clara,” in Richard Serra [Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1983] and, also by him, “A Picturesque Stroll around ClaraClara,” in Richard Serra, ed. H. Foster and G. Hughes [Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000]). Bois favors a conception in which modernity begins in the eighteenth century. He argues explicitly against a narrow construction of the modern as modernism and implicitly against the interpretation of Serra’s works as postmodern. David Clarke’s position is even closer to my own. He sees Serra’s “practice . . . as a renewal of the [pre-formalist] modernist project” by means of “a recomplexification of art.” D. Clarke, “The Gaze and the Glance: Competing Understandings of Visuality in the Theory and Practice of Late Modernist Art,” Art History 15, no. 1 (March 1992):93.
17- Max Imdahl (1925–1988) was a polarizing figure in West German art history. His opponents found fault with his methodological approach, which he termed “Ikonik” in a critical reference to Panofsky’s Iconology. By contrast with Panofsky’s text-oriented approach to interpretation, Ikonik deals with how meaning is produced by the inherent qualities of the image. Because of his lack of interest in a contextual (historical, social, etc.) analysis, Imdahl was accused of formalism. Imdahl’s Ikonik and other related positions came to be known as “art-historical hermeneutics” (kunsthistorische Hermeneutik). This makes clear their connection with the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, which is discussed below.
18- M. Imdahl, Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), vol. 1, p. 131; vol. 3, pp. 238, 383, 418ff. The quotation comes from Doesburg’s “Comments on the Basis of Concrete Painting” [1930], quoted here from the English translation in J. Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg (London: Studio Vista; New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 181.
19- Imdahl (ibid.), vol. 1, p. 374.
20- M. Imdahl, “Serra’s Right Angle Prop und Tot. Konkrete Kunst und Paradigma,” in Richard Serra (Tübingen and Baden-Baden: Kunsthalle, 1978), translated by S. Kisro-Völker in “Serra’s Right Angle Prop and Tot: Concrete Art and Paradigm,” ibid.; German version reprinted in Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 1. Imdahl also deals with Serra’s works in other texts: “Zu ausgewählten Arbeiten von Jan Meyer-Rogge,” in Stillwasser. Plastische Arbeiten von Jan Meyer-Rogge (Bochum: Museum Bochum, 1980), reprinted in Imdahl (note 18), vol. 1 (with an analysis of Right Angle Prop and Terminal), and “Zur Wiedereröffnung der Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum,” Jahrbuch der Ruhr-Universität Bochum (1982), reprinted as “Richard Serra, Untitled” in Imdahl (note 18), vol. 1 (on the drawing Untitled).
Examples of the influence of Imdahl’s interpretation on German discourse include: A. von Berswordt-Wallrabe, “Gedanken zur Skulptur Gedenkstätte Goslar (1981) und Äußerungen von Richard Serra,” in Richard Serra (Goslar: Mönchehaus Museum and Verein zur Förderung Moderner Kunst, 1981); E.-G. Güse, “Fassbinder und die Existenz des Künstlers,” in Richard Serra (Münster: Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, 1987); R. Hoppe-Sailer, “Druckprozeß. Zu den graphischen Arbeiten von Richard Serra,” in Richard Serra. Das druckgraphische Werk 1972–1988 (Berlin: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 1988). 

21-     On the controversy surrounding the installation of Terminal, see Terminal von Richard Serra. Eine Dokumentation in 7 Kapiteln (Bochum: Museum Bochum, 1980).
22-     Imdahl, “Serra’s Right Angle Prop and Tot” (see note 20), p. 22.
23-     Ibid.
24-     Ibid., p. 221.
25-     See Imdahl’s essay “‘Is It a Flag or Is It a Painting?’ Über mögliche Konsequenzen der konkreten Kunst” [1969], in Imdahl (note 18), vol. 1, pp. 131–180. Along with Jasper Johns, he lists Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Frank Stella as exponents of concrete 24. Ibid., p. 221. painting.
26-     This transparency of the work to a notion it “illustrates,” as it were, may explain the interest of conceptual artists in One Ton Prop, which Serra himself regarded as a misunderstanding. See Serra’s statement in an interview by Hal Foster in “On The Matter of Time” (note 9), p. 28.
27-     Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 1, pp. 321ff.
28-     Bois, “Richard Serra” (see note 13), p. 97. The refusal of Serra’s works to be grasped conceptually, as a gestalt, is also the focus of the most recent texts. See, for example, L. Cooke, “Thinking on Your Feet: Richard Serra’s Sculptures in Landscape,” and J. Rajchman, “Serra’s Abstract Thinking,” both in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007).
29-     In his essay “Die Rolle der Farbe in der neueren französischen Malerei. Abstraktion und Konkretion” [1966], in Imdahl (note 18, vol. 3), Imdahl outlines a historical development that begins in the seventeenth century and leads to abstraction and concrete art. He argues that the increasing concern with color is rooted in a more general transformation, in which the rationalistic model of cognition is challenged by visual experience. This process leads to epistemological skepticism and the decline of metaphysics.
30- Imdahl, “Serra’s Right Angle Prop and Tot” (note 20), p. 220.
31- Ibid. Imdahl also interprets the sculpture Tot as the paradigm of an existential structure: the structure of “negation . . . the ‘no longer’ of basic orientations [that are] normally valid.” The square form of Tot delineates the horizontal and the vertical as the basic directions that Imdahl calls the “primary orientation of our spatial being-in-the-world.” Since the square is only slightly tilted, the sculpture still evokes its upright position “as the norm which is left [behind] and negated, as a value [which is] no longer valid. . .” Ibid., p. 221.
32- M. Imdahl, “James Reineking, Trace (1972/73–1975),” in Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 1, p. 354. Here Imdahl explicitly formulates this fundamental concept that implicitly governs his thinking on art in general.
33-  On the concept of ästhetische Erfahrung (aesthetic experience), see G. Maag, “Erfahrung,” in Ästhetische Grundbegriffe. Historisches Wörterbuch in 7 Bänden, ed. Karlheinz Barck, Martin Fontius, Dieter Schlenstedt, Burkhart Steinwachs, and Friedrich Wolfzettel (Stuttgart/ Weimar: Metzler, 2000), vol. 1, pp. 260–275. In the hermeneutics and reception theory of the 1970s, this multifaceted term was used to refer to a discrete realm of cognition viewed as distinct from rationality and logic. See ibid., p. 274, and H. R. Jauss, Kleine Apologie der ästhetischen Erfahrung. Mit kunstgeschichtlichen Bemerkungen von Max Imdahl, Konstanzer Universitätsreden 59 (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag, 1972).
34-  Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 3, p. 562.
35-  H.-G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik [1960] (translated as Truth and Method, by J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall [New York and London: Continuum, 2003]). “The question of truth as it emerges in the experience of art” is the title of the first part of Truth and Method, in which Gadamer seeks to develop a general philosophical hermeneutics.
36-  Ibid., p, 140. On the notion of the picture, see chapter II.2.a, “The Ontological Valence of the Picture,” pp. 134–144.
37-  Ibid., p. 139 and Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 3, p. 620.
38-  Unlike Gadamer and the exponents of reception theory, Imdahl does not analyze the historical conditions within which works of art are perceived.
39-  On the notion of the symbol in the aesthetics of German Idealism, see Gadamer 2003 (note 35), pp. 70–81; G. Pochat, Der Symbolbegriff in der Ästhetik und Kunstwissenschaft (Cologne: Dumont, 1983); and J. L. Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), pp. 122–142. G. Kurz, Metapher, Allegorie, Symbol (Göttingen:
40-  Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1982), p. 69.
41-  Pochat (see note 39), p. 23.
42-  Imdahl, “Serra’s Right Angle Prop and Tot” (see note 20), p. 220.
43-  Gadamer, Truth and Method (note 35), pp. 70–81.
44-  See, for example, R. Prange, Die Geburt der Kunstgeschichte. Phliosophische Ästhetik und empirische Wissenschaft (Cologne: Deubner Verlag, 2004), pp. 59–71.
45-   J. W. Goethe, “Über Laokoon” [1798] (anonymously translated as “Observations on the Laocoon,” in Goethe on Art, ed. J. Gage [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980], p. 78).
46-  On the history of the notion of intuition (Anschauung), see W. Naumann-Beyer, “Anschauung,” in Ästhetische Grundbegriffe (note 33), vol. 1, pp. 208–246.
47-  Naumann-Beyer sees Gadamer’s hermeneutics and its application to specific fields as the last remaining niches where the “elevating” concept of intuition still exists today. Ibid., p. 211.
48-  Gadamer explains in Truth and Method that the symbol differs from allegory precisely in being endowed by thought with the presence of a meaning, a presence that it is perfectly legitimate to regard as metaphysical. See Gadamer, Truth and Method (note 35), p. 73. Imdahl writes that concrete art does not exist in the context of a metaphysics but is nonetheless “burdened with the prodigious and probably impossible task of producing from within itself—that is, from nothing—information with a metaphysical coloring.” Imdahl (see note 18), vol. 1, p. 315.
49-  Serra discusses his connection to Albers in interviews with Hal Foster (in Serra: The Matter of Time [see note 9]), p. 24) and Kynaston McShine (in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years [see note 28], pp. 17–18).
50-  J. Albers, Search Versus Re-Search: Three Lectures by Josef Albers at Trinity College, April 1965 (Hartford, Conn.: Trinity College Press, 1969), p. 10.
51-  Richard Serra, in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years (see note 28), p. 18.
52-  J. Albers, Interaction of Color [1963] (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 40–41. On the “actual/factual” distinction, see ibid., p. 117.
53-  On the discrepancy between science and art, see Albers (note 50), p. 10: “The Origin of Art: The Discrepancy between Physical Fact and Psychical Effect.”
54-  Josef Albers, cited in W. Spies, Albers (Stuttgart: Hatje, 1970), p. 5 (no source given). Albers also thematizes the alogical character of perception in one of his lectures, entitled “One Plus One Equals Three and More: Factual Facts and Actual Facts”; see Albers, Search Versus Re-Search (note 50), 17ff.
55-  Suprematist Manifesto, published by Ivan Puni and Xana Boguslavskaia on the occasion of the “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10” (Moscow 1915), in Jean Pougny. Catalogue de l’œuvre, ed. H. Berninger and J.-A. Cartier (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1972), vol. 1, pp. 52, 153–154 (French translation).
56-  N. Kulbin, “Kubizm,” Strelets (1915), pp. 209ff (in Russian, translation by the author).
57-  Serra, “Play It Again, Sam” [1970], reprinted in Serra (see note 3), p. 7.
58-  Ibid., p. 8.
59-  Ibid., p. 7.
60-  “The act of seeing, and the concentration of seeing, takes an effort. The gardens impose that effort on you if you want to see them. It’s another way of ordering your vision, and it slows down your vision. That was helpful to me, very helpful.” Serra on the role of Japanese gardens in his own work, in an interview by Lynne Cooke and Michael Govan (see note 6), p. 29.
61-  The anti-European rhetoric of American artists, their denial of any connection with the preceding generation of European artists, would be worth investigating in its own right. Barnett Newman is just one prominent example of this attitude in the New York School. See Y.-A. Bois, “On Two Paintings by Barnett Newman,” October, no. 108 (Spring 2004):3–27. Examples from the minimal art generation include Donald Judd and Frank Stella, who attempt to distinguish sharply between their “geometric” art and its European counterpart. See, for example, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, “Questions to Stella and Judd” [1966], interview by Bruce Glaser, reprinted in Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology, ed. G. Battcock (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1968)




SNAKE 1994 - 1997
Snake, a work made for the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, consists of three enormous, serpentine ribbons of hot-rolled steel that are permanently installed in the museum's “Fish” gallery. Although it weighs around 180 tons, the colossal work is experienced through its negative spaces. The two tilted, snaking passages, capture a rare sense of motion and instability. Snake preceded Serra's Torqued Ellipses, the artist's most recent rumination on the physicality of space and the nature of sculpture. BothSnake and the Torqued Ellipses seem to defy gravity and logic, making solid metal appear as malleable as felt. Shifting in unexpected ways as viewers walk in and around them, these sculptures create surprising experiences of space and balance, and provoke a dizzying sensation of steel and space in motion.

SNAKE 1994 - 1997
Weathering Steel
3 Units, Each Comprised of 2 Conical Sections
Dimensions: Each Section: 4 x 15.85 m; Overall: 4 x 31.7 x 7.84 m;
Plate Thickness: 5 cm
© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015

Weatherproof Steel
Dimensions: 397.5 × 2287.3 × 1518.8 cm

Weathering Steel
4 Torus and 4 Spherical Sections
Dimensions: Each Section: 4.27 x 15.24 m; Overall: 4.27 x 15.24 x 16.44 m;
Plate Thickness: 5 cm
© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015

Weathering Steel
3 Torus & 3 Spherical Sections
Dimensions: Overall: 4 x 17.2 x 9.04 m; Plate Thickness: 5 cm
© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015

Weathering Steel
Dimensions: Outer Ellipse: 4.27 x 11.41 x 12.19 m;
Inner Ellipse: 4.27 x 6.2 x 9.75 m; Plate Thickness: 5 cm
© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015

Paintstick on Handmade Paper
Dimensions: 199.4 × 199.4 cm

OUT OF ROUND  X, 1999 - 2008
Novatone Print, on Heavy Tintoretto-Gesso Paper
Dimensions: 69.4 × 59.4 cm
Schellmann Art, Munich & New York

Paintstick on Handmade Paper
Dimensions: 199.4 × 199.4 cm

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 - 1987
Hot - Rolled Steel, Eight Plates
Dimensions: Each: 184.8 x 400 x 5.1 cm, Collection of the Artist
© Richard Serra 2011, © FMGBGuggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2011

Cor-ten Steel
Dimensions: 67 feet 10 inches x 21 feet 9 inches x 20 feet 10 inches
Gift of the Burnett Foundation in Honor of Michael Auping
© 2002 Richard Serra

Cor-ten Steel
Dimensions: 67 feet 10 inches x 21 feet 9 inches x 20 feet 10 inches
Gift of the Burnett Foundation in Honor of Michael Auping
© 2002 Richard Serra

BIGHT 1 - 2011
Dimensions: 68,5 x 56 cm
© Galerie - Lelong Paris

Photograph: Robert McKeever - Richard Serra

© Galerie - Lelong Paris

Dimensions: 70 x 100cm
© Galerie - Lelong Paris

BAND 2006
Weatherproof Steel
Dimensions: Overall: 3.9 x 11.1 x 21.9 cm, Plate: 5.1 cm
© Richard Serra 2006

DOUBLE RIFT #6 - 2013
Paintstick on Handmade Paper
Dimensions: 214 × 611.5 × 9.5 cm
© Richard Serra. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian Gallery
Photography by Rob McKeever

DOUBLE RIFT #8 - 2013
Paintstick on Handmade Paper
Dimensions: 214.3 × 612.8 × 9.5 cm
© Richard Serra. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery
Photography by Rob McKeever

DOUBLE RIFT #5 - 2012
Paintstick on Handmade Paper
Dimensions: 291.5 × 536.9 × 9.5 cm
© Richard Serra. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian Gallery
Photography by Rob McKeever

Paintstik on Two Sheets of Paper Mounted on Thin Fabric
Dimensions: Overall: 407.4 x 208 cm
Credit Line: Gift of Doris Lockhart
© 2015 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



Paintstik on Two Sheets of Paper
Dimensions:236.5 x 510.9 cm
Credit Line: Partial and Promised Gift of UBS
© 2015 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

PATH AND EDGES 12 - 2007
Dimensions: 59,8 x 74,3cm
© Galerie - Lelong Paris

Dimensions: 40 x 30cm
© Galerie - Lelong Paris

PATH AND EDGES 11 - 2007
Dimensions: 59,7 x 75cm
© Galerie - Lelong Paris

Weatherproof Steel
Dimensions: 380 × 1410 × 230 cm
Photo by Mike Bruce © Richard Serra, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Weatherproof Steel, 24 Plates
Dimensions: 182.9 × 853.4 × 1447.8 cm
© Richard Serra. Photography by Rob McKeever

INTERSECTION II, 1992 - 1993
Weatherproof Steel, Four Identical Conical Sections
Dimensions: Two: 13' 1 1/2" High x 51' 9" Along the Chord x 2 1/8" Thick,
Two: 13' 1 1/2" High x 50' 9" Along the Chord x 2 1/8" Thick,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder,
© 2007 Richard Serra

The Matter of Time enables the spectator to perceive the evolution of the artist's sculpted forms, from his relatively simple double ellipse to the more complex spiral. The final two works in this evolution are built from sections of toruses and spheres to create environments with differing effects on the viewer's movement and perception. Shifting in unexpected ways as viewers walk in and around them, these sculptures create a dizzying, unforgettable sensation of space in motion. The entirety of the room is part of the sculptural field: As with his other multipart sculptures, the artist purposefully organizes the works to move the viewer through them and their surrounding space. The layout of works in the gallery creates passages of space that are distinctly different—narrow and wide, compressed and elongated, modest and towering—and always unanticipated. There is also the progression of time. There is the chronological time it takes to walk through and view The Matter of Time, between the beginning and end of the visit. And there is the experiential time, the fragments of visual and physical memory that linger and recombine and replay.

Weathering Steel
Dimensions: 4.27 x 8.31 x 8.84 m; Plate Thickness: 5 cm
Credit Line: Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Weathering Steel
Dimensions: 4 x 13.1 x 14.1 m; Plate Thickness: 5 cm
Credit Line: Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
© 2012 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Weatherproof Steel, Two Torqued Toruses
Dimensions: Each Overall: 12' 9" x 36' 1" x 58' 9", Plate: 2" Thick
Collection of the Artist, © 2007 Richard Serra, Collection of the Artist

JOE 2009

JOE 2009

CYCLE 2011
Weatherproof Steel
Dimensions: 1889.8 × 1706.9 × 426.7 cm
© Richard Serra. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Lorenz Kienzle


Richard Serra was born in 1939 in San Francisco. While working in steel mills to support himself, Serra attended the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Barbara from 1957 to 1961, receiving a BA in English literature. He then studied as a painter at Yale University, New Haven, from 1961 to 1964, completing his BFA and MFA there. While at Yale, Serra worked with Josef Albers on his book The Interaction of Color (1963). During the early 1960s, he came into contact with Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella. In 1964 and 1965 Serra received a Yale Traveling Fellowship and traveled to Paris, where he frequently visited the reconstruction of Constantin Brancusi’s studio at the Musée National d’Art Moderne. He spent much of the following year in Florence on a Fulbright grant and traveled throughout southern Europe and northern Africa. The young artist was given his first solo exhibition at Galleria La Salita, Rome, in 1966. Later that year, he moved to New York where his circle of friends included Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson.
In 1966 Serra made his first sculptures out of nontraditional materials such as fiberglass and rubber. From 1968 to 1970 he executed a series of Splashpieces, in which molten lead was splashed or cast into the junctures between floor and wall. Serra had his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Leo Castelli Warehouse, New York. By 1969 he had begun the Prop pieces, whose parts are not welded together or otherwise attached but are balanced solely by forces of weight and gravity. That year, Serra was included in Nine Young Artists: Theodoron Awards at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He produced the first of his numerous short films in 1968 and in the early 1970s experimented with video. The Pasadena Art Museum organized a solo exhibition of Serra’s work in 1970, and in the same year he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. That year, he helped Smithson execute Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake in Utah; Serra, however, was less intrigued by the vast American landscape than by urban sites, and in 1970 he installed a piece on a dead-end street in the Bronx. He received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 1975 and traveled to Spain to study Mozarabic architecture in 1982.
Serra was honored with solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany, in 1978; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1984; the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany, in 1985; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1986. The 1990s saw further honors for Serra’s work: a retrospective of his drawings at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht; the Wilhelm Lehmbruck prize for sculpture in Duisburg in 1991; and the following year, a retrospective at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. In 1993 Serra was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1994 he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale by the Japan Art Association and an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of the Arts, Oakland. Serra has continued to exhibit in both group and solo shows in such venues as Leo Castelli Gallery and Gagosian Gallery, New York. He continues to produce large-scale steel structures for sites throughout the world, and has become particularly renowned for his monumental arcs, spirals, and ellipses, which engage the viewer in an altered experience of space. From 1997 to 1998 his Torqued Ellipses (1997) were exhibited at and acquired by the Dia Center for the Arts, New York. In 2005 eight major works by Serra were installed permanently at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and in 2007 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work. Serra lives outside New York City and in Nova Scotia.