Lot 54
  • 54

Richard Serra

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
1,925,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Richard Serra
  • On the Level
  • corten steel


Commissioned by the present owner from the artist in December 1991


Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art and travelling, Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985 - 1999, 1998-99, pp. 120 and 121, illustrated
Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Richard Serra: Sculpture: Forty Years, 2007, fig. 181, p. 256, illustrated

Catalogue Note

In an interview with Kynaston McShine on the occasion of his 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Richard Serra commented, “one of the first things I did when I started working in New York was to write down a list of verbs – to split, to tear, to roll, to flow and so on… The verb list allowed me to experiment without any preconceived idea about what I was going to make and not worry about the history of sculpture." It is this list of actions that enables Serra to critically examine the physical properties of the raw material and its “tectonic potential, its weight, its compression, its mass, its stasis.” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Richard Serra Sculptor: Forty Years, 2007, pp. 27-28) Embodying brilliantly the artist’s oft-quoted verb list, On the Level from 1991 is the ultimate distillation of Serra’s aesthetic pursuits at the height of his long career of sculptural innovation. As if directly grown out from the earth, the 5-inch-thick, 40-foot-long oxidized rectangular corten steel plate runs across a slight slope; one end of it is fully revealed and the other fully buried, with seemingly infinite length disappearing into the landscape. In all the solemnity and the melancholy of an enormous piece of oxidizing steel – monumental, weighty and rusty – lie the spatial-temporal possibility of the steel and how it defines our experience.

First, even though there’s no act of painting or artificial patination, the surfaces upon closer look become alive, with accidental rust and miraculous patches of bloody orange exuding tangible emotional tension. The artist once explained that the corten steel is an oxidizing steel that turns orange over time until about year eight when it turns dark brown, amber and then discontinues colorization. A temporal dimension is hence added to the experience of this material; one sees different colors and varying moods in the sculpture at different viewing times. Second, despite the bulky and rigidly geometric form, corten steel’s soft and malleable characteristic and a sense of lightness and movement still peek through, partly through the ever-changing colorization patterns, partly by its psychological association with the fluid elegance of some of the artist’s curved works, and most importantly, by its profound engagement with the viewer and the surrounding. The site-specificity of the work is made apparent by the accompanying Siting Certificate which requires that “the work may only be displayed on a site that has a 29 inch fall over 40 feet.” The natural embrace by the curved slope softens the lower edges of the work, and depending on the viewing angle, skews the geometric rigidity of the top and side edges. The perceived movement outwards from the earth or inwards into it brilliantly exemplifies “to stretch”, “to weave”, “to continue” or “to spill” in the verb list, while it’s earth-dividing form functions “to split”, “to suspend”, “to inlay”, “to open”, “to hinge” or “of tension” and “of friction”. All of these verbs are meant to be experienced first-hand:  seeing it afar, walking along it, or jumping over it. For Serra, the real subject of the work is the viewer and how he/she is subsequently changed by interacting with it.

Contemporary artists, following the lead of Constantin Brancusi, had simplified form into basic shapes and many of the Minimalists had long adopted the use of industrial materials to fabricate works that did not exhibit any trace of the artist’s hand. The present work pushes this modernist approach to its most extreme conceptual basis and manages to avoid the sometimes emotional barrenness of Minimalism. The work’s elegantly simple form lays bare the material and the construction process as the creative process, and places the viewer and the surroundings at the center of the making of art. The renowned art critic Robert Hughes once commented, “his greatest achievement has been to give fabricated steel the power and density, the emotional address to the human body, the sense of empathy and urgency and liberation, that once belonged only to bronze and stone… Labels are a nuisance, a distraction. But if you wanted to use one, you could just as easily call Richard Serra the last abstract expressionist.” (cited in The Guardian, Wednesday June 22, 2005)