- Richard Serra
- On the Level
- corten steel
Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Richard Serra: Sculpture: Forty Years, 2007, fig. 181, p. 256, illustrated
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)