Unlike some artists, Richard Serra does not want his audience to view his artworks as “expressions of his interior life”; instead, he claims that “any metaphors [his artworks] suggest are accidental and wholly irrelevant”.Serra’s comment regarding the meaning of his post-modern artwork might seem a bit harsh for a casual follower of art who might find joy in comprehending the underlying metaphors of artworks. However, one will understand what Serra truly means by his statement once he or she witnesses any artwork by Richard Serra in person. The lack of color and subject matter in Serra’s sculptures accentuate their physical properties, which force Serra’s audience to approach his works in a truly minimal perspective.
By choosing to highlight the surreal presence of his gigantic sculptures in its surroundings rather than its color and subject matter, Richard Serra creates intense environments that enhance his viewers’ physical awareness within the confines of his artworks, especially in his sculpture Reverse Curve (2005/2019) that is displayed in Gagosian’s 21st Street Gallery. To examine Richard Serra’s Reverse Curve in depth, first, I will describe the artwork in detail and give an overview of Serra’s career, specifically highlighting his development as an artist and his conceptual art making approach. Then, I will interpret Reversed Curve as both process art and site-specific art based on notable art critics’ ideas. Finally, to better comprehend Serra’s artistic intent and message, I will analyze Running Fences by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and explain how this artwork interprets similar concepts behind Serra’s artwork in a different light.
Constructed by assembling huge plates of industrial steel together, Reverse Curve by Richard Serra is a monumental sculpture that sits 13 feet tall and runs 99 feet long. Due to its unavoidable size, Reverse Curve generally feels masculine and emotionless when compared to a smaller artwork that may highlight its details and colors. Rather than trying to tell an engaging story through using bright colors and detailed images in this artwork, Serra lets the material of his artwork shape its overall form and impression. Serra puts his efforts mainly on “mass, weight, material, gravity” of Reverse Curve that comes with its material’s “inherent properties”. This emphasis most likely implies that the orangish-brown color of Reverse Curve is not intentionally used to convey a specific issue or a subject matter, but instead, is merely an outcome of the material Serra used.
In regards to Reverse Curve’s shape and form, the title of the artwork speaks for itself — -as the plates’ subtle curvature creates a shape of a “reverse curve” across the entire length of the sculpture when observed from above. When imagining Reverse Curve being split into two equal halves, each half of the curved structure shows convexity and concavity on both sides of the artwork. These individual steel plates with both convexity and concavity collectively create the sculpture’s particularly thin, s-shaped curve when connected together. To best witness the artwork’s curvature and mass, its viewers must observe both sides of the structure from the ground level and walk alongside the entire structure, as the curvature of this gigantic metal artwork creates a wave-like form across its length that hovers over the ground and its viewers. The physical emphasis portrayed through its grand size and mass, combined with its curvature, almost makes the viewers of Reverse Curve feel the gravitational-pull of the massive steel structure within its space, which best describes how Serra’s artwork goes beyond just creating a striking work of modern art.
Throughout his career, from his early-career sketching Verblist to his mid-career sculpture One Ton Prop (House of Cards), Serra has been constantly experimenting with various mediums and materials of his artworks to further push the envelope of minimalism. Despite the fact that Serra is now considered as a master sculptor of large, abstract steel structures, young Richard Serra seemed to be more flexible with his choice of mediums and materials. Upon his graduation from Yale in the late 60s, Serra experimented with sketches, paintings, short-films, and even writings to illustrate his comprehensive idea that his art should mainly convey “the nature of process”. Using just a pencil and two sheets of paper, young Serra compiles four columns of verbs and nouns that provide the action and its context, such as “to suspend, to curve, to support, to surround” and “of tension, of gravity, of equilibrium, of location”, in his so-called sketching series, Verblist (1967). This language-based artwork portrays Serra’s conceptual approach of creating art, especially in his use of language “as a way of applying various activities [and contexts] to unspecified materials” in his artworks.
For the rest of his career following Verblist, Serra is able to apply the conceptual artistic approach portrayed in this two-dimensional artwork to his large, three-dimensional steel sculptures such as One Ton Prop and Tilted Arc, which shows his development as an artist. Completed in 1969 and refabricated in 1986 for MoMA, One Ton Prop is a cube-like structure constructed from four plates of lead antimony, a lead-based material “combined with the alloy antimony to make it harder and stronger” mainly for its industrial purposes. While inherent characteristics of lead antimony provide a sense of stability, the gaps in between the edges of the plates show misalignment and imperfection, which ultimately creates aspects of instability in Reverse Curve. The idea behind One Ton Prop echoes Serra’s conceptual approach from Verblist, as each of the lead plates in temporary stasis seem “to suspend” from one another to create a sense “of equilibrium”. By developing his conceptual motives illustrated in words into One Ton Prop, Serra not only shatters the preconceived notion of a fixed metal sculpture, but he also pushes the limits of minimalism and the sculpture medium as a whole.
When analyzing a modern artwork that is as minimal and conceptual as Reverse Curve, art historians and critics, like Rosalind E. Krauss and Douglas Crimp, have come up with expository perspectives and approaches to better comprehend the general intent and message of artworks. Best known for her analytical work on 20th-century photography and sculpture, Rosalind E. Karuss encourages her readers to consider the physical act of creating the artwork when viewing art in her article titled “Richard Serra Sculpture”, in which Karuss treats artworks of Serra and others as prime examples of “process art”. According to Tate Modern Glossary, the term “process art” alludes to an artistic style or narrative “where the process of its making art is not hidden but remains a prominent aspect of the completed work, so that a part or even the whole of its subject is the making of the work”.  Using a portrait of Jackson Pollock that directly show his “athletic” art making style as one example of process art in this article, Karuss claims that analyzing “the process of [artists’] work” allows the viewers to better understand “[artists’] passion, their intensity, their caprice, their skill”.
Another art critic with an eye-opening approach of analyzing artworks, Douglas Crimp chooses to analyze Serra’s art as “site-specific art” by shifting the attention to the inevitable relationship a work of art has with its exhibit space. In his article “Serra’s Public Sculpture: Redefining Site Specificity”, Crimp mainly argues that a work of art could completely lose its message when it is removed or relocated from its intended exhibit space or relocated to another location by using Serra’s past sculptures, such as the controversial Tilted Arc and Terminal, as examples of this phenomenon. Crimp additionally claims that removing “the work [from its original surroundings] meant certainly to destroy it”, which basically means that changing an artwork’s location is essentially the same as destroying an artwork completely. Especially for an artist like Richard Serra, who creates his artwork with its future exhibit space in mind, the site of display acts like a smaller part of the artwork as a whole. To be able to fully appreciate an artwork and its creator’s intent, Crimp urges his readers to approach art as “site-specific art” through carefully analyzing how an artwork’s surroundings affect the artwork’s inherent properties, and vice versa.
To view Reverse Curve as process art, various visual cues of the sculpture, such as its form and the color and texture given by its material, can be used to accurately trace Serra’s art-making process. Serra uses a sturdy industrial material called weatherproof steel, also known as weathering steel or Cor-ten steel, that is typically used for construction and shipbuilding due to its hefty and durable qualities. The weatherproof steel plates used for Reverse Curve are thin, curved, and tall, which not only makes it even harder to assemble them, but it also makes it harder to balance them in a way that ensures the sculpture’s stability. These intricate traits of the steel plates used to construct Reverse Curve allow its viewers to picture the difficult construction process that resembles the process of building a commercial building more than it resembles the process of creating a traditional sculpture. Also, weatherproof steel gives Serra’s artwork its orangish-brown color and rough texture that one may recall seeing from a scene in a junkyard filled with random scraps of this material. Ironically, despite its name “weatherproof steel”, this durable material can change its color and texture depending on the degree of physical toll it endures from events such as hazardous weather according to Corten, the leading manufacturer of weatherproof steel. On the sides of the sculpture that is curved towards the ceiling, there are minimal signs of imperfection and color variations. On their other sides, where the face of the steel is curved towards the floor, there are numerous evidence of imperfection through its color and texture variations. These signs of imperfection all hint at the harsh weather conditions that the steel plates potentially endured throughout its manufacturing and transportation process, which helps its viewers understand Serra’s overall art-making process. In addition, since weatherproof steel is not a common material that any artist could acquire from a regular art supply store, the use of this industrial material lets his viewers infer that Serra carefully orchestrated the entire art-making process behind Reverse Curve. In order to carry out his vision for Reverse Curve accurately, Serra probably had to closely work with professional welders and manufacturers and picture how the viewers of his sculpture will engage with the artwork. This implication provides additional detail to Serra’s industrial art-making process that puts the viewers’ perspective into consideration.
Although one can solely analyze the physical characteristics of Serra’s sculpture to infer its industrial, DIY creation process, one can also analyze Reverse Curve as a site-specific artwork to understand how the artwork’s intended surroundings have impacted the nature of the artwork. While most sculptures of Reverse Curve’s size are often exhibited outdoors, Reverse Curve is exhibited in an enclosed gallery setting that mostly conveys a white and neutral tone. Since most of the gallery space remains unoccupied by Serra’s sculpture, Gagosian’s tall ceiling and big gallery space does not seem to restrict the size of Reverse Curve. Instead, by determining the size of the sculpture, Serra seems to intentionally leave room for its viewers to walk around the gallery space to have a full, immersive experience with his sculpture that emphasizes its dominant presence in the exhibition. If Reverse Curve was displayed in an outdoor setting like some of his signature artworks, such as the controversial Titled Arc, the impact of the sculptures size and mass would not have been as powerful when compared to when it is exhibited in the cubical space of Gagosian. Also, every artwork of Serra that make up Serra’s entire exhibition is individually displayed in each gallery space owned by Gagosian in Manhattan. This pre-planned organization of the exhibition shows how he wants each of his sculptures to be the main point of attraction in each of Gagosian-owned gallery spaces, which illustrates how the number of galleries and its spaces affected Serra’s approach in curating the overall experience of his exhibition. In addition, concave and convex bends in Reverse Curve mentioned earlier form an interesting dynamic between two opposite sides of the exhibit space separated by the artwork, similar to how the reversely curved line in the middle of the yin and yang utilizes its concavity and convexity to depict the coexistence of two opposing energies.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a French artist-duo couple from Bulgaria and Morocco, best known for their “wrapping” and large-scale outdoor art installations that they call environmental art. Christo and Jeanne-Claude mostly use heavily-woven white nylon fabric, poles, and ropes to create temporary artworks that cover or block the view of familiar landscapes, architecture, and objects. Together, the couple has pushed the boundaries of environmental art through creating both indoor and outdoor installations across the globe. Running Fence (1972–76) by Christo and Jeanne-Calude was a 24.5 mile-long, curtain-like structure made from “240,000 square yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric, 90 miles of steel cable, 2,050 steel poles, 350,000 hooks, and 13,000 earth anchors” that lasted about two-weeks in Northern California. The couple wanted to reflect “how the people in California use the land from rural, suburban, and urban space” by creating this plain, but extensive structure that ranges from the rural coastline of Sonoma to the city of Petaluma and Highway Route 101. To highlight the “artistic and aesthetic freedom” of the artwork and its surroundings, the couple accentuates the innate characteristics of its fabric material by creating this free-flowing structure in a region that generally lacks presence of modern art. The white fabric material used to construct Running Fence also calls attention to the artwork, not its surrounding environment, by contrasting the material’s bright tone to the darker tone of the Northern California coastline. Although both Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Richard Serra focus on the surroundings of their artworks to create their large-scale structures, the color of each material they use almost makes opposing impact to its surrounding environment. While the white color of Running Fence naturally reflects its surrounding California environment, Reverse Curve’s dark color adds character to Gagosian’s white cubic walls. If Reverse Curve was white in its color instead of orangish-brown, while its exhibit space was dark in its color instead of white, the presence of Reverse Curve in its gallery space would have been less dramatic, which would have completely deterred the original viewing experience intended for the visitors of Gagosian’s 21st Street gallery.
By accentuating the physical properties of his sculpture Reverse Curve, Richard Serra lets his viewers consider the intricate art-making process that went into creating his industrial sculpture, which is again emphasized the sculpture’s site-specific qualities. These efforts by Serra create a gravitational environment within its exhibit space, where Serra’s sculpture sits at the center with its captivating height and length, drawing its viewers’ attention. Even though Serra’s Reverse Curve does not directly impact the environment outside its exhibit space, one can find resemblances of Serra’s work all around New York City with its abundance of skyscrapers and monumental buildings. Similar to how a tall structure like The Empire State Building can make its passers-by feel like an ant standing next to a human, Reverse Curve dominates its exhibit space with its unavoidable physical presence and form This trait almost makes Serra’s sculpture democratic and open, as having a pre-existing knowledge of art history does not impact the overall message and intent of Serra’s artwork. Rather, Serra intentionally seem to steer away from having any kind of metaphors or symbolisms by choosing an industrial material that hardly conveys any sense of intellect or knowledge. Especially during a time of social media’s dominance, Serra’s artistic style that avoids any signs of ostentation by emphasizing physical properties more than any other characteristic of his sculptures make him one of the most exciting living artists, as he continues to spread his message to this day even as an elderly man in his eighties.
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