Richard Serra’s new show of monumental sculptures heralds the artist’s first exhibition in London for 16 years. In a rare interview, he talked with Adrian Searle about the evolution of his ideas and his plans for the future
For over 40 years, American artist Richard Serra has tested the limits and possibilities of sculpture, film and drawing. In the 1960s he began his investigation into the imaginative and physical potential of materials and their relationship with the site and viewer. Since the early 1970s Serra has become best-known for the monumental sculptures he has created for various architectural, urban and landscape settings. In 2007 New York’s Museum of Modern Art honoured Serra’s career with a retrospective and earlier this year his major work Promenade was installed at the Grand Palais, Paris. His current show at Gagosian Gallery, London, runs until 20 December, and includes three new steel sculptures. It is the first exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK since Weight and Measure was presented at the Tate Gallery in 1992. He gave a rare interview to Adrian Searle in London in late September.
ADRIAN SEARLE You have mentioned that Mark Rothko’s late paintings remind you of the poems of Fernando Pessoa, after whom you’ve named a recent sculpture. Could you elaborate on that?
RICHARD SERRA I recently read Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet [which was written in the 1920s but first published in 1982]. In it Pessoa constantly probes his thought and analyses his personal sensations. The book is made up of fragments by a writer who is obsessed with his own emotions. His voice is one of unsparing introspection. The questions he asks over and over again are: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why do I write?’ By extension, I find myself asking: ‘Why do I make what I do?’ The same probably held true for Rothko. For Pessoa, to think is to live and to feel is merely food for thought. These fragments deal with an endgame, they are Kafka-like, and similar to Rothko’s last 12 years.
AS Pessoa really only wrote for his friends, which was a problem with the arts in Portugal for much of the 20th century; he was talking to a small bunch of people.
RS Portugal feels very nostalgic. The Portuguese constantly look back to their lost empire. Although it is part of Europe, when you are there, you feel like you are on an island.
AS Yes, in fact, in José Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft (1986) Portugal drifts away from the coast of Europe. I found myself, not long ago, reading something you wrote for Steve Reich, for his 70th birthday tribute. You were talking about Yvonne Rainer and the whole gang in New York in the 1960s and how you were each others’ critics, which is not unlike Pessoa writing for his friends.
RS We were a small group making work for each other – and the women led the charge.
AS Yvonne Rainer was here in London a few weeks ago, talking about dance.
RS I wonder if young people now know anything of the pivotal role she played in the 1960s. She opened up and carried much of the scene for six or seven years.
AS The talk was full, although it was 90 percent dance people; but I was chatting to a successful young choreographer working in London, and he’d never heard of her.
RS She was one of the best performers I’ve ever seen. She would bring all kinds of objects into play. Her dancers would throw powder, dirt, each other and mattresses around and use different sorts of people and different body types: young, old, fat and thin, running and jumping and falling constantly. I remember in one performance she lowered an enormous transparent flat, a grid, in front of the entire width and height of the stage, held it for a couple of seconds and lifted it. This was one grand mocking gesture: the frontality, the stage, the grid, the perspective measure, every part of it dissected. I never forgot it.
AS I know you think a lot about duration as one of the dimensions of sculpture.
RS Duration is a subtext of how the space of the work is experienced: the diversity of time, the intensity of time or time in particular is what individuates us more than anything else. Everyone’s relationship to their own time is more personal, more private and more singular than anything I can think of. My interest is in what animates movement, what fragments movement, what dislocates movement, what disorients movement. For me temporality is a value.
AS There is still so much interest in the conversations artists were having in the 1960s, when there wasn’t much of an audience for art.
RS I’ll give you an example. We’d all go to Max’s Kansas City, and one night, when I was with Michael Snow, we heard there was a performance across the street and we went over to watch it on the 22nd floor. The choreographer and dancer Simone Forti was going to present a performance along with Rauschenberg. When we arrived, the Rauschenberg performance had already begun. He was pulling a series of boxes across the floor with people underneath them accompanied by random musical sounds, a predictable Cageian event. All of a sudden the performance ended, the room went dark and light appeared in the space outside of one window and then someone fell outside the window; then another, and another, and another. At least two dozen people dropped through space. It was then that you realized that the first person who had fallen by, fell by again. This was repeated four or five times. What was out of view was that mattresses had been piled on the roof of the 21st floor so that the performers could land, run up the stairwell and return to jump again from the 23rd floor. Michael was completely stunned. I remember what he said: ‘This is a Muybridge framing device in real time.’ These were performances we did for each other and afterwards we would always pass a hat around. Talk about a cohesive group, we were each other’s audience. At the time I was living with Joan Jonas and Robert Smithson was my best friend.
AS These kinds of dialogues happen against a work and a context that have been lost.
RS I think every generation defines itself; only the issues and options change. In the 1960s there was no cultural industry. Large scale merchandising did not exist. It could be that the over-emphasis on merchandising has become problematic for a younger generation. But I don’t know.
AS There’s certainly a real break between generations – perhaps we all felt that. When I was an art student, I didn’t want to hear about David Hockney or about the American Greenberg acolytes we were being told about either. Perhaps it’s the same now – art students now don’t want to hear about Damien Hirst. For you, were you trying to break with something or make with something?
RS Breaking or making did not seem to be on the radar. Postmodernism has created an overt interest in historical references. It was not our problem. Back in the mid-1960s, if I had to give a brief on what I thought sculpture needed to be, it was to do away with the object, to get sculpture off the pedestal and expand the space of the field, to open up the container and to foreground time and bodily movement in relation to the intensity of place and context. I am basically still doing that. When I graduated from Yale in painting, I went to Paris for a year, got a Fulbright and went to Florence where I stopped painting and decided to start over again. I began to stuff animals. I did not have the faintest idea what I was doing.
AS You did taxidermy?
RS Yes, I was stuffing animals. I started juxtaposing live animals with stuffed animals, making surrogate zoos. I collected 22 animals of all kinds – some live, some dead – and a lot of other debris. In a broad sense it was a kind of assemblage that was an extension of what was going on with Rauschenberg and a lot of other people who had come out of the American scene. I had reduced it to barnyard Surrealism. Even then, I thought of it as student work, nothing more, and went back to America. But it did get me into using the diversity of non-art materials.
AS Facts, factual materials, real materials. Which is a kind of distinction, isn’t it? I was thinking earlier today, of a nice resonance between your installation in the Tate’s Duveen Galleries in 1992, Weight and Measure, and Martin Creed’s piece Work No. 850 which is taking place now.
RS What is he doing?
AS Every 30 seconds a runner appears at one end of the empty Duveen Gallery and runs as fast as they possibly can to the other end of the empty gallery, where they disappear around the corner, go downstairs, walk the length of the Duveen Gallery, climb the stairs again, go up near the entrance and run.
RS He’s a performance artist?
AS Martin makes sculptures and performances and works with orchestras. I feel it’s about the body and it’s about time.
RS It seems to be about measuring a space.
AS There are no barriers.
RS I like it.
AS The runner has to dodge gallery visitors, and they have to dodge the runner. It’s a bit like something that was happening between those two blocks you placed there.
RS I told Nicholas Serota, prior to mocking up Weight and Measure, that it would have three components, but then I realized that the centre of the Tate’s Duveen Hall with its circular intersection was an obvious magnet; a collecting zone for the viewer. I decided that I did not need a weight in the middle so I reduced the sculpture to two blocks of differing heights and weights at either end of the hall. I wanted to deal solely with the elevation over the distance. I remember Nick came down to see what I was up to, and for a minute he was taken aback, but he came around. David Sylvester was a big help. He was one of my closest friends at the time.
AS I think Sylvester compared it to an ice-cream van that had somehow arrived in his front garden – a big, obdurate mass outside his window blocking the daylight. I remember him trying to deal with his physical relationship to it. There was this strange thing happening between the two related sculptures you showed at Gagosian in New York just after 9/11: you had to go into two different rooms. It’s sort of doing that here in your new show in London. It’s about the presence of the piece you can see and the other one, which you can feel behind your back and which is nearby but not visible. One also had this same sensation walking between the five enormous elements of Promenade (2008) in the Grand Palais in Paris.
RS Promenade was totally driven by the context. The internal relationships of measurement and placement related to the central axis of the site. The placement of the rectangular plates followed a strict logic in that the plates tilted away and towards the center line in an asymmetrical counterpoint. However, the perception of the sculpture contradicts the logic of its relation to the site. As you walk inbetween the plates you see fragments, you see the work in part, you cannot grasp the whole. The plates appear and disappear, lean away or toward you depending on your location. I work in different ways with space. Take Open Ended (2008) in my new show in London which belongs to a series of sculptures that combine toruses and spheres. Open Ended grows out of a piece called Blindspot (2002–3), which comprises three toruses and three spheres that diminish in length as they create a path that leads to a dead end: you have to reverse to exit. The corners where toruses and spheres join are not on axis. Each path as you turn the corner leads you directly into a wall, so you have to counter step and it throws off your cadence.
AS Because you don’t actually see the turn until a little too late.
RS Yes, it dislocates your orientation and then you have to step off in another direction, and you are not quite sure where you are headed.
AS That’s part of the control of the piece, isn’t it?
RS The control of your duration. It breaks your cadence.
AS Exactly, and you don’t want to turn it into a fairground ride, so it’s mis-stepping you without becoming some squeaky entertainment. It’s not playing with your body in the way that a roller-coaster might.
RS The experience of these works has nothing to do with entertainment. There is an obvious disorientation and at some point you lose your sense of direction. You are trying to navigate an unknowable condition.
AS When I was inside Open Ended, I kept thinking, this is too big.
RS There seems to be more space than can possibly occupy this place and the room has completely evaporated.
AS It is as if the space that’s outside is too small for the space inside.
RS Open Ended makes me more anxious than Blindspot. Now you’d say it’s open-ended, and it ought not to be because there’s a release in this piece in that you have two entrances/exits. I am not interested in the number of parts but I am interested in their interlocking or their spatial unfolding. The interest for me is not the specificity of form, the fact that they are toruses and spheres. I am interested in what they can do. The interlocking of three sets of toruses and spheres sets up a seemingly irrational continuation of spaces. In effect, you lose track of where you are and you cannot anticipate where you are going. The internal differences explain the various moments of tension and release. The singular dynamic of bodily movement close to the surface of the curvature is responsible for the intensity of the experience of space.
AS Your body is a pendulum.
RS Yes, and you want to get out of there, so your cadence speeds up.
AS It engenders feelings of anxiety and of losing one’s place, and being made very aware of one’s equilibrium or lack of it. And yet we habitually suppress these feelings of doubt and uncertainty, or we wouldn’t be able to cross the road, would we?
RS Or we deny them, because we don’t want to take the time to investigate them. I got interested in curves because I felt it was very difficult to understand them, to understand what is on the opposite side, to understand the difference between convexity and concavity. Not too many contemporary architects or sculptors have worked with curves.
AS Oscar Niemeyer has, a bit.
RS In Brazil, OK, and maybe Le Corbusier, but very few people have dealt with that problem. I think that one of the things that really outraged people about Tilted Arc (1981) was not that it was a big sculpture that bisected a plaza, but that it was a big curve.
AS Most curves can only be seen from the air.
RS In circulation, maybe, but not in structure. And certainly no one was using reverse curves in structure.
AS Is that for technical reasons? Is it easier to do that now than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
RS There was not much interest in the invention of form. It was easier to mass produce right angles than to mass produce curves. Today you can easily mass produce curves because of developments in computer technology. The right angle reflected the zeitgeist of the 20th century but that is over. I think the speed of the skin dominates now.
AS There’s a lot of globby architecture and blobs. Norman Foster’s done a few, but I’m not a fan of them at all. Zaha Hadid has made some wonderful maquettes of forms that curve, of envelopes, so you’re not sure whether you’re on the inside or the outside, like undersea molluscs.
RS I’m interested in the structure of the form that makes the space. I’m not so interested in the free-flowing blob, although I can understand why people are interested in them. When I was working in rubber, very early on, I actually made a piece called Blob.
AS So you made a blob, and you made Charlie Brown (2000). How did you get from the blob to Fernando Pessoa?
RS I also named pieces after David Sylvester, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Charlie Chaplin.
AS It seems to work very well. They have something to do with the people and nothing at all to do with them.
RS Well, they have nothing to do with them. But somebody may ask, who’s Pessoa? And if that encourages curiosity about him, that’s all to the good.
AS He should be much better known than he is. Or perhaps he is known just enough, in the right way, at the moment.
RS That might be true. The people who need to will find him.
AS It’s true of art too in some ways. All that debate about Tilted Arc – wasn’t there a stage play about it, or a novel? Did William Gass write a novel about it?
RS I think a lot of people used it for a lot of purposes, I didn’t follow it. For a while it just got to be an albatross.
AS There was a bit of a fuss about your Abu Ghraib drawing (Stop Bush, 2004) in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, wasn’t there? It was then reduced to Stop BS, I think, when it was turned into a poster.
RS It wasn’t the Whitney that made the fuss. In order to mass produce posters for distribution by political action committees we couldn’t use Bush’s name.
AS It means the same thing anyway, bullshit or something, one or the other. In a way it was contiguous with the sculptures, or your other oil-stick drawings. That silhouette is so unmistakable now. That silhouette has become the ideogram of the entire war.
RS It also has a multiple read-out. In the States it’s the Ku-Klux-Klan, racism, atrocity, Bush, American aggression, it’s all of it. I tried to reduce the detail in order to open the image up to multiple readings.
AS We reduce, and we read things, and just as we walk through a sculpture we think we know, we imagine what the other side of the concavity is going to be like, and then when we meet it, it’s even more of a surprise because we’ve got a mental image.
RS I think that a lot of depiction and illustration leads you back to the references that are contained within them, not within you.
AS Are you still looking at a lot of younger art?
RS I try to look at as much as I can. In New York right now there’s a lot of neo-assemblage, a lot of bricolage and photographs. The big influential figure once again seems to be Rauschenberg.
AS Yes, I saw the sculpture show at the re-vamped New Museum in New York and that was very much the mode, and also at the Whitney Biennial. Have you ever wanted to use lighter materials – straw or balsawood?
RS I’m interested in weight and mass and measure; it’s what my sensibility responds to.
AS When you were in Paris for the Grand Palais show earlier this year, talking with the curator Alfred Pacquement, you described walking the space and thinking about it, and then going back to your sandpit where you arrange elements like a model. How big are those maquettes?
RS Small – some an inch to a foot, but mostly half inch to a foot.
AS Do you approach a work in the landscape in the same way?
RS If I can, I mock up full scale. I mocked up a full-scale piece recently for a collector. He didn’t want it. It happens.
AS I guess this has probably always been a problem between artists and their patrons, going back hundreds of years. Now it seems that the market is king.
RS We are all implicated in the market, we can’t get away from it. But your work does not have to be market-driven, and you don’t have to produce merchandise. I think right now for a lot of artists the market is the context and that explains the recent mass production of luxury goods.
AS It’s just that everyone else’s interests become implicated in your interests when you’re asked to do things, and you have to say no, a lot. That’s the big thing.
RS The fact that the market has become the context is just a recent phenomenon. I think there’s a fiction perpetrated by the market that the aesthetic value is synonymous with price. The art market is probably one of the only unregulated speculative markets out there.
AS They haven’t got someone trying to punch 70 billion dollars into it.
RS No, I think the bubble might just burst.
AS It’s terrifying. The physical experience of being with someone’s work – your work, for example, doesn’t just resist the lie: it resists all that flim-flam. It slows you down.
RS My work is not motivated by resistance.
AS It seems to be a function of its physicality and its specificity.
RS It brings you back to yourself and the place where you are. You have to deal with your internal relationships, both physical and psychological and you either deal with it or you don’t.
AS Fernando Pessoa, which is a rectangle, is positioned so one longer side faces the window. The other side is always in shadow. It holds its space, and it invites a particular physical relationship with it and with the space it occupies.
RS It was the most simple and most singular statement I could make and it deals with everything that’s relevant to my work.
AS There’s such a nakedness with the kind of work you make too: it will either cut it or it won’t.
RS That’s what artists do: they deal with their vulnerabilities. But you can’t foresee how you’re going to be misused.
AS They have Mark Rothko T-shirts at Tate Modern and scarves in his autumnal russets and oranges and what looks like a tie-dye T-shirt in grey and black, which is, for me, a horrible apotheosis and an appalling idea. Anyway, what are your plans now?
RS I went to Dunkirk. There’s a possibility of building a piece there. Then I’m building a piece for Norman Foster for his home in Geneva, and two pieces for the Prado.
AS Dunkirk is amazing. Hard to escape the history of that coast.
RS I’m going to have to deal with it. That is the context.
AS All those incredible concrete structures from both wars.
RS What’s interesting about those concrete structures is that there is no foundation to them, so they’re continually shifting in the sand.
AS Do you think about getting older?
RS It’s interesting, yesterday someone asked me that, and I said, I try not to. I never want to look over my shoulder.
AS There’s a great last interview with Frank Zappa when he had prostate cancer. They said, how do you want to be remembered, and he said, it doesn’t matter, really, if I’m remembered or not. It’s not the point.
RS Exactly, and all he was really interested in was making his work. There is a purpose and dignity to that.
AS So, will Barack Obama win? That’s the other thing.
RS I hope so. But there’s a strong racist element in America and it is hard to predict how that will influence the outcome of the election. When people pull that lever, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I met Obama and I found him intelligent and intellectually adroit. It may be that America can’t deal with a statesman of that stature.
Adrian Searle is art critic for the Guardian.
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