Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Richard Serra
What Michelangelo is to marble, the American sculptor Richard Serra is to steel. He's the defining sculptor in that material. Not plain metal you understand, but rolled steel, industrial steel in large works.
In 1971 his first work called Strike was a steel plate, eight feet by twenty four feet, fitting into the corner of a room and dividing it exactly into two parts. In 1996 his piece Snake was made out of three vast lengths of steel, a hundred and forty feet long.
For New Zealand Serra has a project for an 865 foot long sculpture, yet while size matters Serra's work is not principally about size, it's about defining space, about our impressions of being in space and increasingly, especially in his extraordinary series of monumental torqued spirals where pairs of steel plates turn and twist, creating corridors to walk through and spaces to be in.
Critics and audiences are finding in this work a sensuousness, a spirituality and according to some a sense of the sublime. Serra himself has been described as hard, driven and inflexible. His works are recognised as almost lusciously beautiful.
Now in his early sixties Richard Serra fills a unique place in contemporary sculpture. He defines and defends that place with combative seriousness. As his old friend the painter Chuck Close said, 'I don't know anyone who goes into things as deeply as Richard does'. Well we'll be going into things deeply in Richard Serra's loft in downtown Manhattan.
I first saw one of your pieces in the Leinbach House in Munich in 1987. That frightened me. Last year I walked through two of your pieces at the Venice Biennale and I was ravished by them. Now is that sort of audience reaction to your work, that progression, a fairly common one?
I think people walk under bridges and in subways every day and they're surrounded by industrial material every day and yet for a moment they never feel that same anxiety. I think when you isolate the issue, people have some apprehension in terms of balance and gravity or whatever, or maybe semantically they're reacting to something that they're feeling in terms of how one perceives in relation to body movement.
But for the most part I don't prescribe how people are going to react and when the torqued ellipses first one up and then the torqued spirals, the reception to them as being ingratiating or beautiful, or whatever, was as surprised and startling to me because I thought we were going to be met with the same kind of a criticism that had pretty much pursued the work all along.
When people say beauty, I don't think beauty's in anything. I don't think that beauty is in things, I think beauty is in people's experience and so different people come to relationships in different ways, so if the work is being called beautiful now I think it has something to do with a certain familiarity with the work, because I think the same work being put in a different context might be described in a different way.
Let's just say you take a spiral in a contained space with the label of gallery overhead or a museum, they go into that context with an expectancy of an aesthetic reaction. Or if you take the same spiral and you put it in a public space, you're probably going to have it in harm's way, there's probably going to have to be surveillance, the police are probably going to get all over you for making a condition for either criminal activity or other nefarious kinds of activity.
So it has a lot to do with the context, what people, people's expectation are, and I don't think that artists particularly are up to defining beauty, I think that has a lot to do with other historical imperatives at the time, and I don't think artists for the most part set out to make things that are beautiful, unless they're kind of eclectic artists that are dealing out of a tradition which already defines a certain kind of beauty and then they're mimicking it.
I think most artists get involved with singular problems that are particular to their medium, and they try to extend the nature of what that medium is in terms of the language of art.
So those subjective remarks that are made about your work, that I made the most ... for instances and people make the move from Serra's sculpture is oppressive to Serra's sculpture is sublime and beautiful, those are our reactions, that says nothing whatever about what you set out to do with any of those works?
No and I think for the most part the language of the work has been fairly consistent in its development. Before we were making spirals we were making conical shapes which you could walk through, and those were met with very, very harsh criticism and yet they were more open than the spirals or the torqued ellipses, so I think it has a lot to do with people becoming more accustomed to viewing your work as, and I also think something else happened, I think there's a younger audience right now that seems to be more open to the potential for play, or for not to be involved with critical comparisons which will just take things as they are.
So what happened to me was a whole generation of people under thirty started to embrace the work, where people of my age who had always been critical of the work for trying to establish a new parameter for looking at sculpture, their voices were muted I think, or they sat on the fence, whatever.
Let's go right back. You took up drawing as a boy, because it said you had a very much cleverer brother and the one thing your clever brother didn't do was draw. So was that in a sense pure sibling rivalry which made you draw?
It was sibling rivalry, but it was something that I could always do and it's been the core of what I've always done and it's the most concentrated space in which I work. It's something that I can really give myself to and the return for drawing is instantaneous and it's a condition that requires solitude, so it's a practise that's really essential for me and I think the body of drawings is an autonomous group of work that per se doesn't depict or illustrate the sculpture. But I see everything as drawing, I see where an edge meets an edge as a condition of drawing. One of the reasons I got interested in sculpture particularly, I came out of Yale as a painter and before that I'd majored in English Languages, I went to Paris and I happened to Brancusi's Studio, and what I noticed about Brancusi is that the way the shapes are formed on the edge, the way that they push out into the space, that's a condition of drawing. I mean all edges are condition of drawing.
But you knew that about Brancusi before you went to his...
Did not, had never...
So why did you go to Brancusi, what did you know about him that made...
There wasn't that much in Paris I was interested in, the Impressionists didn't particularly interest me. I had come out of history of writing as undergraduate on existentialism, so I was very interested in process, but what Johns and Stella
[Jasper Johns, Frank Stella] were pretty much telling us as students didn't strike me as being as authentic as sitting across from Giacometti and La Coupole.
So two things kind of conjoined there. Brancusi's work and Giacometti as a living incarnate of a studio artist then those became big kind of authoritarian empowering figures for me. Giacometti in the sense that you have a body of work that's continuous and you can rip it apart and put it up again and it's really not the conclusion but the experience of what one's trying to get at that becomes of import, and I think Giacometti really gave me a kind of empowering direction to try to self sustain even if there was no completion.
So experimentation and play became very, very big for me. I particularly admire Giacometti's surrealist periods, because I think they have a lot to do with dream and play, and I think play is one of those conditions where you don't foresee a conclusion and it allows for unexpected things to happen. I mean at one point you have to kind of schizophrenically take yourself out of play and say oh can we really look at this as something other than just frivolity, but at a very early age I came back after being in, in Paris and in, in Italy and I, I just wrote down a verb list, you now to roll, to cut, to tie, to bend, to fold, whatever it was.
And you knew that that was what you wanted to do?
I wanted to enact the verbs without thinking, in relation to material without thinking about their ends or their conclusions, without having to define them in terms of art, but to involve myself in a process of making so that I could understand the physical potential of what it was to do something in relation material without having to get into a hierarchy of judgement or evaluation about its definition as art or sculpture. Now a lot of it you can just throw out the window and say who cares if you're rolling your spit balls on the floor all right, but I was doing things just like that.
I would buy a sheet of lead, unroll it and roll it back up. Now for anybody coming in it could have looked nonsensical, but at some point if you want to get down to zero you have to start from scratch and you have to understand that there are things that are in of themselves self fulfilling, whether they're going to be fulfilling to anyone else it's hard to know.
But with almost any practice if you stay with it, the practice itself in what it concludes will make its own interior definition and evaluation, so the judgement is up to you. And after a while we started rolling pieces, then we started propping pieces together and then we started using weights overhead, so it developed into a language that had come out of a simple verb activity.
Well just to get this clear, if anybody said to you A are you trying to be an artist, B do you want to be an artist, C is what you are doing art, you would have said that that was irrelevant?
At the time yeah.
Even though behind it all the subtext was absolutely I want to be an artist and I would like to change the definition of sculpture, but I'm not going to come at it given the definition of sculpture as is, because that's only going to produce more of the academy as far as I'm concerned.
I think once you get out of school you really have to get out of school and once you, I think I had a certain freedom in entering into sculpture because I wasn't a sculpture, I wasn't trained as a sculpture. I went to Spain and I saw the Velasquez Las Meninas. I think that's pretty much what stopped me.
I'd been painting as a student, like all students do I had been mimicking those people who were in power at the time, so I'd been looking at Pollock and De Kooning and painting bad Pollocks and De Koonings. And I, I went to Spain and I saw Las Meninas and I thought here's a situation where the painter has placed himself in the painting, looking at the people he's painting, and there in the mirror or in the space of the painting, and the light source for the painting is in the door that's open onto the floor of the situation, and my relation to the painting is that I'm implicated in that space.
I didn't see how I was going to get around that. I could see for me that there could possibly be an opening for me in sculpture because what Giacometti and Brancusi were doing was still figuratively related, even in the most abstract sense.
And you knew you didn't want that?
I didn't want that. But I thought in painting I'm, I'm not going to be able to implicate the viewer in the painting in the way Velasquez did, and I'm not going to be able to hang a brush stroke from a fan to a dog's, you know, eyelid in one stroke and put a whole cosmology there where I'm in the scene. I'm not going to, I just, that stopped me, and I thought, and I kept thinking about Giacometti and Brancusi, and I thought well there's a whole open possibility here of dealing with space in another way.
I wasn't quite sure how I was going to get to it and so I thought well I'll just experiment, and I started experimenting with live and, and stuffed animals, I just really wanted to move it somewhere else. I, I thought somehow it's going to lead somewhere.
Now if you're in a room and you're a student and you've got twenty two live and dead animals and, you know, there's no running water, I mean it got to be quite a circus, but you have to have a certain kind of a faith that you're up to no good in a good way. And I think that's what artists do, I think artists in, in some sense have to be obstinate; they have to put themselves in marginal conditions.
They probably need a witness and they probably need some support system. I was lucky I had a Yale travelling and then a Fulbright [scholarships], and then when I came to New York there was a whole host of artists that were experimenting with time or space or whatever, that didn't happen to particularly be painters or sculptures, they were in film or music or whatever, but you have to find a, a collective body of people who are sharing a kind of mutual concern for the extension of language, and I found that in New York when I got there...
Because you had this extraordinary team of people helping you in New York when you were working on your first lead sculptures, Philip Glass who happened to be a plumber, Chuck Close, Steve Reich, I mean what an extraordinary...
What an extraordinary gathering.
They were just all people who had arrived in this neighbourhood and we were all unknown. But we all had some belief in process and extended time and a relation to material that hadn't come before, and we used to all exchange these ideas, and I had a truck and I called myself Low Rate Movers, and with that truck we were able to work two days a week and then spread the truck around among eight or ten of us, so no one had to work more than two days a week to keep ourselves in house and home and in materials and whatever, and it, it provided a kind of cohesive group of working artists, money and exchange that was formidable in, in that time.
And you needed that exchange as it were to test what you were doing against an even, I mean it was important that they weren't sculptors, they were just people who were interested in experimentation?
It's why young people come to New York . You don't go to Idaho, you don't go to Florida, you come here because if you have an idea it's indicative that the guy down the street has the same idea, so you'd better talk to him or you don't, you're not going to make it by Grandma Moses and, and Iowa, it's not going to happen.
Just paint, paint me a picture because it's so evocative, you always used to hang out in this bar called Max's Kansas City Bar, and you were at one table with people like Bruce Nauman and then Warhol was another table, and you were all sitting under a Dan Flavian light sculpture. I mean this is, this is...
No but it goes deeper than that, it's Janis Joplin standing up trying to play a tune and crying because she can't get off. I mean there were a lot of things there that went on simultaneously. It was a mix of the poets, the freaks, the rock and rollers, the artists. It was a pretty good show, you thought it was never going to end. It was a great, great party and it was a great intermingling of young people who were on the edge, or some people who were very, very famous, but and people were very, very generous with each other. And the guy who ran the place was very generous with the artists, I mean in that he would trade work for, for food, I mean I don't think I paid the whole time I went there, no one did.
He must have a terrific collection mustn't he?
He supported himself in other ways.
Now - steel. I think you felt that steel in a, in a kind of formal sense, that was already owned by people like Picasso and [Alexander] Calder, and then you thought what about industrial steel because after all you've worked in a steel mill as a young man haven't you?
Yeah I'd worked in steel mills when I was seventeen, eighteen, and I, I started in the rivet gang and then I helped build the Crown Zellerbach building in San Francisco . I thought that the problem in going into steel was the, was taboo because it was a traditional material starting with Gonzales and Picasso and up to Calder, and the problem I saw with it is that they had cut it and folded it and pictorialised it, so that they had put it up in a space in a way that was false to its gravitational load, so it was welded and extended in space but anchored to the ground that had nothing to do with its potential as a material that wasn't being used for picture making with false gravity.
So I thought look there are other ways of coming to this, you can come to it with stasis, cantilever balance, whatever. I thought that they were other possibilities of coming at that proposition and because I had worked in the steel mills and I'd built buildings, I understood steel as a potential coming out of industrial propositions, and I thought why not pick up eight by eight foot plate two inches thick and start using it. Up to that time two inch plate, four or five ton plate, that was like a taboo, I mean and I wanted...
Why because it was reckoned to be too crude, too coarse, just, just not a sort of art material?
I don't think, I don't think, I don't think sculptures conceived of using weight load bearing stasis cantilever in that way. You have to understand most sculpture up to the sixties was figurative and on the pedestal, and once sculpture got off the pedestal it had to deal with space in relation to time, in relation to movement, so it wasn't really I guess until the minimalists came that they were trying to declare the space of the room in gestalt reading of an object in a different way.
But the field had been pretty much located to either figuration or the specificity of an object. I desired to really open up the field and have people walk into and through and around.
Was it getting off the pedestal and onto the floor, onto the ground was absolutely crucial for you?
Well to get it in the, the behavioural space of the viewer, because if it's in a space removed from the viewer then it's probably depicting or illustrating a person, a place or an event, and then you have to get into the subject matter of the object, like you have to get into the subject matter of Cézanne's apples. Well if you're walking into and through, around something the subject matter is you. You become the experience of the proposition not the content of the specific thing that's being depicted.
And that's what I wanted to get at, and that's what I started to pursue and I thought the way to do that is to put the emphasis on the space, to try to collect the space, to try to grab the space. And you know it took a while, but that's basically going from a certain kind of tectonics of building into trying to hold the space, that's pretty much how it's developed.
And yet your very first piece, Strike, 8 foot by 24, dividing a room into two and I think the word is about the spectator walking through and around a piece in time, from your very first piece that was what, what you were doing.
The first piece which you could, that really divided, that opened the field and the first steel piece that was relevant was Strike, but I had built probably up to 40, 50 pieces prior to Strike. I'd had a show both at the Whitney and the Guggenheim, I had a show with Costelli up to that point, I'd done a lot of splash pieces, so there was a whole body of lead and rubber work that preceded Strike.
Yes, but the other thing about Strike is that it's not just a sense of location, but that you wanted people to be aware of time as well, so it's space and time.
I think one's, you know, invariably hooked to the other. I mean I, I don't think you know space outside of time, I think basically how we know space is through body movement and we're always in that movement and there's never any comprehension of space outside of time, even if you're dealing with reflection or memory it's still about time, or anticipation.
I mean time becomes crucial in relation to how you know walking from one end of the room to the other. It's if you want to bring to bear a focus on that time, that can become a very interesting proposition. And I think in order to do that you probably have to affect some sort of emotive reality. I think the things that we remember probably are the things that intersect emotionally with us.
So you have to probably find a way of altering that space, not in a knee jerk way or in feeding fish to the audience, but in a way that makes the space relevant in a way that spatial conditions haven't been relevant before.
Now, I want to know what you like about rolled steel, because at first glance or first thought the one thing you can't do, or you can't do easily with rolled steel, or you can't do personally is, the words used previously to roll, to crease, to fold, to bend, to twist. Now you can do it but you're very much at arm's length from them. So what is it about this very resistant material, rolled steel, that attracts you?
When you say you can't do it because you're at arm's length that doesn't mean that you can't do it, I mean all technology is, is hand extension. I mean you can't nail a hammer with your finger either, but that's not like you're not nailing hammers, I mean you can't dig a hole, you know, you can do it quicker with a, with a steam shovel but it doesn't mean that you have to do it with your hand.
So I look at most technology as hand extension and I look at most, you know, what you're doing right here electronics is nervous system extension, so basically it's all body extension to me and that's, how else can it be anything other than that.
I make models prior to everything I make.
So I have a fairly clear idea in the model form how the work is going to evolve, albeit I don't understand its relation to space and its relation to my body proposition in time and my physical relation to it or other people's until it's built, but I, I still build with models. Now I build with models in relation to computer now but I also just build models, that's what I do, I'm basically a model maker.
But the gap between the model, the material, something very small in your hands and then the final result, and I think you've always said that you don't know what a piece is like until it stands there before you X feet high and, and, and X feet long, and that's an extraordinary journey isn't it?
Has a lot to do with context too, because you can't predetermine or really read, you can do as much as you can in terms of site investigation but the context is something that somehow defines the work finally, its relation to those conditions in that space, and sometimes there are variables there that you can't predict and either makes the situation more interesting or less interesting.
It depends whether you are critical of the context or you're exposing the context or you can bring whatever that context is into a proposition of sculpture, that you can change and alter the context into one of a sculptural concern not one of whatever the context happens to be in terms of how it's directed towards society, like right I'm thinking that because we're going to tomorrow or the next day present this piece for Toronto for an airport.
There's a lot of other things that go into thinking about the context, how people move through, the relationship of flow of traffic, and those are things that you really can't foresee. So you can go so far with the model, how the light condition is going to work is very, very hard to anticipate. All the specifics of how one walks and looks and perceives and what one perceives and what one can perceive and what one can anticipate, has to be thought through in relationship to what you're trying to get at, so we build a lot of models.
So it's the walking through, I mean you've said several times it's movement, human movement through your pieces that that's the crucial end point that you're working to?...
I think there's something else when you were getting back to steel that just occurred to me. I think that in the last twenty years there's been a really and particularly, not only with conceptual art but with architecture, there's been a very big concern about the strategising of concepts in relation to structure, and so the material has been given kind of a short shrift.
I'm a person who's come through the practice of material in relation to structure, in relation to concepts, and I think one of the things that you learn when you actually build something and you're interested in the physical reaction to the material, as the material imposes form on form. It's not just the structure, it's not just the concept. That material itself imposes form on form.
So if you build something in plaster it's very different than building something in steel. If you build a museum in sheet rock it's very different than building it in wood, so that there's, or concrete, so the, the form of the material itself, the aspect of the material itself has a defining condition on the structuring the form, and I think that's been kind of lost in the last twenty years, although for some people working right now it's once again become evident that that's the proposition.
If you take [Tadeo] Ando's architecture, it's very, very clear that he's dealing with concrete as a form-making material, not only the structure coming out of the history of Corbusier and [Barton] Myers or whatever, but the form of the concrete itself in its thickness, in its surface, in its detailing imposes another form on the form. And in that way I'm very much involved with steel as imposing its own form on form. Now even if it's gravitational load, if it's balanced, if it's de-centring, if it's subjective de-centring, there's a lot that you can do with just the proposition of how does the material function.
Who makes sure, because after all you make a model which presumably...
they, they will come back to you and say look...
This could be done, this cannot.
Yeah, and they say in that case you'll have to change this 'cause otherwise it will fall over?...
Yeah well there's a, there's a tendency to turn, overturn. In a certain condition you're within the proposition of, you know, fail safe, but engineers are notoriously cautious and so somehow sometimes I've presented models to engineers that's said this won't work. Well the model's right in front of them and it's working, right, so there's no reason for them to say it won't work, but it doesn't work in their code, so...
And do you accept that?
No you have to go back and redefine the code and then you have to find a way of getting around that. But engineers have been doing that, you know, my art redefined the codes for all bridge building in, in the twenties. And so as technology becomes more efficient codes have to be redefined, and if engineers aren't going to do it artists have to lead them into doing it...
So you are forcing the engineers to say...
Not, let's not use force, let's use educate...
All right yeah, educate all right. Now you work with I think one particular rigger, Ernest Foukes in a German steel mill. How long have you worked with him?
Over twenty years.
What's the relationship with him?
Oh like a brother. I mean basically you have to make a lot of decisions on the spot and rigging isn't something anyone can teach, even though there are handbooks on it, rigging's something that you have to really deal with the given proposition of what the job is and there's no way to know it other than through experience, so there are conditions where you find that you have to really take time and be very, very cautious because if you've got a forty, fifty ton plate in the air and you got say a rainstorm or I was thinking about they put a piece up in San Francisco called Charlie Brown, plates are sixty six feet high, we're going in overhead through the top of a building before it had been completed and there was a big rainstorm and a big wind.
Well when you've got a big plate in the air like that and you have to hit it, you know, within a millimetre and you, you've got people hanging on with ropes there are just certain things that come up where you don't have time to take a cigarette, you don't have time to, to, you know, say whoops.
So there's a certain respect that you have to have for fulfilling the job that I get very, very much involved with and I always have been, and you really have to rely on the riggers as being an extension of that proposition, and you have to take a great deal of care.
Will he say sometimes I don't think this will work or we've got to do it differently, or it's got to end up a slightly different shape?
No he, he has nothing to do with the design or working out of the pieces, but if you ask me do we take time on a job to re-think what we're doing, sure. I mean do we ever stop a job and say look we have to re-think this right now or, sure, oh absolutely.
Do you get impatient when pieces are being made?
I think the best way to learn patience is to be impatient. I mean I think that's the lesson of patience is to be impatient.
Yeah. How do you actually avoid being impatient in a destructive way where you're going to end up making a mistake?
That's the lesson isn't it. The lesson, I think that's right, I think, I think your impatience teaches you to be patient.
But are you only working on one major piece like that at a time?...
No, no, no, no I've got eight, ten pieces going on right now. Some, like some which are going to be completed, some which are on the back burner, some which will never get on, but that's, that's continuous.
Some, some pieces take, I can take, the piece in Saint Louis took eight, took eight years to get on so you never know. On the average they take a year or two, so you, and you can't wait around, you know you have to continually try to either build models or whatever because if you have a desire to build you just can't wait for a commission.
Yeah. You mentioned the tilted arc which was your big piece of sculpture in Federal Plaza in, in New York which was put up as a public arc commission, and I think after about eight or nine years and a huge amount of row because people around it didn't like it, the Government art body decided to take it away. Now you obviously felt a huge sense of betrayal because they'd said that it was going to be there in perpetuity. How bad do you feel about that?
For a while I felt very bad. It used up a tremendous amount of time and it put me at odds with my Government and puts me at odds with a lot of people who I knew quite well here. The Government had never destroyed a work of art that they had commissioned before, and what they wanted to do was change the GSA guidelines.
They used me as kind of a stalking horse, scapegoat, and they set up a kangaroo court and they had decided beforehand what was going to happen. And the day of the hearing, and I'm not sure whether they should have people vote on works of art or not, as many people came out to leave the piece there as against it.
The next day the Government came out with a statement saying the people in this building want this piece out of here, and I didn't have any recourse to the, or venue to the press, so it was very, very difficult to go with against the Government with any kind of way of rallying support.
I can give you another example. CBS wanted to kind of document the notion of site specificities while this saga was going on, while the hearing was going on, so they said look Richard we understand that there are pieces in Germany and in Japan and in Spain, we're going to send film crews around and could you talk to those film crews as they're looking at these works so we can have some background so when we run a clip we can kind of give both sides to this situation. I said sure.
So during that week I was available for the interviews and whatever, and then they ran the clip on CBS News and they showed cars burning and they showed piles of rubbish burning, and then they panned to my sculpture and they said New Yorkers have had enough of this. And I thought hey I've, I've been...
You'd been set up.
Yeah of course, right, but when, when you, if an individual citizen goes against his Government and ridicules his Government and ridicules its policies I mean what do you expect. So that's pretty much what happened.
Yeah, and it damaged your career for a while?
Damaged no, it didn't stop me from working, it wasted a tremendous amount of my time and it made it impossible for me to get commissions here which I still, I mean institutional commissions which I still don't get here.
Yeah, but looking back on it, can you see the point, I mean do you think that the piece somehow didn't quite work, according to your own criteria?
No, you have no doubts about the validity and the, as it were, the correctness of that piece in that site?
If it went back up tomorrow I'd be very, very happy, I thought it was a great piece and a great site, I thought it did everything it had attempted to do and the people in the building who saw it and saw it in the steel mill and when it was first put in there applauded it.
There was one judge in the building named Ray who said it was causing a rat problem. Now if a judge says a work of art is causing a rat problem do you know people actually believe him. There was another military guy who came out and said that it was a blast wall, that terrorists were going to put bombs in front of it and use it as a reflecting device to implode the building.
These people said this at the hearing. So when you go against that kind of popular hysteria by the Government it's very, very difficult to get around...
But it never...
Look it's not any different with the, with the whole thing that we're going through with Americans being patriotic in this country right now. I mean we are spoon fed in this country a certain kind of political indoctrination where direct democracy has no share in the vote or no share in the say at any moment.
So if you think you're not at the receiving end in this country of a lot of assumptions and presumptions about what's correct and what's in the best of the interests of people forget it, that's not how the country's run. This, this is, this isn't a democracy in a democratic sense, it's not.
Does democracy have any role, leave aside to precise a definition of democracy for a moment, in determining what is good art, what is bad art, what is good public art?
No. Think about it, why should the man on the street have something to say about art when he never has anything to say about anything else? He has nothing to say about advertisement, he has nothing to say about architecture, he has nothing to say about landscaping, he has nothing to say about urban design, he has nothing to say about his cereal in the morning, but here there's art, that's fun, where he really gets to take a shot at.
Now why, why should he be on the same propositional level as everybody else? That's like, that's like equating idiocy to intelligence. It would never happen in science but it happens in art, and the closest thing to science in its investigation is art.
I'll give you one possible solution and that is that a lot of those other things don't matter to people, but that art in a very peculiar way matters and that people feel they have a right to an, an opinion. It's a curious compliment isn't it?
I don't think art matters to anybody in relation to the general populace. I think, you know, people go to art galleries for a whole host of reasons about keeping their finger in the cultural pie, but if I asked you in your country to name anyone in your country like Joe Schmo on the street, name three contemporary British sculptors, do you think they'd be able to do it?
Absolutely not. But if you say name three pop stars, name three rock stars, name three musicians, name three political figures, name three football players, they'd like in a flash, name three tennis players, name three contemporary sculptors, nadda, and you're telling me it matters.
Oh okay. Turn it the other way round then. If it doesn't matter to people, to the voters, why does it matter at all?
Because I think what art does is if you can change how people see you can change how they think, and if you can change how they think it can be a catalyst of thought in other directions, and if you change perception in some small way you may enlarge a certain referent.
It's not going to change the world, I'm not saying that, I don't think art ever changed the world, I don't think [Picasso's] Guernica, you know, stopped bombing. But in some small way what it does is it adds to the pool of ideas and ideas always change and I think art is always an evolution and I think what's interesting is that the proposition is always left to unexpected youth to change the proposition.
So all it needs is a few people who come before, who tell the powers that be about enhancement and what's good for us and what matters to say screw you I'll figure it out myself.
And I think that's what young people have always done, and I think what people who have come through it who have some potential for saying look don't be pushed around, don't let Governments tell you how to make your art, don't sign up for a lot of the commercial hogwash that's being pushed down your throat, try to follow what you think is necessary for your own fulfilment, that's always been worthwhile and it's still worthwhile.
What sort of sense of continuity do you have? I mean of course you mention Brancusi, you mention Giacometti, your ellipses began with Borromini's ellipse in his church in Rome, so of course your historical sense of connection is, is very strong...
But you have, you have a sense of continuity not in that you want to make what other people have made. You have a sense of, you know, historical continuity of that you would like to leave a body of work that's meaningful.
Now if it's meaningful to a group of people like in your own context in your own time, maybe it won't last for more than thirty years, no one knows, there aren't any guarantees, but you would like somehow not to have people do what you do, I could care less about that, I don't want a bunch of Richard Serras running around, but I would like people to understand that the possibility for an evolving language to continue only takes a few people to stay with it.
If you had looked at the kind of sculpture I make at the end of the last century, steel sculpture, you'd say come on that's a dinosaur, no one cares about that, but it just takes a couple of people to keep that alive, it just takes.
If you look at painting right now it's really in sad shape. Some young kid will come along and say oh I don't think so, you know, I don't think we have to only cut cows, well then cow cutting might be interesting as an activity, some kind may come along and say look the proposition of painting on canvass could still be interesting.
Now I myself Richard may not think that. Somebody can prove me wrong, right. Right now there's a certain kind of pluralism that's going around and it's very good for the market place, because everybody has a free vote on what they think's art, and there are a lot of people looking at screens, but that doesn't mean that other practices don't go on simultaneous.
It only takes a handful of people always to keep those practices alive. And the way that I relate to the tradition is I, I guess in a way Elliot related to the tradition, as soon as you break with it you're part of it.
So your successes will also break with you, well I mean...
I hope, right for sure.
Yeah. You said that the really important thing about abstraction is that it's not just a movement, it's not just a particular phase, it is an entirely new language of expression and that it has a capacity for depth and exploration that perhaps we're only just beginning to understand fully.
Well let's go, I was in London I saw the Warhol Show and if you, if you look at the Warhol Show basically it has a lot to do with how somebody inverted the commercial proposition of mediatization, dovetailed it back into a silk screen, pushed paint through it so it pulled in photography and made people re-think figuration.
So you have figuration, media inverted on itself, a proposition of proliferation of work through serial imagery. Change figuration. If you're interested in that, and that gives you one way of thinking about art, but it has a lot to do with the strategies of art. I mean I don't think anybody's going to stand in front of a Marilyn Monroe the way you stand in front of a Rembrandt, that's not the same, but it, but it's interesting for other ways of thinking about how one goes about doing something.
Abstract art evokes different feelings. It's about different orders of experience, it's about different kinds of fulfilments. I mean there's a big difference between Mondrian and David Hockney, it's different in kind. I mean you know [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe [architect] probably wouldn't have come about without Mondrian right. I mean there are, there is ways of thinking about how one experiences feeling, how one, how emotions are evoked, how one thinks of sensibilities, how one thinks of sentiments.
There are more roads of exploration through abstract?
I'm not saying more, I'm saying they are different in kind, and that has only been going, really going on probably since Kandinski and [Kasimir] Malevich. That's a hundred years, that's nothing, it's in its infancy. Now you can say come on it's bracketed like rock and roll, it's over, I'm not sure.
Another key idea that you've spoken about is the importance of reduction and distillation. Minimalism you see as being mere reduction, stripping away, whereas the great artists, you name Corbusier and Barnett Newman distil, they take an enormous amount and distil and, and concentrate. I mean is that another sort of key idea that you work with, that it's distillation and concentration that matters?
If you're interested in the logic of a given proposition in relation to work, that there has to be a certain kind of coherence that comes together in terms of structure, or in terms of defeating that structure, but the intellectual proposition that goes into the making somehow has to be able to be retrieved from the work, and so does a certain kind of release that has to happen from the work.
If the work becomes too didactic in its proposition, then you could read about it on a piece of paper and there's probably no need to make it. If, if the material's going to form the structure in a different way that's another thing. I'm not interested in purity for purity's sake and I'm not interested in distillation for distillation's sake, I'm interested in certain kinds of intense sensations that can derive from particular kinds of experiences, singular experiences.
How one makes those singular experiences I don't care how you made it, I don't care if you distil the proposition or not. I, I, I don't have any orthodox rules and regulations for this thing, I don't think there are any perfect strategems, I think anybody can make anything any way they want and if it's intense and convincing I'll be convinced, they just have to show it to me.
There's a lot of other things that go on, particularly with young artists which is called coffee table art or coffee talk art, where you talk 'til you're blue in the face and have another drink and you divorce your wife and every kid that comes out of graduate school is a wreck, but a lot of good work is going down the drain.
I'm a person who really believes in working, I believe in working every day and I believe like when you're a student you have your desk and you went and you had your place where you studied and you studied then at the end of it you could pass your exam and that seemed to be a worthwhile thing to do in terms of fulfilment.
I am still interested in working, in that sense I'm a very old fashioned working artist and I, I like that.
What keeps you fresh?
Still back to play?
Yeah I, I, the interesting, the thing about play is I, I think that that's really essential. If you get too concerned about ends and external values and not means and not play I, I think you lose a certain kind of joy in making, and I think play and something people don't talk about is really necessary no matter what art form you're in.
I think transgression and negation come about in a lot of ways, but I think play is one way that it definitely comes about, and I think transgression and negation and change is what's essential. I think if you squeeze a lemon on the same thing forget it. I think one of the interesting things I'll, I'll tell you. I mean think about Matisse, at the end of his life right, the guy teaches himself how to draw, and at the end of his life what does he do, he picks up a piece of, scissors and he starts cutting pieces of paper, right.
Now it's not like Kelly like making a cookie cutter shape and cutting out the shape, right, this guy's cutting in the air and it's like these ribbons stacked on the floor. Then people pick them up and say oh here's the leg, here's right, he can't see what he's making obviously, it's a new strategy to make, to draw a line.
Do I think Matisse's cut line is better than his drawn line? Absolutely. Did Matisse think that? Yes. That's a very playful way of coming at drawing when you're eighty years old. I think that kind of inquisitiveness is essential.
Well I can't imagine what that's going to be like for you when you're eighty, but I'll just leave that hanging, hanging in the air as a wonderful thought. Richard Serra thank you very much.
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