Part Five – Exercise 5.5: Serra on Film

Watch Richard Serra’s films Hand Catching Lead and Boomerang. Familiarize yourself with his work and say why you think he made these films.

“I think the significance of the work is in its effort, not in its intentions. And that effort is a state of mind, an activity, an interaction with the world…”  – Richard Serra

Both videos embrace a temporal aspect. Not as the time aspect of cinematic film, but as conscious interrogation with time and delay. Serra is investigating film medium similar to his investigations of other materials, e.g steel. One could argue that Serra projects his subjective experience and mental images within the passage of time sequences and loops a work in itself.

Serra explaination of his motivation (KunstSpektrum, 2011) in making Hand Catching Lead (1969) a non-illustrative documentary of the process and experience, holding and missing the steel plates, in making The House of Cards (1968) may be just one viewpoint in understanding the perceptual field. Serra opposes any artistic intention and one could see the film as the illusion of the material film in trying to capture a deferred experience. The ‘analogue’ in his studio with lead plate that deform in the closing and opening hands plays with the viewer’s cognitive process and the relationship between eye and mind.

In summary, Serra’s approach is a material and phenomenological approach related to subjective experience and an investigation of medium-specificity of film.

Serra’s later film Boomerang (1974), in color and with audio, is different as it doesn’t relate to other works, also as it explores another aspect of the medium film.  As an interplay between language and audition the film evolves along the asynchronous flow of speech and description. One could relate the time delay to Derrida’s post-structuralist notion of ‘différance’, i.e. delay and difference of meaning in text. However, this short film illustrates that language is not arbitrary but refers and relates to what is being described with delay,

Both films show how illusion and limitation of film materiality plays with the perceptual field and understanding. Serra’s transitive verbs are translated into film medium as it concerns first the manual action (manipulation) and secondly the impact of language related to understanding.

(word count = 307)


Film and video as a genre became a new field of interest around 1970 in opposition to commercial television and dominant culture, seeking for new ways of dematerializion of art. Experimental video dates back to early 20th century with experiments by Duchamp, Man Ray or Fernand Léger. Especially with the appearance of more affordable handheld video cameras the medium video/film became the technological base of new forms of artistic articulation. At the beginning, the medium as such was of interest, ‘to make film to look at itself’ (Taylor, 2012:44). Self-reflexivity, physical TV set installations and the materiality of the film. Technology was the base for a deeper interrogation of medium specificity and process art, e.g. Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie and Line (1966) who was of great influence on Serra.

“Technology deals with the affirmation of its own meaning” – Richard Serra

One key turning point was the ‘Documenta 5’ (1972) with major 16mm film installations, including Serra’s Hand Catching Lead (1968). Other artists were: Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Stanley Brouwn. Other and later works by: Lynda Benglis, Robert Morris, and Dan Graham investigated other dimension of video-film related to spatial and temporal relay e.g. Graham’s Two Room Delay (1974). Richard Serra’s later video Television Delivers People (1973) was a critique of commercial television

Especially the ‘awareness of screening time and space as the primary reality’ alongside auditory elements characterized material sensibilty of film as described by British avant-garde film artist Malcolm Le Grice. Other artistic concerns related to the process and sequence of time and print, structuralist deferred abstraction, and the perceptual structure of the relationship between eye and mind. Those video experiments were often shown as short loop sequences and as overlay of video and audio, often asynchronous.

Richard Serra

(see also my post on Serra’s recent documentary in context of a major retrospective at MoMA)

Language and image are being formed and revealed as they are organized.” – Richard Serra

Richard Serra (b. 1939), an American artist of Post-Minimal, Process Art and Conceptual art sculptures, is known for his site-specifity proclamation that when one move a site-specific work, in that case his heavy steel sciulpture Tilted Arc, it woud cease to be art’. See my notes for exericise 5.0. Serra was a contemporary with the avant-garde in New York (Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhart, Frank Stella). He build a new perspective on sculpture towards outdoor sites. In the exploration of his medium and working process, Serra used videotaping and films to communicate different viewpoints.

“Each media is resolute onto itself” – Richard Serra

The video Hand Catching Lead (1969) relates originally to Serra’s work House of Cards (he explained that constructed work in an audio). Serra’s approach with materiality in his minimalist of post-minimalisti sculptures is also reflected in his investigation of the new medium film. Good instructions given by Serra are his series of three videos: ‘Richard Serra – Film & Video’ part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Serra created 1967-68 a “Verb List” with which he hoped to ‘establish a series of conditions to enable me to work in an unanticipated manner and provoke the unexpected’ (MoMA), basically meant borrowing from language transitive verbs and relating this to the artistic intervention with material in order to create ‘art produced through the exertion of force.’ (Joselit, 2011) And as his ‘Verb list’ , Serra’ early videos are related to mani-pulation, hand interventions, e.g. Hand Tieds (1968)

Joselit relates Serra’s ‘blueprint for post-minimalism’ as a point of reference for the changing role of the artist and contemporary art. In context of relational aesthetics and rejection of object based art, the manipulation of material was replaced by manipulation of pictures. The artist’s intervention as ‘formatting’ pictures was a seeking of meaning through finding new formats. Joselit describes exemplatory the work of Seth Price and his freely accessible book Dispersion (2002) with Seth’s critique and appropiating Serra’s transitive verbs trying to answer the question ‘What to do with pictures?’.



Richard Serra Videos:


“What you see is what you see” – Frank Stella







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