Richard Serra – Thinking on your feet (DVD)

“To see is to think” – Richard Serra
During part 5 I was facing several times works by Richard Serra (Ex. 5.0, Ex.5.5, site specificity, Minimal Art). Thus. I was interested in watching a DVD documentary about his work in context of a major retrospective at MoMA. I’ve attached some film stills – knowing that Serra’s work can only truly be understood through on site experience as a phenomenological phenomenon.
Landscape pieces
The film starts with an overview of the massive! project Snake Eyes and Box Cars. It challenged not only the conception of art but also the limits of steel production and heavy-load transportation to make the way from Seattle to Oliver Ranch in Geyersville. The biggest block weighing 45 metric tons – the max.weight legally allowed to transport on US public highway. It took 9 days to let the blocks cool down.
Serra’s background is in the steel industry and I guess one need to appreciate that work in order understand the massiveness of the projected work, a total of 12 blocks were made, moved and installed in the landscape.
I can’t help but the blocks, and especially Serra’s thinner slab sculpture e.g. East-West/East-West  East-West do remind me of of the beginning of the 2001: A Space Odyssey where a black Godlike monolith is appearing among prehistoric primates, relating to some extra-terrestrial intelligence.
For Serra is the site something that one works in relation to. In one of the interview in the film he explained that the ‘conditions of the site prescribe how you think and work … one’s relation to the site .. that make the concerns the the site sculptural .. when you start changing the purpose, the content of the site than you start changing the definition of the site.’ Serra is taken that ‘definition of site’ as the point of departure to redefine sculpture.
Serra explained the two movements in Minimal Art with respect to:
  1. High Minimalism: with a focus on refinement of the organization of the material
  2. Later: Smithson, Serra etc. with a ‘down and dirty’ approach of not having the pretention of commodity but taken basic material with a deeper interest in the material itself. Or as Serra described  to ‘change or to augment the form in via manipulating it’.

“I wanted to get away from the imagistic value of an object in an empty space and instead put the focus on the experience of the entirety of the context ” – Richard Serra

Serra is much interested in site and material not for conceptual notions or as institutional critique but rather as a consideration of  the relation of sculpture with the space. A for him internal relationship.  And I can embrace his statement when one experiences the massive and largeness of massive steel surrounding one. Serra explained this with a higher ‘psychological demand on the viewer .. a greater degree of un-foreseeability, and anxiety .. when walking and looking with anticipation and memory’. For Serra it is a time-based phenomena.
To see is to think
Serra explained in the film how the space within and around the sculptures shift in relation to it’s ‘gravitational vector’. His interrogation with site and space relates to the question of how one engages with space and how one could hold that space.  With the example of the two monoliths installed on the campus of the University of California, San Francisco Ballast (2005) he explained how the viewer is brought into an ambient and active space: ‘it moves and it agitates’. From a middle standpoint within the proliferative vision, one could hold the space as long as the two elements are place in the right distance from each other. For Serra, it is a phenomenological experience with an ‘existential variability’  that one can only ‘know until you build that piece’.
Tilted arc (1981 – 1989)
Much is talked about Serra’s sculpture installed on Federal Plaza in New York outside of governmental buildings (12 ft x 120 ft). Much of the story is related to the removal after a public hearing by the authorities. Although the work was commissioned and made out of ‘the most durable steel’ the presence and ‘ideological dialogue through the intervention of the sculpture with the building’ – as Serra described its material use – didn’t last long. A contemporary of Serra described the removal as ‘an artistic murder’.
Another drawback and used against Serra were two fatalities during installation work.
Recognition takes time
I found one comment by Serra toward the end of the film quite remarkable so that I find it worthwhile to quote him here at length (to my best notetaking skills):
“You may have in your mind’s eye a notion of what the work is, then you go back and find that what you projected in your mind’s eye is very different to what you see. If you go back to the work and return to contemplate, and it fulfils you more than what you had in your mind’s eye than the work is speaking to you, it’s growing. That’s why we return to museums – a lot of work fulfils you over time, it takes time” – Richard Serra
Conclusion & Learning:
Reading theory books and what art critiques are talking about I find it at times as if art is all about self-critique and defining what it is not. Therefore, I find in the case of the film consisting mostly of images and artist’s talk very refreshing. Listening that it doesn’t need to be a political opposition to engage with some essential and existential aspects of art in space. Serra described for me quite insightful his concerns of human engagement with site and places. With site more specific with respect to how one can ‘hold the space’.
I am deeply impressed by how an artist is handling such massive materialness, as it seems rather an civil engineering task and reminding me more of architectural construction work. But perhaps, that’s the difference in Serra’s redefinition of sculpture in space: to embrace architectural phenomenological sensations. I can relate this to Juhani Pallasmaa whose ideas I studied deeply during my painting 1 course. The proximity of experience within the sculptural space, e.g. Sequence (2006), can be rather seen as an embodied sense of internal relationships of the work. Quite against a notion of conceptual art of outwards relationship towards social relations.
I am intrigued by Serra’s notion of time with respect to appreciation of art, either in augmenting or diminishing direction.

Film stills:
Richard Serra - Thinking on your feet - Sehen ist denken - Film Stlls

Fig. 1: Richard Serra – Thinking on your feet – Sehen ist denken – Film Stlls


  • Fig.1. Film stills (Richard Serra, 2007)


  • Richard Serra – Sehen ist Denken ; Richard Serra – Thinking on your feet  (2007)   Directed by: Tappeiner, M. A.  [DVD], Fridolfing. Absolut Medien.
  • The Museum of Modern Art (2007) Richard Serra, sculpture, forty years  – June 3-September 10, 2007. The Museum of Modern Art, [brochure]. At:  (Accessed on 17 Nov 2017).

  2 comments for “Richard Serra – Thinking on your feet (DVD)

  1. November 19, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Oh wow, how nice a post for me to read, I can feel your relaxed enjoyment after all the deep thinking. I agree core is to ‘hold the space’ – Perhaps one might say he in making a space into ‘place’ as a consequence of his action. PS: I am just now working on a exercise where we have to manipulate paper after 5 of Serra’s ‘verb’ – at textiles everything is so darn hands on – so great to go here and have food for thought!.

    • Stefan
      November 19, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks Inger, for bringing in your viewpoint. I find the whole space and place topic so fascinating as it challenges ones experience in that place. Different feelings and thoughts get triggered, some more sublime, some more physical alive. Interesting that you work now with Serra’ ‘Verb list’ I looked on it and understand his list a change from modernism to minimalism and descring art not as formal aspects of the work but of how the artistic intervention with material might look like. I think his ‘House of Cards’ is just the realizaion of that verb list. Do you know the reviewed ‘Verb list’ by Seth Price? He went further and instead of material intervention he looks at artistic intervention as ‘formatting’ infomation. There is a good article about that by D. Joselit (2011) ‘What to Do with Pictures’ – available through UCA library (jstor) I can see why you find textile so darn hands on. I think compared to painting with brushes you are interacting with the material inside out. Wish you all the best

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