Fast Talk: With Richard Serra

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The Matter of Time (partial view), 2005/Richard Serra — Installed at Bilbao Guggenheim — Photo: Ander Gillnea/AP

I got the chance two weeks ago to watch Serra supervise the installation of some of the enormous pieces that will be the culmination of his upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Afterwards we sat down for a conversation. Here are some excerpts. I’ll post a few more on Friday.

LACAYO: How do you start your work? With a lead model? With a maquette of some kind?

SERRA: Usually I start out with a certain sense of context. Where we’re gonna build, what the circulation is going to be like. If it’s outside, what the topography is. The entrances and exits, the light source, whatever. Then we try to find how to scale the work in relation to that context. And then we start building lead models. We usually build models an inch to a foot.

LACAYO: Who fabricates your work?

SERRA: I work with a place in Germany.

LACAYO: What do you send them? Specs? A maquette?

SERRA: [He starts to draw.] Let’s say there’s a major axis on an Ellipse, which is a long line, and a shorter axis, which is a short line. So I send them the major axis, the minor axis, the bottom, the top, whether it’s rotated 65 degrees. So they know where the overlap is; they know where the lean is. After I give them the basic parameters and ask them if they can procede on that, then I go into model making. Then they send me back all their computer drawings of what their model would look like as compared to my model. Often they look the same, but sometimes there’s a variance that has to do with how many plates are necessary. Each plate supports its own load. Each plate is free standing. So it might be that, say, this plate, which leans this way, has to be a little longer [to stand up on its own].

LACAYO: You work seems to grow in sequences, one idea or form grows out of another. Is there a point at which you feel like you’ve done everything there is to do with a certain form? There was a period of about ten years when you were making torqued ellipses. Now it seems that period is over.

SERRA: You work out solutions to ideas and often the solutions to those ideas lead to other ideas that you can’t foresee until you work out the solutions to the ideas you’re working on. So it’s not like I have a program, I’m going to do so many of these and then do something else. You’re working on an idea and then in the process that leads you to another set of ideas, and so the work comes out of the work.

The piece that’s going up here, Band, that took about two and a half years to figure out. [Band is a 72 ft. long undulating ribbon of steel.] The other piece here, Sequence, with the S-shape and the two spirals? To conceive it and then start building models took about two weeks. So some of them coalesce right away. Others you have to belabor the idea. Band is a completely new form for me. Nor have I ever done Torqued Toruses before. [These are distorted bullhorn shapes.]

LACAYO: I know that the Cor-Ten steel you work with is supposed to rust. So you know you’re going to get a certain surface effect over time. But do you ever do anything during the fabrication process with the intention of producing a particular surface effect?

SERRA: With some pieces you might leave the “mill scale” on. When the pieces are first rolled they have a scale on them, so they have a very tight, bluish grey surface. There’s a spiral up at Dia/Beacon [the Dia Foundation museum in Beacon, N.Y.] that’s never been outside, so it still has its mill scale on and it’s more leaden looking, which makes it look heavier. With other pieces, while we were making them the process itself scarred the plates. For instance, if we had to “line heat” them, which means if two plates aren’t coming together you just make a line of heat and you put water on it. When you line heat something it leaves a pattern on the plate, a big gash. So then what we do is, we sand blast the plate. And often when they’re being shipped they get scarred and marked up. To get rid of some of the scars we hose ‘em down.