A final installment from my conversation two weeks ago with Serra as he was mounting pieces for his upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (And a link to my piece about him in the new issue of Time and to a Time.com slide show about Serra and his work through the years.)
LACAYO: You told Kynaston McShine [the MoMA curator who co-organized the museum’s upcoming Serra retrospective] that you had resisted working in steel for a long time because if you used steel you would have to acknowledge the tradition of sculpture. Well now you’ve been working in steel for decades. Just where do you see yourself in relation to the traditions of sculpture?
SERRA: At a certain point, probably after House of Cards, I said to myself, I guess there’s no denying this is sculpture. [House of Cards was a 1969 piece in which Serra and some friends/assistants leaned four heavy square sheets of lead against one another to form a cube.] Then I thought, well if this is sculpture it’s my sculpture, so I’m going to try to redefine what I think my sculpture is in relation to the history of sculpture. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to worry about Michelangelo and Donatello and Giacometti and Brancusi. I’m gonna look at them all and acknowledge them all. I understand that there’s been a line of those people. But I don’t have to do their work. I can do my own work and see how it comes out.
I think picking up steel was a problem because in the begining of the century Gonzalez and Picasso had really opened it up, particularly with [Picasso’s] Guitar. What happened from there is that steel sculpture ended up becoming the sculptor’s version of pictorialism in steel. Sculpture was hung in space as some sort of picture-making problem in 3-D. That went right on through to David Smith, and Calder and everybody else. I entered the game being much more interested in space than in pictures and images. I think that’s what distinguished what I do from what people had done up to that point in the tradition.
LACAYO: All these years later, what’s the lesson you’ve taken away from Tilted Arc?
SERRA: I think just to stand up for what you believe in and I’d do it again. It was painful. It was a saga that went on too long and a lot of mean spirited nonsense came my way, but I’d do it again. I believe in artists’ rights. I don’t think the government should commission work and then destroy it.
LACAYO: With the corridors that you’re working with now — do you ever think back to De Chirico. There’s almost a surreal character to some of your work. That’s probably not a tradition you see yourself as coming from, but your work starts to build associations in people’s minds that you may not have intended. Do you think along those lines sometimes when you’re working along those corridors?
SERRA: There’s one period of DeChirico, the metaphysical period, that struck a chord with me. But I don’t think of DeChirico. I don’t think of Piranesi. I’m not involved with Surrealism. I’m not involved with the language or the poetics of dream imagery. But does the space [in his work] have a sort of disorienting effect, of the kind that you can see in the planar shifts in De Chirico. Possibly. It’s not something that I think about now, but there was a time in Italy when I thought about him alot.
If work is rich enough to affect people in different ways and broad enough then its meaning doesn’t have to be tacked down to a one liner. There’s a potential for people to move into it in a lot of different ways. And if the work has any validity or any strength you’ll go back to it again and again.
LACAYO: If you had asked me in the 1970s to predict some of the biggest names in American art in 2007, I would not have thought first of Richard Serra and Cy Twombly, because his work and yours was so difficult at first for people to grasp. But now it turns out that you’re both something like beloved modern artists. You’re one of the most successful public sculptors I can think of. I’ve seen people all around the U.S. exploring your pieces with pleasure. You would never have described your work 35 ago as viewer friendly.
SERRA: I wouldn’t have predicted it either. If at the end of the last century someone had said to me “You have a shot at the work being able to communicate to a broad base of people,” I would have said, “A long shot”.