Richard Serra's Carnegie, an unpublished interview, November 1985
While Richard Serra's Tilted Arc was under attack in New York City, the artist had a much more pleasant experience with a piece specifically commissioned for the 1985 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was welcomed with open arms by the donor, the museum, and the community; in fact, it shared the prestigious Carnegie Prize with Anselm Kiefer's Midgard – Vitgard. The day after the dedication of this site-specific sculpture, I talked with an exuberant and insightful Richard Serra.
VAC: How did you react when you first saw Carnegie installed at the museum?
RS: I think my reaction was one of being startled in a way. I am usually able to stay pretty much on top of every aspect of the organization, planning, construction, and installation, but I was unable to do that with this piece because I had to be in Paris for the construction of two other works. So even though I built a model and understood what the piece would potentially do in terms of its structure, I really didn't know what it would look like. When I first saw it, I laughed; it brought a smile to my face, and it brought me a great deal of joy. When your work does that for you, when it gives you something you could not have foreseen, it's joyful and pleasurable. That happened with this piece, and that's rare.
VAC: How does the piece differ from the model?
RS: The model is like a representation of an idea, almost like a diagram. With some of the pieces, you can look at the model and have a greater idea of what you are going to confront full scale than with this model. You don't know from the model that it's going to be weightless at the height of 40'. This model didn't lead me to believe that the space in the interior would be as, and this may be the wrong word, moving as it is. I find this space, the internal space in this piece, strange and moving in a way. And I don't mean religious. I'm not quite sure what I mean. But there is something moving about it.
VAC: More so than the outside?
RS: Yes, more than the outside. The outside, there's something graceful about it. The inside, there's something determined about it.
VAC: There's something about the outside that's very elegant in the way that the lines go upward and outward. And the interior seems more elemental.
RS: I think it grounds you more. I think the outside makes you want to walk around it. It makes you continue to follow it. I think the inside really grounds you into the concreteness of the ground. And there's something about being inside long enough that makes you forget just what you are observing. You may think you are on top looking down. You might also think you are leaning against something and looking along it. So you go through a process of reorganizing your basic coordinates.
VAC: You talk about other pieces in terms of centering. Do you see this interior space in the same way?
RS: I think it holds you to a given location not only in relation to its location but in relation to your body. It really asks you about the definition of what it means to be standing vertically or looking up and out. If you concentrate on that elongation, what does it do to your centering? I think that there is an inversion in this piece that makes you think that it has more potential for what the notion of centering can be than the fact that you are just standing there. I think it adds to what I would say is moving in the piece. If someone would say that there's a 9' x 12' rectangle on the ground with an opening and you are going to walk in there and look at a 2' square, telling you that literally doesn't tell you about what that experience is. Or that when you walk in the piece, that it's going to turn upside down on you. You are going to think that's a trick. It's not a trick. It doesn't physically turn upside down on you. It makes you ponder that question in your own observation. I find it very curious that a space can do that.
VAC: You work with the relationship between the outside and inside in a lot of your works. How did that come about and how did that affect this work specifically.
RS: When I first started working with the prop pieces in the late 60s, you looked at the piece and couldn't enter into it. I got very discouraged that you couldn't because I wanted a more active participation with what that space would be like. Once the pieces started to take on a larger scale and started to manifest themselves in open space and started to divide rooms where you could actually walk into given areas, then it opened up the progression of the work. Once the sculpture left its object quality and took the quality of environmental participation in terms of a context, then I think it really opened up. On this piece I wanted to make and hold a contained space that had an aperture to the sky. And I wanted to be able to foreshorten that aperture so that one had the feeling of an enclosed space that opened to the sky over a great distance. I wanted a certain speed in which you could read that distance. That's unlike architecture. Architecture never encloses itself like that even if you are in an atrium. It's never quite that fast or predicated on a viewpoint to the sky in that way. Gothic cathedrals don't do that either. I didn't know whether the 2 ½' square would hold the light of the space. That was something I felt was very fulfilling about this piece.
VAC: Does the light help form the interior space and volume in all the pieces you have called walk-in towers?
RS: I think that here the light defines the volume. I like the disparity between the inside and the outside. I like the fact that from the outside you cannot predict what's inside. I like the fact that once you get inside you can understand that it's a 2 ½' square you are looking out of. And that becomes the keystone of understanding the construction of the entire piece, and you can see how the pieces are related to that square and how they move outward in their manifestation of the structure. Then when you walk outside, you can replay that back into your head. It gives you a chance, through simple observation, to understand the nature of the construction. I don't think that is the meaning or the content of the work, but I think that it has a lot to do with simply understanding the clarity or idea of the work. There's nothing hidden about the piece. There's nothing mysterious about the piece. It is a very simple structure, and the simplicity is ascertainable to anyone who participates in the observation of its square aperture at the top.
VAC: Participation on the part of the viewers is a key concept of most of your work.
RS: Yes, because I am not really interested in making the meaning that explicit. I think the meaning really resides in the person's ability to walk and look and to reflect upon what his anticipation would be and what his memory was.
[In a contemporaneous interview, for a video of the making of Carnegie, Serra talked more about viewer participation.]
RS: I think my orientation to most of my work has to do with simply walking and looking. Just simple observation. It always struck me as a little kid that if you walked along the beach to a jetty, it took a certain amount of time and you turned around and walked back. The ocean had been on one side and now it was on the other, the sand on one side and now it's on the other. Even if you retraced your foot falls, it was an entirely different experience. And that struck me as curious. … In Japan, there aren't any orthogonals, things aren't placed through the picture window, and the whole door's open so you see everything coming in at you simultaneously. Basically the way things are placed is predicated on peripatetic fusion, on walking and looking.]
If you walk around this piece, and walk into it, and walk out of it, I think you come away with an understanding of the structure that heretofore you had no knowledge of. Nor is there anything quite like that in relation to architecture, so it's a process of informing yourself about the nature of an idea, a simple idea. How do you put something together? How do you build something? And how does that thing, once it's built, affect how you understand not only that idea but your relation to that idea? So in a sense you become the content as you observe and learn, and I think there is something for you to learn. I don't mean in a didactic sense that you are going to know something, but simply learn something about the nature of organizing yourself in relation to a given space.
VAC: Carnegie, as well as most of your work, relies on equilibrium and disequilibrium. How does that affect the viewer and his understanding of the piece?
RS: I think people have a very psychological reaction to either disequilibrium or equilibrium. I think it is something you respond to not only mentally but physiologically. It's a physical notion of equilibrium that I'm very involved with. I'm not interested in its threat or dangerous capacity. I think that when you really arrive at a solution of balance, things tend to separate; it tends to look weightless. That interests me a great deal, the fact that you can install an enormous amount of weight and, through a condition of balance, render the elements weightless. It's not an illusion. I think probably that every sculptor I can think of, at some point of his life, had to confront balance as one of the building blocks. If you think about it, Calder does it one way, Giacometti does it another way, David Smith does it another way. I'm very interested in balance; I'm very interested in gravity as a form maker for my pieces. Some things are conditions of balance. I mean when you think about Calder hanging all those things in the air, there's something very, very playful about that. That's a very definite notion about weightlessness in the air, a very definite notion about balance. Carnegie has another notion of balance, a notion of how you know equilibrium, disequilibrium. And I think that's essential to various kinds of content and sculpture.
VAC: Carnegie's balance is complicated by the fact that each plate leans both inward and to the side. Is this the first time you've done that?
RS: This is the first piece where all the elements have two functions. They are all leaning on their axis and are all leaning, tilting, inward. I've done a piece in Paris, Slat, where one plate both leans and tilts. What I couldn't imagine was that at the height of 40' the horizontal would spread to almost 20' which gives Carnegie a kind of uplift, almost like a V. Not like an unfurling flower, but it gives it a very direct gesture diagonally upward and outward which gives the piece a kind of exhilaration.
VAC: Is that because of the height, because of the way it opens up?
RS: I think it's because of its diagonal thrust into the sky. I haven't done anything quite like that. I've usually avoided that because a diagonal, a vertical diagonal, usually leads to a gesture that's always been too fast for me. It's something that occurred in a lot of mannerist art, a lot of baroque art, so I've really pretty much limited what I do to the horizontal and the vertical. This is one of the few pieces I've made where the plates tilt on their axes to the degree that they spread outward in diagonal lines. That gives it a reading that my other pieces don't have, and that's what makes it a little more uplifting. Some of the pieces I have built tend to be more introspective, tend to be hermetic, aren't quite as uplifting as this piece. This piece has a real vertical rush which I like.
VAC: when you talk about Carnegie opening outwards, how does that affect the weight of it, the kind of earthbound quality of it?
RS: Actually, I think it makes it more weightless as it rises off the ground, as it moves upward. And in that sense you can almost see it as a weighty structure inverted, turned upside down. I mean it rises not like a lamp or not like a cactus, but it has a direct gesture up almost like a V or like lifting your arms up. There is something about the elevation as it rises that negates the weight. When you walk into the inside of it you are in a contained shaft that even though it is 40' like the outside, appears to be 60' high because of the foreshortening. That was very, very self-satisfying for me, the complete disjunction between the inside and the outside.
VAC: In terms of organizing yourself in relation to the plaza, how does Carnegie relate to the site?
RS: I think that one of the things that it does is take you from a public space into an institutional space and provides an experience which you can call aesthetic en route. And that is almost like a preamble to what the museum has to offer. I think that for my purpose, if the work satisfies that function mainly, to engage people in a discourse with art, fine. And if it does that in a quasi-public way in relation to the museum, better.
VAC: So you kind of see this as public/private. It's not just public art?
RS: I think it has the potential for both: private in that the institution itself has the umbrella of being private; public in that it is really accessible to the passerby. You don't feel that you don't have the right to enter into that piece. If people resist the work, that's okay also. But I think that the piece has the potential to engage people with various meanings they might have, and they'll probably learn to grow up with it. I have always found that my first audience tends to be people who don't have preconceived ideas about the nature of art. People who are open and tolerant seem to be more responsive than people who have already made up their minds about something or what the experience of something might be.
VAC: You have been accused of being confrontational with your pieces in public places. Do you feel that Carnegie is confrontational?
RS: In a healthy sense, yes. I don't think there's anything wrong with works of art defining their own space and place in relation to architecture. If art can engender a dialogue through its existence, and they call that dialogue because it exists confrontational, fine. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think if it wasn't for the deference given to confrontation of sculpture, you'd never have the Statue of Liberty, you would not have the Picasso in Chicago, you would not have Calder in Grand Rapids. None of those works would exist. If you're going to deny the potential for what you are calling confrontation, works will never be built. You can't do it by asking the man on the street to vote on it. If you do that you're really going to have Archie Bunker putting up pink flamingoes in every plaza. That's what you'll get.
VAC: Do you think that Carnegie has specific meaning in Pittsburgh that it could not have elsewhere? In its context with the city with its history of steel, do you think it assumes a different kind of meaning?
RS: I think for the people of this town, absolutely. I think that this is one of the cities that have made America strong through the whole century of its progress. Pittsburgh is synonymous with the Steelers; it's synonymous with a steel town. There's something about steelworkers and the tradition of steelworkers that means that they have a basic respect for how something is built, or what the weight of something is, or what the nature of steel is. So I think that in this town it becomes a metaphor for what the industry of the town has produced. It's not something that's unfamiliar to them to see steel. There are some magnificent steel buildings downtown. Cor-ten is not thought of as pollution; it's thought of as a product to be used. So I think there's that grasp of it initially.
VAC: You did not intend Carnegie to have these specific associations. But you don't seem to object to people interpreting it or having that kind of association add to their experience of the piece.
RS: I think the more multi-faceted a work is the more that the work can have a host of various readings. That means the more people can bring to the piece the more the piece can afford to their ways of seeing and thinking about it. The piece doesn't have a closure to it. It doesn't really direct your attention to one specific response, like a man on a horse did, etc. It's not about that. It's really open to how you know it in relation to walking and looking and experiencing space. And it's not tied to anything that's not that explicit, and there are multiple readings. Probably, people's reading of it the first month it's here and your reading three years from now will be quite different. I think that is one of the interesting things about art. You see a work of art, and then you have the experience of that work, and then you have the reflection and memory of the work, and then you have the possibility to test your memory and your reflection and your growth and return to the piece, and to walking and looking and experiencing space.
After note: Being involved with Carnegie in its various stages was a heady experience for a young museum curator as was meeting Richard Serra. One thing I like about this interview is the simplicity of the ideas. But, of course, Serra's simplicity is actually quite complex. I also find it interesting to see how his ideas still resonate with commonly held ideas about art 25 years later. From the foundations of abstract art to the response of the viewer in minimalism to the theories of postmodernism, Richard Serra was on top of it all.
© vicky a clark 2010