Reels of Steel

Brian Sholis on Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet

Artist Richard Serra. (Photo: ZDF / Maria Anna Tappeiner)

FOR THOSE OF US who only know artist Richard Serra from images of him at work in the 1960s and '70s—dour, focused, workmanlike—the positively talky figure who emerges from Maria Anna Tappeiner’s feature-length documentary Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet (2005) comes as a surprise. The film is structured around the fabrication and installation of “The Matter of Time,” Serra’s monumental long-term exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. We glimpse the artist overseeing steel-mill workers in Germany and working with riggers in the museum’s outsize galleries, and this footage is interspersed with beautifully photographed tracking shots of his sculptures in institutions and at public sites around the world. His torrents of commentary—how apt is the subtitle!—are occasionally interrupted for talking-head paeans from Ernst Fuchs, his longtime rigger; Alexander von Berswordt, one of his dealers; and Philip Glass, who briefly worked for the artist in the late '60s.

Serra is articulate (if repetitive) when discussing his own art, but few speakers can riff for as long as he does and not say something lamentable; for example, even if you agree with him, his commentary on the Bush administration circa 2003–2004 seems unnecessary in this context. And it’s quite a narrow context: There’s very little explanation of how Serra began making the spirals, tori, and spheres that are the focus of the film; completely unmentioned are major moments in his career, including the controversy surrounding Tilted Arc; and, aside from declaring himself an inheritor of Pollock’s legacy and having furthered the aims of Baroque sculpture, there’s little art-historical context. All this is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable. The behind-the-scenes glimpse at the awesome logistical apparatus now supporting his career is worth the price of admission alone: At one point, highway-wide trucks cart Serra’s steel plates to the waterfront and load them onto a waiting container ship. Tappeiner’s reverence for her subject, however, leaves one hungering for a more complex engagement with Serra’s art and its legacy.

Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet screens at Film Forum in New York from Wednesday, August 20, to Tuesday, September 2.