PRINT September 1969

Slow Information: Richard Serra


Although our social relations were almost entirely limited to chance encounters at Queens College (we were both members of the art department), I recall once meeting Richard Serra at the Guggenheim Museum at the time of the Sculpture International in 1967. I was examining the works in preparation for a review and we toured the exhibition together. The idea of Serra’s which struck me most was his observation that Robert Morris’s untitled floor pieces1 were an extension of a Cubistic grid idea—a notion regarding the principles of serial structure and Minimalist ontology that is now generally accepted. At this point I still had no idea what Serra himself was up to as an artist although I was well aware of the nature of his teaching. I now regard this part of his career as an important pedagogical contribution.

Serra’s teaching is neither directive nor judgmental. It deals with an elementarist analysis of the physical properties germane to any given material. It minimizes—almost to extinction—any valorized finished product, but instead stresses those issues and procedures which are central to the execution of any specific act, or set of acts, in as clear and didactic a way as possible. Since the stress is on the executive act and programmatic clarity, the resultant experiences tend to be simple, and frequently repetitive. The implication of this in terms of many of the features of Serra’s own works is self-evident.

Serra’s teaching, at least at first, seemed at odds with the studio methods then fostered at Queens College. These methods tend to be post-Cézanne-like in character, stressing dimensional forms in locatable spaces; post-Hofmann-Iike, asserting the “push and pull” of color areas; and post-Albers-like, emphasizing a “less is more” color-scientism. And, of course, there is an emphasis too on a more or less direct transcription of nature. I think, in fact, that such a characterization holds true for all art schools throughout the country at the moment and it is not my intention here to disqualify such principles. I only mean to indicate that Serra’s indirection and elementarism was, at the time, at odds with the highly evolved and final-object-oriented nature of prevailing teaching practice. The object orientation of such teaching implies that an evaluation of student work is both desirable and feasible because it is related to a determinable quotient, one based on previously achieved standards.

The radical nature of Serra’s teaching was quickly sensed and his design courses became something which I believe the talented art student (as distinguished from the gifted imitator) saved for last because he felt that in some way they were perhaps the best. I was grateful that Serra’s courses were accessible to the students, if only because they were “antidotic” to the esthetic predeterminism which, of necessity, emerges out of the evolutionary teaching method which I have so briefly characterized. I recall several chance meetings with Serra’s students’ work, in which basic pictorial and structural properties appeared to be the “subject” of primary importance: images of stroking, counting, forms which leaned, forms which fell, scatterings, mural scale compositions of pasted paper in which at each moment that a focal center “appeared” so was it “displaced”; student films in which moving objects were shot so that they appeared to be still while the static environments appeared to move. I cite these only as memories of things representative of the kind of work done in Serra’s class.

A critical problem is brought into play by Serra’s teaching, namely, that all such exercises tend to look equally “good” (though this is, in fact, untrue). The reason for this is, I imagine, because no a priori criteria is in evidence. Such exercises were “bad” or “good” or “indifferent” only within an evaluative scale predicated on the conditions of the problem which it sought to solve, and which mayor may not be in evidence when faced with the final thing one is regarding. In the end, too, “elementarism” can itself become an “imitable” style—as I think we will relearn with a vengeance this coming gallery season. Since there was no “perfect” model against which the student production could be gauged, a radical anti-establishment aspect of Serra’s teaching was that the notion of “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” or “Failing” was entirely expunged. In short, the entire notion of “Art” did not arise.

What appears to have happened is that Serra realized that his teaching was, in fact, being used “antidotically” within an established pedagogical situation—that is, it became, in a short while, another a priori option and therefore, another standard academic tool. Recognizing that the strength of his radical teaching may have been weakened by its absorption within an academic setup, Serra has, at least for the moment, abandoned teaching (although the necessity of team assistance in the execution of his most recent work will, in some way, ultimately affect the thinking of his assistants, as it only recently profoundly marked a restrained and very fortunate body of students).


In my view, the earliest problem of sculpture was to reproduce the verticality of the human being in contrast to the horizontality of the earth. I don’t mean to say that the problem was to reproduce the human image, although our first great sculptures, the “Venus” fetishes, the Pharoah portraits and the Greek Kouroi, do so. What I am trying to get at is that they are vertical—not that they are anthropomorphic. An urge toward verticality which characterizes the history of sculpture became further energized through such intermediary assists as bases or through technological processes, such as bronze casting or metal forging or new plastics, which permit heavy masses to be supported at elevated heights from slender shafts, as our legs carry our torsos. By extension, sculptures which are supported by architectural elements other than the floor are by their sheer perversity a testimony to the traumatic grip of the pervasiveness of the idea of verticality and its correlative dependence upon the floor. What then of horizontality? We have seen, in the past two years particularly, an almost concerted assault on the axiomatic verticality of sculpture in favor of horizontality. There is, of course, a kind of familiar horizontal form which, although not called by the name of sculpture, has always insisted on certain sculptural qualities—furniture. When Brancusi made horizontal sculpture, he justified himself by regarding the results not as “sculpture” but as “furniture,” calling such sculptural artifacts “Bench,” “Table,” stressing by such appellations a functional rather than horizontal connotation.

In this respect, that Carl Andre’s floor-bound square modules should be called “rugs” seems less fortuitous than may appear at first hearing. Carl Andre, perhaps, may be regarded as an intermediary between Brancusi and Serra in that his work stresses—a furniture-like horizontality and focuses on elemental material properties, both features shared by Serra. Andre’s works are admittedly a case apart. He is taken to be a figure central to Minimal and geometrical sensibility. Yet, there is a “dumbness” and “inertness” in his work that somehow marked him as different from the general run of antiseptic purveyors of three-dimensional geometric propositions. His most recent exhibition at the Dwan Gallery, presenting grid configurations of elemental metals selected from the chart of atomic valences, indicated that we were meant to compare the differences, visual and extra-visual, between elemental substances in identical figurations. Serra’s relationship to Andre is one of focusing on the properties of the material. Andre appears to be interested in the inert surface qualities of the material and Serra in the intrinsic structural potential of the material. However, the modular characteristics of Andre’s work disaffiliate him from Serra and link Andre to the prevailing geometry which is a cardinal feature of the Minimal mode against which Serra and numerous associates can only, at this moment, appear to be pitted, whether or not this is their stated intention. The Minimalist’s source is the module, the unit, the one; Serra’s is the verb form.

It would be tempting to erect an analogical structure comparing the aims of Serra and those of Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom Serra often spoke. Such a method is bound to fail from the outset as the dynamics of one species of inquiry are hardly interchangeable with those of another. The most abject art criticism has traditionally been predicated on the dynamics of poetry: ut pictura poesis. But a certain harmony of interest is evident, especially in Serra’s early work. In a memoir on Wittgenstein, written by one of the rare intimates of the philosopher, is the following apposite characterization of Wittgenstein’s quest:

. . . according to him, complex propositional forms are merely functions of simple propositions, and therefore cannot express anything not already stated by the latter. The existence of causal or teleological relations between the facts, however, transcends the realm of facts and cannot, therefore, be expressed in meaningful propositions.
This is what Wittgenstein seeks to demonstrate by investigating the construction of complex propositional forms out of elementary propositions.2

Serra is involved with the elementary components or the processes of building, as distinguished from the expression, visual or otherwise, of a finely turned pun. The impetus to work derives from a simple proposition of a verb form: to roll, to tear, to splash. On the bluntest level, Serra is interested in the problem of what sculptural properties may encompass. The problems Serra attacks are structural in nature, problems which have scarcely any linguistic correlation, except possibly as highly extenuated syntactical or grammatical analogies.

The first body of Serra’s pieces seen in New York City were exhibited by Richard Bellamy in February, 1968. He appeared in a group show with Walter de Maria and Mark di Suvero (who, for many years, was Serra’s neighbor in California). The works shown were largely made of rubber materials and neon tubing. The contrast of material partly impressed me because the tubing exploited both the coloristic immateriality of light and the hard, cold surfaces of glass. The rubber was used either bluntly as a broad surface, hung into swags of crumpled, kneaded erasers or as lengths of belt-like harnesses, which, although flaccid, were joined into fixed positions by bent industrial staples.3 (I believe that this is the last time that Serra literally “fixed” two elements together. This structural consideration is of primary importance in Serra’s work and I will return to the matter later on.)

Subsequent to the rubber and neon pieces and as party to a broad offensive against verticality, Serra undertook numerous exercises in horizontality, in “floorness.” The piece that I am going to characterize as “bench-like” (over Serra’s reservations), is Candlepiece, shown in the St. Louis Here & Now exhibition of January 1969. It consisted of a length of timber drilled at equidistant intervals along a horizontal axis. Into these apertures were set a row of ten burning plumber’s candles. The unfinished surfaces, the thick candles, the constant equidistant holes are all related to a kind of physicality that one recognizes as a central characteristic of Serra’s work, as it was long before in Brancusi’s wood carvings. In this sense, the Candlepiece conveyed many of Serra’s basic interests. As what Serra has called a “time piece,” however, the work later struck him as “illustratively simple-minded.” Clearly in this work there are several “clock-like” clues. As we shall see, other apparently formal conceptions are often shot through with a relationship to the problem of time. This piece “fails” for Serra in that it remained primarily “an ongoing visually illustrationaI process which smacks of the permissiveness of Happening and Theater.”

In the same exhibition, a vast expanse of floor itself was covered by three loosely overlaid rubber sheets. The surface of these sheets was formed by spreading a layer of latex rubber mixed with orange paint across the face of corrugated roofing from which the sheets were then lifted and spread upon the floor. The corrugated surface was a device used to “hold the expanse to the floor,” as was the orange color. For Serra, it was incidental that the orange color was the color of anti-rust paint, or that corrugated construction siding is itself a common and offensive structural material (at least insofar as it has generally been employed by the American middle class).


At the same time that the horizontal floor pieces were undertaken, Serra was attracted by the possibilities of lead, a material which he employed for its weight, malleability, entropy, inelegant lack of sheen and other properties which one recognizes as directly, opposed to the chromium steel and polished glass which has dominated high taste for at least three decades.

Among the activities Serra investigated were tearing exercises such as the methodical ripping away, by hand, of successive edges of a lead square. One is tempted to point to the square, concentrically structured paintings by Frank Stella of the early 1960s for the “diagrams” of Serra’s exercises—although, for Serra, they are parallel to “the concerns of Anton Ehrenzweig, such as ‘dedifferentiation,’ ‘scanning,’ ‘scattering,’ and ‘synchronistic vision.’” The formulation of the image of Stella’s painting assumes its total meaning when an inevitable sequence, adumbrated by the support, has been carried to its completion and becomes itself the final image. Serra’s lead sculptures, on the other hand, reject the final image, for, were the work carried to its inevitable conclusion, it would arrive at a point and an instant in time beyond which further tearing is impossible. Serra brings our attention to both this sense of time-shift and to the physical procedure itself. The inevitable sequence of the “tearings” is also very much akin to the sequence of constant chamfers in Brancusi’s Endless Column. Both works are marked by constant repetitive and artisanal actions. “The many versions Brancusi carved of Endless Column make it clear that the motif had a special place in his affections . . . Once the proportions are established it is only necessary to Jay them out on the beam of wood and proceed almost automatically; the work goes on like a litany, with no need for invention. ‘very new Column’ —like each new tear piece –‘seems to develop its own individuality. From a relatively small effort there is here a great poetic yield.”4

What then is important: the statement of the process (place, time, procedure), or the accruing pile of crumpled lead “tearings” which accumulate during the execution of the piece? It would seem that the answer is both of these, or, as Serra states, quoting Whitehead, “process and existence presuppose each other.” The crumpled “tears” of lead in their chaotic accumulation, were also related to the subsequent lead splashings, though certainly the molten condition of lead (by its very familiarity) would have suggested itself as an expressive means to Serra, quite independently of the “tearings.”5

The first lead splashing was seen at the Castelli Warehouse Show of December, 1968. The spattering of lead, which had been tossed into the juncture of floor and wall, was made again at the Kunsthalle in Bern, in front of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and received still further elaboration at the Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials exhibition at the Whitney Museum. There, one of Serra’s pieces was a floor work of thirteen such tossings, twelve of which, after having cooled and hardened, were pried away from the corner and laid one after the other in sequence. The work affords the possibility of the sequential visual reconstructions of its making, which parallels the purely visual aspects of the piece. In this sense Serra designates such works as “slow information” pieces. The material condition of this sculpture—something which was once molten and is now solid, revealing the potential of the material—reminds one of the earliest neon pieces which dealt with the antithesis between luminosity and glossiness. Moreover, the viewer recreating the acts leading to the piece cannot fail to sense the time increments embodied in the twelve tangible “splashes.”

The torn lead and splash pieces point to a two-and-one-half minute film made by the artist. The film concentrates on a single image, Serra’s right hand attempting to catch and release a piece of lead which was dropped in front of it. One saw neither the source of the falling fragment, nor the pile-up of pieces on the floor; one saw only the artist’s hand catching the scrap of lead or missing it, its muscles straining to adjust to this mechanistic role. The film points up the ultimate inability of the hand to function as a tool, for, were it able to have successfully carried out such an a priori task, one would have witnessed a theatrical performance. Instead, the film concerns itself with the breakdown of a positivist assumption because the hand after a moment is physically unable to negotiate the predetermined demand. Thus, the value of the film lies in its clear indication that all assumed or received systems—linguistic, esthetic, experiential, formal—are in themselves subject to breakdown. In short, the breakdown is as much a part of the context as the structuring of the experiment.


In my view, Serra’s loose lead work can be associated with a shift in modernist sensibility, omnipresent throughout the winter of 1968 and spring of 1969. This was attested to by the number of exhibitions devoted to so-called process artists, conceptual artists, earthwork artists, and artists, particularly sculptors, who stress horizontality and “floorness” in their work. This new sensibility tends to be anti-precisionist and anti-geometric. It once again fosters values connected with Abstract Expressionism. That is to say, it sponsors the sensibilities covered by Wölfflin’s term malerisch. In this respect Serra’s lead splashes and “tearings” are almost the sine qua non of the new sensibility. But while being related to the widespread revival of painterliness, Serra’s pronounced constructivism is also in evidence.

At the same time that splashing was employed as a device, Serra was examining lead for its more obvious structural possibilities. (Seven such preeminently didactic works were exhibited as part of the Theodoron Foundation exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in June-July, 1969.) Serra was interested in the idea of lead which had been tightly rolled into a column and which in its solid columnar state became the object of elementary building procedures: to roll, to saw, to divide, to rest, to lean, etc. More complexly elaborated works, held by their weight and the pull of gravity, support additional rolls or plates of lead held up flush against the wall. Each solution clarifies the physical limitations of the same material in different situations.

The idea of propping massive forms together by sheer weight and gravitational pull became more visually engrossing when the leaning elements gradually approached the vertical. This was effected through the introduction of additional elements that were supported by the leaning column itself. Gradually, the column was forced to a “vertical” upright by introducing median horizontal “pins” which extended out from the wall and which were supported there as autonomous elements by the slight tilt of the lead column. Eventually broad sheets of thick lead supplanted the rolls in such structural experiments.

In rejecting welding, which he calls “stitching,” Serra employed the first method of raising forms from the ground, that of leaning and propping, as a boy leans cards one against the other. The device of propping or leaning forms leads to several issues of importance. Through this device Serra is able to indicate an affiliation with David Smith without any concomitant copying; that is, Smith’s arrogant cubic forms could be retained without recourse to Smith’s oxyacetylene torch, the first tool to which the confirmed Smith imitator would turn. Smith, our greatest sculptor, could vertically raise cubic configurations high in the air, predicated on a “pictorialism” and “false weight” which are virtually impossible without welding (they could, of course, have been carved). Serra raises forms that are only possible through propping. Hidden in this distinct ion is the time-honored argument surrounding “integrity” and “truth to materials” which, in our time, are almost exclusively associated with Brancusi.

The idea of utilizing the wall as a correlative support was for the moment put aside, and the lead elements were used to support themselves autonomously. The most representative work of this kind is the One Ton Prop, House of Cards, shown at the Whitney Anti-Illusion exhibition. Each of the four faces of the sheets is held by a slight incline of the lead plate “arrested” at each corner by a repressed pinwheel configuration. The work was colloquially spoken of as “getting Carl Andre up off the floor,” which is to miss the point. For, in both works, the gravity as well as the material is “compressed downward.”

While such a notion is in fact extremely simple, its execution is less than easy. This difficulty, however, is not a criterion for its effectiveness as a work of art, while its massiveness and weightiness most certainly are. A film by Robert Fiore (shown, by the way, over Serra’s objection), recorded the first studio experiments with such a structure prior to its execution and installation at the Whitney Museum. The film shows Serra and his team dollying the quarter-ton plates across the studio floor and leaning them one into the other until the final aperture was produced. The film records the extra-visual sensation and recalcitrance of the heavy lead, as registered in the physical gestures and responses of the artist and his team.

In this respect such films, like articles or journals or manuscripts or photographs or tape-recordings, may in turn aspire to the condition of works of art. I think that this substitution of the record for the actual thing is perhaps one of the key features of a retrograde faction of the new sensibility. The acceptance of such views tends to render expendable the product on which they are based, so much so that many new works may exist only as literary ideas or possibilities in the artist’s mind.

On one hand, it would appear then, that part of the new sensibility is a kind of nihilism, an impulse to supplant a work of art with its own adumbration. Such is the case of artists of more Dadaistic or linguistic turns of mind. The difference between Serra and these figures (as has been often indicated in this essay), despite whatever parameters and proximities there may be, is that there is no linguistic focus at all in Serra’s work. Therefore, its meaning cannot be supposed on the basis of concomitant documents. For a Dadaist of the new sensibility, such a record will in time become the central emotional repository, which is nothing more than “self-conscious history-making.” The art of Richard Serra is not in a snapshot; it is in the viewer’s ability to reconstruct, on the basis of the work’s clear exposition, the artist’s undisguised step-by-step intentions.


1. The Morris piece is reproduced in exhibition catalog. Guggenheim International Exhibition, Sculpture From 20 Nations, (New York, 1967).

2. Paul Engelman, Letter from Ludwig Wittgenstein with a Memoir, trans. L. Furtmüller (New York: Horizon Press, 1968), p. 105.

3. “New York Reviews,” Artforum. Vol. 8, April 1968. p. 65.

4. Sidney Geist, Brancusi, A Study of the Sculpture (New York. Grossman, 1968), p. 73. With regard to the temporal implication of such constantly decremented tearings, again Geist supplies us with deep insight: “A mnemonic system in art that does not imply the world is an ornamental frieze or fretwork, which is a metaphor of memory and its opposite anticipation. In this respect it is worth noting that the Endless Column of Tirgu Jiu (a kind of vertical frieze), is sometimes called ‘Column of Endless Remembrance.’” pp. 174-175.

5. It goes without saying that the piles of lead “tearings” share many characteristics with the work of a broad wave of young artists who are involved in a rudimentary return to the pre-vertical condition of sculpture. I know that the distinctions between each of the following figures are telling, but I cite, only in passing, the sweeping compound and graphite scatterings of Bill Bollinger, the colored mesh unravellings of Alan Saret, the mounds of broken stone of Robert Smithson. the pile, of earth and crank grease of Robert Morris, the floor flockings of Keith Sonnier, the random distributions of Barry Le Va, the displays of plasticized containers and sheets of Eva Hesse, the “rugs” of Carl Andre, not to mention the pile of colored rubber strips of Richard Serra himself shown at the Castelli Warehouse Show of December 1968.

It is perfectly obvious that this list is far from complete and that each of the figures mentioned are working in Sculptural areas that can hardly be viewed as congruent either esthetically or qualitatively except insofar as they are all producing anti-vertical, low-lying experiences. (The interrelationships between these figures. particularly with regard 10 their attitude towards color is especially critical. I intend to attack this problem, as it opens another option of new sensibility, in a subsequent essay on the artist, Keith Sonnier.)