PRINT Summer 1985

“Tilted Arc” Hearing

RICHARD SERRA’S TILTED ARC was commissioned by the General Services Administration (GSA) in 1979 as a part of its Art-in-Architecture program. It has been a controversial work since it was installed in 1981 at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, 26 Federal Plaza, New York. Most recently it was the subject of public hearings held in New York March 6–8, 1985, before a GSA-appointed panel, which was charged with, generally, airing public opinion regarding the sculpture and, more specifically, making a recommendation as to whether the piece should remain on the site for which it was commissioned or be removed.

The five members of the panel were: William Diamond, regional administrator of the GSA; Gerald Turetsky, acting GSA deputy regional administrator; Paul Chistolini, assistant regional administrator for GSA’s office of Public Buildings and Real Property; Michael Findlay, vice-president of Christie’s and Thomas Lewyn, senior partner of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, a New York law firm.

At this writing, the New York GSA panel has recommended that the sculpture be relocated and has submitted its decision along with the hearing transcripts to the GSA in Washington, D.C. Dwight Ink, acting administrator of the GSA, will determine the future of the piece. According to Gustave Harrow, Serra’s lawyer, if the GSA decides to remove Tilted Arc the artist plans to seek a court injunction for violation of contract.

Speaking at the hearings were arts professionals, including artists, critics, museum curators, dealers, administrators of nonprofit arts organizations, and employees of local, state, and federal arts agencies; federal employees, including several lawyers and judges; politicians, residents, and other interested people. This small sampling of excerpts from the testimony is taken from public transcripts of the hearings. Full transcripts are available from the GSA office of Public Buildings and Real Property, Real Estate Division, Planning Staff, 2 PEP, Room 2351, 26 Federal Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10278.

—Kathryn Howarth


From the time it was built it was hard to see just what it was supposed to be. A wind breaker was the general guess or a tilted wonder more or less. We soon found it was none of the above but a great work of art we would grow to love. Unfortunately it just didn’t work out that way but has dampened our spirits every day. It has turned into a hulk of rusty steel and clearly, at least to us, doesn’t have any appeal. It might have artistic value but just not here, so put it in some other place where it should appear and for those of us at the plaza I would like to say, please do us a favor and take it away.

—Hank Perveslin, employee, United States Department of Education


The trouble with removal of the Serra work quite aside from whether there are any legal or contractual issues involved, which must be decided in another forum, is that it runs contrary to the very basic premise upon which the Art-in-Architecture program was designed in 1962, and compromises the kind of integrity which makes art in our society the symbol of what freedom means in the world. . . . My feeling is that much can be done to add warmth and hospitality to the plaza and it is my understanding that in this effort the artist himself would help . . . it is this direction in which we should move rather than to perform an act of removal which can only be discreditable to the United States, the future of the Art-in-Architecture program, to the development of serious artists here, and to the cause of freedom of expression.

—Marion Javits, reading statement from former Senator Jacob K. Javits (NY.)


There is a lesson to be learned from this . . . you don’t go to Washington alone for approval of something placed in New York. You go to your own surroundings and get some input from the people. They are not all ignorant dunces to be ignored and presented with a fait accompli.

Place a model on display. Let people walk around it, discuss it, get familiar with it. Then let them say whether they want to live with the piece or not. Only after that should approval be sought in Washington. Yes, this is a radical notion, but this piece is a radical piece, so one radical notion deserves another.

—Harold Lehman, artist


I’m a painter and I left my studio this morning around the corner to come here to tell you that after twenty years of trying to paint on walls in public places and on ceilings in public places, the latest of which was one for the GSA in Miami, I would never accept another job if I thought I was going to have to be subject to this kind of interrogation and have to defend my work. All that we get from the jobs is the opportunity to attempt to make something in a permanent space. If this can’t be guaranteed, there is no point.

—David Novros, artist


The kind of vector Tilted Arc explores is that of vision. More specifically, what it means for vision to be invested with a purpose, so that if we look out into space it is not just a vacant stare that we cast in front of us, but an act of looking that expects to find an object, a direction, a goal.

This is the purposiveness of vision or, to use another term, vision’s intentionality. For the spectator of Tilted Arc this sculpture is constantly mapping a kind of projectile of the gaze that starts at one end of Federal Plaza and, like the embodiment of the concept of visual perspective, maps the path across the plaza that the spectator will take.

—Rosalind Krauss, art critic


I wonder at the analogy that can be drawn between the unusual circumstances surrounding the Tilted Arc and the acquisition of new clothes acquired upon the advice of high governmental officials purchased by the Emperor in a child’s fairytale. . . . I suspect that there are some innocents who would question whether or not the Tilted Arc was an art object at all. In any event, the location of the arc is certainly not fortuitous. It discourages the use of the plaza because the arc is depressing and overbearing. It blocks the view of the fountain and it invites vandals to place graffiti upon it. Others avoid the plaza since the arc looks like part of a subway construction site. Transients have actually been seen urinating upon it and in short the plaza has become a place to avoid, indeed an embarrassment.

It has been suggested here this morning that the holding of this hearing somehow violates the concept of fairness and due process. I would like to suggest that that proposition is mere poppycock. In order for public arts programs to have public support [they] will have to continue to have public input.

—Judge Gregory W. Carman, United States Court of International Trade


I’ve dedicated numerous GSA public sculptures in front of federal buildings and I will never forget the ceremony dedicating the Claes Oldenburg Batcolumn in Chicago. [Social Security Administration Building, 1977]. There were protesters carrying signs picketing us, but later on when another city expressed interest in having the Batcolumn the people of Chicago said no, it was theirs, and they were going to keep it. I found that each piece of sculpture clearly identifies that public building and lifts it out of the commonplace. . . . Sculpture which may be provocative to our eyes can be seen more clearly by those who come after us. I recognize the difficulty of your position, but I hope that in the interest of American art for future generations that you will let this piece stand and permit time and history to judge it.

—Joan Mondale, wife of former Vice-President Walter Mondale


Imagine, if you will, this curved slab of welded steel 12 feet high, 120 feet long, weighing over 73 tons, bisecting the street in front of your house, and you can imagine the reaction of those who live and work in the area. Adding to the shock effect is the natural oxide coating which gives it the appearance of a rusted metal wall. . . . Tilted Arc was imposed upon this neighborhood without discussion, without prior consultation, without any of the customary dialogue that one expects between government and its people. . . . Since the Tilted Arc was erected the Art-in-Architecture procedures have been expanded to pro- vide for consultation with local communities which are to be recipients of the art. If these procedures had existed when Tilted Arc was under consideration we would not be here today. . . . The rights of a large number of people who live and work here have been overlooked and ignored. I would like to see their rights restored.

—Representative Ted Weiss (N.Y)


I believe in freedom of artistic and other expression as passionately as anyone, but I have always been taught that with freedom comes responsibility. That an individual is free to express himself up to the limit of doing damage to others. . . . A firm of international renown, Clarke and Rapuano, designed this plaza in harmony with the architectural design of the buildings. I find it appallingly egocentric for this sculptor and others who support him to somehow claim a higher value for his creation than for the creation it so rudely destroyed.

——Sally Williams, employee in Federal Building


Last night Mr. Diamond appeared on a cable news program, CNN Reports, and announced, midway through this hearing, that the GSA had obviously made a mistake in commissioning Tilted Arc—that something was wrong with the commissioning process and that the plaza should be restored to its original empty state for other purposes. . . . Mr. Diamond’s mind is clearly made up. . . . What, I would like to ask Mr. Diamond, is the purpose of this hearing? Now, in the third day of testimonials?

—Abigail Solomon-Goudeau, art historian and critic


We feel that, this is my own personal view, that a good place to put the Tilted Arc would be in the Hudson River. This is not a facetious comment. The Westway is about to be built. I am told that they are going to have to place artificial things in the river so that we can now have shelter for the striped bass.

I think the Tilted Arc would make such a very fine shelter.

—Peter Hirsch, research director and legal counsel for the Association of Immigration Attorneys


Everybody knows and almost everybody forgets that the art that discomforts us the most eventually becomes our proudest possession. Please, let us this time remember and let us collaborate in avoiding this backward step. Let us have the courage to be elitist enough to be truly democratic. Let us fight for the sanctity of a contract freely negotiated between a citizen and his government, but above all, let us fight to encourage the involvement of artists everywhere in the creation and acceptance of progressive public art.

—Victor Ganz, chairman, Battery Park City fine arts committee


This case is the bellwether in the night for the future of public art in this country. If Tilted Arc, a site-specific work, is forcibly removed by GSA or relocated to another site, the integrity of any and all works of public art . . . will be compromised.

—Mary A. Kilroy, administrator, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s public art program


The very controversy surrounding the placement of the Serra sculpture is ample proof of the importance of public art to those whose daily environment is affected thereby and should serve only to encourage the judicious, conscientious and vigorous pursuit of the program’s goals in the future.

However, it is the failure of the installation of the sculpture to achieve those goals which has generated the present controversy. . . . The sculpture should, of course, be reinstalled in a suitable location. One which would not physically modify or alter the work or otherwise discredit the artist’s reputation. . . . I would suggest that should Mr. Serra refuse to consent to suitable relocation of this work, it might simply be placed in storage.

—William Tucker, lawyer with Office of Regional Counsel


Before art liberates our vision and develops our judgment, it unleashes our prejudices—acts of violent contempt with which we defend our loss and absence of vision, of which art so painfully reminds us. Freud called this phenomenon the identification with the aggressor. To defend the prison-house architecture of Federal Plaza against the intrusion of Serra’s sculpture is a manifest case of the symptom.

—Benjamin Buchloh, art historian and critic


The debate here today is not between those who speak for the freedom of the artist and those who speak for the concerns of the community, which the artist serves when he makes art for public places. The debate, rather, is between those who speak for the overinflated ego of the famous artists—supported by the art and money establishment in a special time and place when and where art and money, if I may paraphrase Machiavelli, are all there is in the world—and those who speak for the rights of the people of the community.

—Giselle Samuely for Helen Weinberg, professor of literature and art criticism at Cleveland Institute of Art


That in our opinion Richard Serra is one of the major sculptors on the scene of world art is indicated by the fact that he will shortly have a large retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

—William Rubin, Director, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York


I worked for five years as project manager for the GSA Art-in-Architecture program and was responsible for the administration of the project that resulted in the Tilted Arc commission. . . . Questions were raised regarding placement of the work on the plaza in terms of public access, lighting, maintenance, etc. Serra addressed these questions in his design, resubmitted his proposal and the proposal was approved by the GSA.

I go through these steps to illustrate the process of the Art-in-Architecture program. . . . Serra was chosen and asked to make a work for this space on the basis of a thorough knowledge of his past work and his proven ability to make a work of high quality that would be of a size, scale, and presence that could be meaningful in this plaza and with the surrounding architecture.

In all stages of the decision-making process, it was understood by Serra and by the government that Serra was making a permanent work for that specific space.

—Julia Brown, senior curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


I respectfully suggest that the arc be removed and replaced with benches so that instead of this strange structure and cold space that tells human beings to keep moving, we can finally have a living plaza where people might want to stay awhile.

—Herbert Stupp, regional director of Action


When I started working on the project for Federal Plaza I made extensive studies of it. The plaza was essentially used only as a place of transit through which people pass from street to building, therefore Tilted Arc was built for the people who walk across the plaza, for the moving observer. Tilted Arc was constructed so as to engage the public in a dialogue that would enhance, both perceptually and conceptually, its relation to the entire plaza. The sculpture involves the viewer rationally and emotionally. A multitude of readings is possible. . . . One’s identity as a person is closely connected with the experience of space and place. When a known space changes through the inclusion of a site-specific sculpture, one is called upon to relate to the space differently. This is a condition that can only be engendered by sculpture and nothing else. This experience of space may startle some people.

—Richard Serra, artist