PRINT September 2005


This summer RICHARD SERRA unveiled a major suite of eight sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, culminating, in effect, a body of work inaugurated with his first Torqued Ellipses nearly a decade ago. For the occasion, art historian HAL FOSTER spoke with the sculptor about his site-specific installation and the artist’s ever-evolving engagement with space.

HAL FOSTER: “The Matter of Time,” your permanent installation of eight sculptures commissioned by the Guggenheim Bilbao, stems from the Torqued Ellipses begun in 1996. Can you talk about the evolution of that series?

RICHARD SERRA: When I began the Torqued Ellipses, I was concerned less with making one definitive sculpture than with making an entire body of work. After I developed the first Torqued Ellipse, I wasn’t certain of the parameters. Then I built more, and saw the effects of different angles of incline, different lengths of passage, different closures, turnings, and so on. I could construct relationships between major and minor axes, and control the degree of differentiation. The Bilbao commission gave me the opportunity to summarize how that language developed, and how it plays out.

HF: What other factors guided this phase of your work?

RS: Once solids and voids became equivocal in creating the sense of space in my work, time became more important—more so than in earlier pieces like St. John’s Rotary Arc [1980] and Tilted Arc [1981], which had more of a real-time presence because their sites had other patterns, other contingencies, other realities. As the single Torqued Ellipses developed into the double Torqued Ellipses and then into the Torqued Spirals, there was more flux in the experience of time. Duration became the issue. Even as you follow a given path in the Spirals, everything on both sides of you—right and left, up and down—changes as you walk, and that either contracts the time or extends it, making you anxious or relaxed as you anticipate what will happen next or recollect what has just happened. So time is the focus more than in earlier pieces, which were primarily concerned with redefining the physical context. That’s a big change. As the pieces become more complex, so too does the temporality they create. It’s not time on the clock, not literal time; it’s subliminal, it’s subjective, and it differentiates the experience of the sculptures from daily experience.

HF: But you used to insist on the continuity between artistic experience and everyday experience.

RS: You’re still grounded in the concrete place of that experience in the recent work; that hasn’t changed. Experience can be internal, psychological, and private on the one hand and external, social, and public on the other.

HF: Do you still want the viewer to be able to figure out how the sculpture was made? Given this play with complicated shapes and different time effects, doing so might become difficult.

RS: In the earlier work, the structural language could be easily deduced: In my Prop pieces, and all the angles and arcs that cut into space, the logic of the intervention was apparent. In the later pieces, it’s not as self-evident; I don’t know what one can deduce from walking around inside a Spiral—not the plan or the elevation, maybe not even the space. Yet the relationships are not arbitrary. They’re just brought to bear psychologically on the viewer in a more intense way than in earlier pieces.

HF: What has made you more open to this psychological dimension? In earlier pieces, an emotive response was always kept in check by a rational reception—the will to work out the formal logic. Has that changed?

RS: No. Finally, the work is more responsive to its form making than to anything else. It has to be inventive as form first; form generates its own meaning and doesn’t need the application of other attributes. Let me give you an example: If the Spirals had been Archimedean spirals, where the spiral turns at a consistent rate outward from its center, they’d be uninteresting, experientially, in terms of both space and time; they’d be knowable and predictable. I started out with logarithmic spirals that vary in intervals as they move outward. You have to find a way to transgress forms, to see forms anew. Here the forms are so unexpected that the main concern is not deciphering their logic, their structure. They create their own meaning and seek their own content through a different set of associations.

HF: Maybe the distinction is that you can still intuit the logic of the sculptures, if not know it.

RS: When you see these pieces from overhead, from the balcony that juts out over the gallery in Bilbao, you can read their structures to a degree.

HF: You seem more open to the possibility of reading the work as image than before, too.

RS: No, I’m still not interested in image, per se. When you look at the pieces from overhead, you can read their plan and better understand their structure, but their elevation is always partially masked.

HF: Can you say more about the specific layout of the Bilbao pieces?

RS: I placed the sculptures to establish a free-flowing circulation. Time as much as location drove the placement. Meaning can only be ascertained as the viewer moves through space; that is, through the space of each individual sculpture and the space of the installation as a whole. The meaning of the installation is activated and animated by the rhythm of each viewer’s movement. However, there is no prescribed view, no preferred sequence, no preferred succession of views. There is a multiplicity of vectors, and at any point one can shift direction. Each person maps the space differently, but no matter which path is chosen, you’re always within the continuum of the sculptural field. In short, I laid out the paths of circulation with an anticipation of movement.

HF: So you treat the space as one field vectored in different ways—by different volumes, voids, times.

RS: Right. In organizing the sculptures in the space, I was more concerned with mapping and circulation, with the multiplicity of vectors and varying temporalities than with image. We placed the largest and most complex of the Spirals at the entrance. It has seven plates—all the other Spirals have five—and it continues to turn for another quarter rotation, opening and closing once again. It’s placed so you can look directly down into it from the balcony. The single Ellipse is placed behind and to the left of the large Spiral. I’m using a new machine that allows for bending plates in a tighter radius, and in comparison to earlier singles, the angle of the curvature in this small single is more acute. Looking into it from the balcony you see that the oval on the ground and the oval at the top are exactly the same. The oval is not twisted: It continuously turns as it rises; the radius never changes. The continuous turn makes the steel walls lean inward and outward. The form is constructed through the void. That hadn’t been done before; it’s not in nature and not in architecture.

HF: So that piece functions here as the touchstone of this phase of your work.

RS: The very first single Ellipse [1996] is a “prime object” in George Kubler’s sense, and, yes, in the context of this installation the single Ellipse functions as a touchstone for the other pieces. To the right of the single, I placed a new double in which the major and minor axes of the inner and outer ellipse are reversed, which accounts for the fact that the space between the two ellipses is never parallel. After the double you come to Snake [1994–97], which has been in place since the opening of the museum. Then there are two more Spirals, which are significantly different from one another—they have different gravitational vectors. Torqued Spiral (Right Left) [2003–2004] tends to propel your gait, and you find yourself constantly adjusting the angle of your body in relation to the lean of the curving walls. This Spiral ends in a broad horizontal enclosure where the upper rim visually cuts an arc into the architecture overhead, pulling it down into the space. The other Spiral, Torqued Spiral (Open Left Closed Right) [2003–2004], is more vertical, moving in and out, compressing you, turning you, releasing you. It’s not as elongated, so your stride is not as quick, and the space changes more radically as it unfolds so that you feel perpetually out of step.

HF: All the pieces change at every step, and so, seemingly, does your gait, with the result that you never know quite what to expect, certainly not as far as the interior voids are concerned, which, even after repeated trips, always come as something of a surprise. You’re testing our memory as much as our anticipation, and those two faculties of time continually overlap. OK, that’s one set of developments from the prime object of the single Torqued Ellipse. How are the two Torus and Sphere pieces, which follow here on the two Spirals, related?

RS: Right after the early Torqued Ellipses, we built a Snake piece for Princeton University called The Hedgehog and the Fox [1998] where the “S” of the snake was made of torqued elliptical sections, leaning forward and backward. These sections were connected by a transitional form derived from a torus (think of a doughnut), a form we hadn’t dealt with before. The inside section is like the inside of a ring on your finger, a reversed curve; the outside section is essentially part of a sphere. Coupled together they produced The Union of the Torus and the Sphere [2001], which is now at Dia:Beacon. I went on to open this closed coupling in order to juxtapose torus and sphere sections in different ways. At Bilbao, the sculpture following the Spirals, Between the Torus and the Sphere [2003–2005], has eight of these sections—a sphere, a torus, two spheres, a turned torus, a turned sphere, and finally two turned toruses—set in rows fifty feet long that create seven different passages between them. The variations in the gravitational effect between the plates create the tension in the spaces of the passages. Also, the way the steel is coiled puts a stress on it that you register as part of the form-making process. That wouldn’t be true of any other material.

HF: You title the second Torus and Sphere piece, the final one in the gallery, Blind Spot Reversed [2003–2005]. With an exterior wall and an interior void that are both pointed ovals, it consists of six sections—three derived from the torus, three from the sphere—linked in such a way as to produce a zigzag passage that leads you past four “blind spots” before you enter the tight interior. For me, this was a smart way to end the installation—smart as in sharp, too. For all the apparent austerity of the steel, many of the other surfaces and spaces in the installation are lush; it is as if you wanted to check us here, bring us up short before another kind of experience. As a sequence of blinds, there is something intractable about Blind Spot Reversed—like a labyrinth with only one way to go. Did you want to remind us that space (both as we live it and as we imagine it) can also be severe, even carceral?

RS: I’m not interested in the prison metaphor. I wanted to condense time, to proceed from contraction to contraction. The regularity of the passages, the constant turn and return over slightly decreased distances, causes a heightened consciousness of self; perception and recollection become inseparable, and they seem to recur—that may account for the loss of a sense of direction. Even though you’re following a continuous path, you seem to keep revisiting the same passage. The counterstep at each blind spot prevents eye and mind from anticipating what’s next; there’s a continuous absence of a sense of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. That also accounts for the absence of a sense of the whole.

HF: When does an invention out of a prime object become a prime object of its own—a new form that generates a new family of forms? Has that happened here, or are all the pieces at Bilbao, excepting the Torus and Sphere works, related to the first Ellipse?

RS: Often a solution leads to a new problem, a problem of a different order, to an unforeseen possibility. That is usually where the shift occurs, which is what happened with the first single Ellipse. Basically this whole group of work is generated by that first Ellipse. I wanted to keep the language coherent in this installation.

HF: Do you feel you have exhausted this language of forms, or are there substantially different ones to test out?

RS: There are no closed sequences. You go through many permutations of a problem to choose the solutions that point to the fullest exploration of the problem—at its most extreme, most abstract, and most consequential. This particular body of work spans only nine to ten years. It is a cohesive language that anybody can follow.

HF: You will begin the catalogue for the installation with two old pieces: To Lift [1967], which proposed a primary action or process in your work; and To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted [1970], a steel circle embedded in a derelict street, which established physical site and social context as fundamental to your practice. How do these signal works relate to the Bilbao installation?

RS: I start the catalogue with To Lift because it is directly related to the problem of surface topology, which is played out in each piece in this installation. I include the circle in the Bronx to point to the fact that my work is often grounded in urban contexts, and in those cases, I’d like the work to be seen as an aesthetic statement in a nonaesthetic place. What runs through the work is a need to find a relation to other realities—other than those codified by the art institutions. That need probably came from my working in steel mills as a young man, realizing the potential of steel as a product of the industrial age, a product we all still depend on every day. I knew enough about the industrial procedure, and I knew I could bring it into making art—in a way similar to how Warhol brought the procedures of advertising into art. Importing new models into a conservative practice always gives you an advantage. When I show in galleries or museums, I import industrial procedures into the rarefied exhibition space. That’s very different from showing factory-finished products (as in Minimalism). The riggers move in to construct the pieces in place. One industry is interfaced with another: the steel industry with the cultural industry. Certainly I’m no longer a member of the working class, but that hasn’t changed my responsibility in relation to my work or its context.

HF: How has this frame of your work changed over time? When you, along with some of your peers, brought an industrial scale into art, that intervention tested the architectural frame as well. But as we move toward the present, museums trump that scale (the vast gallery that houses your Bilbao installation is a prime case in point), and there are many spaces (such as Dia:Beacon) that are refurbished factories or warehouses, where the fit between industrial-strength art and architecture becomes almost too perfect. How do you feel about these developments?

RS: Most of our work was built in loft spaces to begin with; then galleries opened in industrial warehouses as surrogates of the loft spaces. Then collectors like Count Panza realized you could take that entire container and reproduce it anywhere; it became transportable and marketable. They found a way of defusing our first thrust, and as a result, it was no longer as vital.

HF: Perhaps the dialectic unfolds in this way: Your group of artists comes along to contest an artisanal idea of art with industrial materials and methods—just at the moment when the industrial order of society at large begins to rust, not only in this country but also in cities like Bilbao, which was once an important center of steel production. Later, your industrial work is positioned in old warehouses refitted as art galleries and museums—just at the moment when postindustrial economies begin to be important. So, if your work once broke with the old craft order through its industrial means, those same industrial means can now be understood to question the postindustrial regime under which we are said to live now, with all its extravagant architectures (such as the Guggenheim Bilbao) and vaunted virtualities. From another angle: Once those industrial means were avant-garde; now they sometimes feel almost elegiac.

RS: Industrial space was largely defined by the frame and the grid. Contemporary space is much looser, smoother, faster—about movement rather than framing.

HF: How “faster”?

RS: It’s more related to skin, to surface, to extension. Our first relation to much new architecture is to its skin. That’s a big difference—scenography replacing tectonics.

HF: But that’s what postmodern architecture was about—signs and symbols on the facade. Today, as you suggest, there’s also a fetishization of the abstract skin. That’s what “modernist” and “Minimalist” seem to mean to many people in architecture now—which is almost the opposite of what they once meant.

RS: Yes, whereas I’m still interested in the skin turning into the volume, in the skin returning you to the space of the void. I want to hold the field by using the speed of the skin. I still want to have the weight, but not as the primary manifestation of the piece. You can say that’s a return to an old notion of the Baroque, but whatever it is, it takes you into the field, into the interstices between the pieces, and allows for flow and movement. It cannot be reduced to an image or gestalt reading; you never know the configuration. That’s where I am now. That brackets the pieces I’ve done for Bilbao.

HF: So you’ve pushed the industrial bases of your work in order to suggest a contemporary shift in space, but you still allow us to see how those spatial effects are produced.

RS: In the industrial period, space was mechanized, broken down into units of labor, and those units all had a function in production. When I brought the industrial process into my work, I brought in the effects of labor, not the image. When people think of industry they think of structures like the water towers photographed by the Bechers—the language of industry. I’m not involved with that language; I’m involved with procedures of industry.

HF: Even as you’ve held on to the modernist commitment to transparency whereby you show your material, structure, and process, you haven’t merely reiterated industrial space: The spatiality of your recent work isn’t gridded, modular, and so on. But you don’t just plunge us into this new kind of fluid space either, as much projected-image/installation art does today; you don’t just rehearse that spectacular sort of delirious space. In a way you went back to the Baroque and other sources to understand what a nonclassical, nonmodern, nontransparent space is like in order to reflect on its return in the present. But you don’t simply leave us there: You provide some distance, a different space within that new space, for us to consider its effects as well.

RS: I thought only a sculptural language could do that; certainly architecture wasn’t doing it. My foundation is industrial process, but so is architecture’s, though it is most often masked there. Buildings are always more interesting to me before they’re clad. I’m not saying structural integrity is authenticity—that’s not my polemic—but people can recognize when surface is not coming from structure: It looks superfluous, frivolous. One of the big problems in contemporary architecture is the division between the structure, the more-engineered part, and the skin, the more-architected part. Many architects now focus a little on the layout and a lot on the ornament, whether it’s glass, titanium that bends, or scenographic surface, while the structure is handed over to the engineer. (That isn’t the case with, say, Jorn Utzon’s opera house in Sydney, or Rem Koolhaas’s library in Seattle. There you still have the architect and the engineer of one mind, and there’s a tectonic clarity to those buildings that takes one’s breath away.) The division becomes problematic with postmodern architecture, and more and more architects are limited to the design of the ornament as skin. In my work, on the other hand, the structure and the skin are one and the same. I still believe that material imposes its form on form; that’s why it’s important for me to stick with a material I understand.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).

Parts of this conversation are adapted from “Richard Serra in Conversation with Hal Foster,” in The Matter of Time (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, 2005).