SPEAKING OF HIS EARLY PRACTICE, Richard Serra makes a succinct claim: “This is this. This is not that.”1 His works from the mid to late 1960s were intended to express the actions of “process.” In so doing, they demonstrate the deployment of basic procedures that activate the primary qualities of media derived from construction and industrial fabrication, such as fiberglass and vulcanized rubber. Produced from molten lead, the works known as “splashings” or “castings” (or sometimes both) are chief examples of this category of work. Indeed, in their case, the role of process is deepened by the passage of the lead mediumduring the on-site production of a given workfrom liquid to solid, a material transformation. A splash/cast piece is self-evident, an exposed manifestation of matter plus processSerra’s nonsymbolic this. Process, in turn, implicates change, a temporal register. Given these conditions of medium and change, can we further say that a work’s material and conceptual terms bear meaningful relevance to its eventual fate? One fact is salient, if generally ignored: Serra’s early works from molten lead no longer exist.
To address the splash/cast pieces as a discrete group is to engage the specificity of their circumstances and means. Serra produced the first six such works in fairly rapid succession in 1968 and 1969. Four were made for group shows in which he was invited to participate. (The molten-lead splashes were one of several types of work he ultimately exhibited.) The initial one was made in 1968 for “9 at Leo Castelli,” organized by Robert Morris at Castelli Warehouse in New York. The others were produced in 1969: for the exhibition “Op Losse Schroeven” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (using an exterior wall of the museum); for “When Attitudes Become FormWorks, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland; and for “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Each of these shows was devoted to the state of contemporary post-Minimal and Conceptual art practices. A fifth work was made for Serra’s solo exhibition at Castelli Warehouse in 1969. Later that year, the artist executed his final early work from molten leadin Jasper Johns’s studio, a former bank building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
THE PRODUCTION of a splash/cast work occurs in a series of basic steps. Tearing pieces of lead from industrial rolls, Serra heats them in a vessel that sits above an acetylene flame. He then transfers the molten lead from the pot and deposits it along the juncture of wall and floor. The artist has described the procedure as a largely methodical one that advances “ladleful by ladleful,” beginning at one end of the wall and finishing at the other.2 When the lead cools, it bonds to the site, converting the juncture into a kind of container, a mold for the lead. This interaction locks the work into a dependent relation to the space of the room. In some cases, the cooled lead is pulled away from the wall and displayed on the floor as an autonomous objecta cast. Photographs show that the action of the splash also leaves particles of molten lead spattered across the surfaces of the wall and floor, beyond the thick deposit. In the works he made for the solo Castelli show and for Johns, Serra also used a lead plate, which he angled out from the corner of the room in order to change the configuration of the mold. Due to risks posed by toxicity and heat during the production of a work, the artist wore heavy clothing, protective goggles, and often a respirator. He also had help. One of Serra’s studio assistants at the time was the composer Philip Glass, who participated in the production of all the early splash/cast works (as well as of works demanding the rolling and folding of lead sheets). Serra credits Glass with having introduced him to the medium: Glasswho describes his time with Serra in a recent memoirhad worked as a plumber, which gave him experience cutting, bending, and joining lead pipes (in the joining process, melted lead is used to make a seal).3 Serra insists that Glass’s identification of lead as a potential medium for the artist was a “gift.”
Serra’s largely descriptive titles use both words: splash and cast. In this way, the two states of the medium are made to possess equal significance. The very process of producing the work establishes the parameters of that work’s fundamental identity as a form of sculpture. In other words, the work consists of two operations that are ascribed to the material qualities of the medium itself: what it does as a liquid when it is appliedit splashes; and what it does as it solidifies when its temperature decreasesit casts. The words splash and cast are, then, applicable as nouns, but the verbal form would seem to correspond most closely to the factor of process. In fact, Serra’s Verb List (handwritten in 1967 or 1968 and first published in 1971) has become a default source for any critical account of this early work’s orientation to process.4 The list of 108 terms contains eighty-four transitive verbs representing actions that can be brought to bear on a resistant medium. The verbsmany of which describe recognizable processes in Serra’s practiceare listed as infinitives: to roll, to crease, to fold, to split, to cut, to knot, to spill, to lift, to suspend, to heap, to gather, to scatter, to enclose, to join, and so on. (“To splash” appears on the list.) Verb List also includes prepositional phrases that identify terms pertaining to natural forces and conditions that influence matter: of tension, of gravity, of waves, of inertia, of symmetry, of friction, of location, of time. The infinitives tell us that Serra’s work of the mid to late ’60s implicates the agency of the bodyof the author as a physical agent in the production of a work that foremost serves to demonstrate the principles and actions of its own making. (Currently, Serra identifies the self-reflexivity of the work as a prevailing quality, for which he likes the term autotelic.) The prepositional phrases tell us that the actions and materials, in their otherwise nonfunctional, relatively pure states, inevitably articulate laws or principles of the natural world to which the agent or maker must, of course, be said to belong.
In assigning titles to the works from molten lead, Serra sometimes observes a strict distinction between the separate functions of “splash” and “cast.” The first work in the sequence (the one made at Castelli Warehouse) is called Splashing; images of it show that it consisted of a single continuous deposit of lead. The fourth example, made for the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion”show, is called Casting, which probably designates the fact that it comprised a sequence of splashings (one dozen, judging from installation photos), each separated from the wall and displayed on the open floor with the others in an array of long, narrow forms. (The individual castings measured roughly four inches by four inches by twenty-five feet.) A final splashing was then executed but left in placein situ, as it were, along the base of the wall. In one case, the title uses both terms: The work for Johns is called Splash Piece: Casting. Like the Whitney piece, it comprises a sequence of splashings that, pulled from the wall, are then identified as casts. Despite the use of double designations, it can be said that all lead splashings are already castings regardless of whether they are pried loose or left to adhere to the wall and floor.
The activity of pouring the lead engages a visually negligible yet structurally defining space in the room. In the context of sculptural production that has nullified the value of the pedestal and openly addresses the force of gravity as a fundamental element, this province is literally base. Thus it pertains to the low-lying zone of anti-form, or the informe, as theorized by Yve-Alain Boisthe abject space of the ground or floor.5 In Serra’s case, this precinct corresponds to the heavy downward pull of mass (the lead medium), as well as to the beholder’s downcast gaze. This association of Serra’s early splash/cast pieces with the informe is corroborated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh when he describes their historically startling intervention in sculpture-making as the dissolution or “liquefaction” of the sculptural object (which is replaced by the “random shapes” derived from the process of depositing molten lead). This aspect of the work robs sculpture of a coherent bodyand, by extension, of its relation to the embodiment of the beholder.6 Still, in passing through two states, the lead begins by supporting anti-form (splash) and ends by supporting an indexical object (cast) that, while lowly or residual, is precisely defined.
A second duality obtains with respect to the artist as producer of the work. We speak of the agency of Serra as author (together with the efforts of Glass and others) in motivating process in the early works: lead works in which the medium is torn, cut, folded, and rolled, for example, as well as melted and splashed; large, heavy scraps of pliable rubber that are cut and strewn or hung from the wall and re-formed by gravitational pull; and the many worksin lead and then steelthat are categorically referred to as props. Serra denies the significance of chance, and it is important to recognize that, while process may produce unintended consequences, the relation of the splash/cast works to anti-form is distanced by Serra’s repetitive, largely methodical approach to the work’s production. Yet with reference to his list of transitive verbs, the premise of Serra’s early work depends on the agency not just of the artist but of the medium: the way the medium “behaves” in response to an application of force. Matter, Serra says, speaking of his work of the ’60s, will tell you how it wants to form itself. A statement the artist composed for the Fall/Winter 1970–71 issue of Aspen pushes the precept to an extreme: In the text, Serra proposes a work that would be produced from a “quantity of [molten] lead” dropped from a height of fifteen thousand to thirty thousand feet into a body of water or other “soft earth site.” “The liquid lead volume in descent forms a precise spherical mass: a continuous solid, a ball, a bomb.” Two supporting references are added: to Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (published in 1963) and to the Shot Tower in Baltimore, an early-nineteenth-century structure once used in the making of spherical lead shot (blobs of molten lead were dropped down the length of the shaftsome two hundred feetwhere they landed in a vat of water). The proposal reads like a physics experiment, an exploration of how solids form under different conditions of heat, distance, gravity, and speed.
WITH RESPECT to the author as actor, then, a work is made by initiating a forming procedure and then surveying the results, which may or may not instigate another work. Serra cites Johns’s dictum about making and repetition: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it.” Johns, in turn, recalls Serra’s Casting at the Whitney show, the work that prompted him to commission a splash/cast piece for his studio, in this way: “The lead pieces appeared simply to have been brought forward from the wall, one after the other, as they were cast. The piece and the making of the piece were perceived as a single event/object.”7
“What I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.” Steve Reich’s formulation (from his 1968 text “Music as a Gradual Process”) assigns the strategy of process beyond sculpture to the field of intersecting concerns in performance, music, dance, and film within which Serra worked.8 For Reich, a chief technique was that of phasing, in which he set an audiotape loop against itself, copying it and then playing it on two separate machines. The discovery of phasing in 1965 was accidental. Reich was preparing a work based on the voice of Brother Walter, a Pentecostal preacher in San Francisco, where Reich was living at the time. For this purpose he recorded a sermonconcerning Noah and the Floodfrom which he extracted a single phrase, “It’s gonna rain” (this, of course, became the name of the piece). Reich broke the phrase into two loops: “it’s gonna” and “rain.” The two fragments were to be repeatedly played in succession on separate tape recorders, which, via headphones, were made to correspond respectively to his left and right ear. During playback, due to slight discrepancies between the machines, the tapes gradually fell out of sync. Reich described what he heard in corporeal terms: “The sensation I had in my head was that the sound moved over to my left ear, down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake and become the sound I was looking for‘It’s gonna / It’s gonna rain / rain’and then it started going the other way and came back together in the center of my head. When I heard that, I realized it was more interesting than any one particular relationship, because it was the process (of gradually passing through all the canonic relationships) making an entire piece, and not just a moment in time.” Reich compares the progression of a shifting phase relationship to the canon or round as a musical form, yet he also describes phasing as anticompositional: born of a mechanical limitation or flaw in the rudimentary commercial technology of recorded sound. The flawa mechanical failure that can be credited to the “agency” of the machineinstigated a discovery that originated with a sensation, the bilateral passage of sound as medium through the body and out into the room. In fact, two failures of a kind are in play: As the preacher’s words fall increasingly out of phase, language, Reich explains, is reduced to “noise.” When used to “set” the human voice, the phasing technique actually produces a kind of affect: “The emotional feeling is that you’re going through the cataclysm, you’re experiencing what it’s like to have everything dissolve.”9
Concerning the discourse on process, then, at one extreme is Johns’s observation, in which process is said to represent an equivalence between object and event. At the other extreme is Reich’s, in which process activates what might be described as an existential form of entropic momentuman annulment, a coming apart (something almost figured by the physical impact of process on Reich’s experience of the work). Both associations recur throughout the period. Robert Smithson drew from the entropic implications of process when, speaking of his own work, he opposed “scatter” to “containment,” a binary that recalls the function of site in Serra’s work with reference to container and contained. For Smithson, the relevance of the two terms serves the concept of the nonsite, boxlike containers of raw material (soil, stones) from a specific location in naturea site that belongs, as he put it, to the “outer fringe.” The relation of the landscape to the installation is governed by a condition of displacement according to which the sensation of nonsite is a “dislocation” in space and time. The dislocation is leveraged via the inclusion of maps and photographs, competing systems of information that also represent or describe the site. According to Smithson, a nonsite “just goes on constantly permuting itself into this endless doubling, so that you have the nonsite functioning as a mirror and the site functioning as a reflection.” Within the parameters of the work, “existence becomes a doubtful thing. You are presented with a nonworld. . . . The problem is that it can only be approached in terms of its own negation, so that leaves you with this very raw material that doesn’t seem to exist.” Smithson invokes a “suspension of destination,” wherein location can be neither measured nor named: “You are really going from someplace to someplace, which is to say, nowhere in particular.”10
There is a striking reciprocity between the principle of splash/cast and the concept of the nonsite, but the terms Serra shares with Smithson are set in motion toward radically opposing ends. Serra’s materialism is channeled into what he describes as the inseparability of work from “context”a work’s “osmotic grip into the planes of the room,” to quote Max Kozloff’s inspired observation in these pages in 1969.11 In subsequent splash/cast pieces, where the lead is pried from the wall, the work’s dependence on context is maintained by displaying the casts in the room where they were made. (According to Serra, there can be no question of showing them elsewhere; to do so would compromise their necessary correlation to the site of their making.) By establishing a coequivalence of object and event, a splash/cast piece represents a simultaneity of scatter and containment, two material extremes. In Smithson’s case this opposition expresses a “dialectical” relation of matter to form. Yet Serra’s move bypasses the nonsite, in which raw material plus information produces “dislocation”the so-called suspension of destination. In aggressive contradiction to the function of the nonsite, Serra identifies the two elementsscatter and containment (or matter and form)as possessing an almost primal significance to sculpture-making; he then binds them together in the service of a thirdlocationwhich, as an intensification of site, becomes a medium in and of itself.
A splash/cast piece is a compound entity that collapses rather than dislocates its temporal and spatial coordinates by using medium to seize site. To the key factors of raw material and room space we can add that of the bodily sensation of the perceiving subject or beholder, for whom the actuality of location is consolidated and redoubled rather than (as with the nonsite) distributed across time and space. As a deposit, the molten lead both marks and fills the juncture of wall and floor, becoming a seam that joins event to object and object to room. As a materialist, Serra shares certain concerns with other artists, including Smithson and Carl Andre (who actually imagined showing his work according to a progression of media based on the order of the periodic table). Yet for Serra the forming properties of a given medium were of paramount significance to the work’s critical relation to the history of sculpture. Serra’s repeated application of molten lead over the course of a year or so represents an extended practice. By exploiting the material nature of the lead medium in a sequence of closely related works, he established an unprecedented syntax for sculpture as form, one in which form addresses itself toeven inheres inthe topography of the room as container, a province of actual space.
I BEGAN by saying that the early splash/cast pieces are no longer extant. However, Serra returned to the medium of molten lead in 1980, producing nine more works over the course of sixteen years, and three of those pieces have been preserved. (Those that remain were made for museums: the De Pont, Tilburg, the Netherlands; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Hamburger Kunsthalle.) He would have welcomed the on-site preservation of other examples, but most of them were occasioned by temporary exhibitions. Moreover, like so many works by artists of Serra’s generation, the works from molten lead are propositional, which means that a splash/cast piece is not esteemed for qualities of making that reflect on aesthetic values historically associated with uniqueness and craft. There are, of course, qualities of a given iteration that set it apart from others; such distinctions are in fact definitional to works of this kind. Yet, any long-shot prospects for the preservation of a splash/cast piece notwithstanding, expendability was acceptable within the parameters of the work. It may also have been a source of ambivalence: According to Serra, the fragile nature of the objects made by his friend Eva Hesse (to whom the splash/cast piece in his solo exhibition for Castelli was dedicated) gave him pause, encouraging him to consider the longevity of his own work.
Searching the early work’s terms, however, we find that potential loss lies within the implications of its very means. With respect to the competing imperatives of permanence and change, the status of a piece made from molten lead is unstable. (All early works in lead by Serra, such as his props, are subject to the instability of the medium itself, which, being relatively soft, gradually fails to hold a form over time.) Conjoined to the temporality of the work’s makingthe elements of process and repetition that establish what Johns described as a co-identity of object and eventis its identity in historical time. In other words, the demise of a splash/cast piece, while not a given, is anticipated by the very circumstances of the work’s fabrication. The permanence of cast, as objectas nounissues from and arrests the material transience of splash, which at best denotes an indeterminate thing. As verb, the word cast is also dichotomous: It references the forming of the object, yet it could further be used to describe the tossing of the molten lead, an action of making that, despite repetition, can be only partly controlled. And the toss is a gesture of dispersion, even disposalwe speak of that which is cast off or cast away.
Such an analysis is not just semantic, for the ambiguities that belong to the language are fully at stake within the material logic, and therefore the content, of these works. Moreover, the function of site deepens the connotations of unstable means: The temporality of the work as event holds two material opposites, splash and cast, while a given work’s disappearance constitutes an intensive reversal of its sitednessits osmotic grip. What we know of the first campaign of works from molten lead now belongs to the photographic record, the early criticism, and the memory of those who observed the work at the time (including the artist). Like so much else produced during this period of advanced art practice, the early splash/cast pieces now live in historical imagination alone. Absence will forever condition what we say about the works, whether or not we explicitly account for it. Through the language of Verb List, Serra asks us to accept that a splash/cast piece (among other process-based works of the period) has the capacity to implicate conditions of forming and being, conditions such as gravity, location, and time. In this regard, the complex “logic of the procedure”12 shows that the work bears a critical relation not only to the history of sculptural practice but to itself.
PERHAPS THE CONTENT of process is, broadly speaking, a late-modernist device. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction, published in German in 1975, is a relentless narrative of self-criticality in light of formal perfectionism. The text is composed of two interior monologues that eventually run together. The first is that of the book’s narrator; the second is that recorded in the journal of the narrator’s close friend Roithamer, a scientist and university lecturer who has taken his own life. The journal is infiltrated by intense doubt, which takes the form of incessant revision, an obsessive stream of second thoughts. Through these “corrections,” the process of composing the journal comes to figure Roithamer’s unstable, deeply self-conscious inner life: The manuscript is described as an account of Roithamer’s “conscious existence,” which the corrections are said to destroy. (For Bernhard, this pathology of writing and revision also allegorizes a crisis of collective psyche, the recriminating self-examination of national consciousness in postwar Austria.) Further, the composition and correction (or annihilation) of the journal assimilate themselves to the narrator’s own account of reading the manuscript and, by extension, to Bernhard’s compositionhis writing and rewritingof the novel that contains it. The penultimate line of Correction draws these strands together in order to make a profound, if self-evident, claim, one that accounts, with respect to the protagonist and to the author, for both life and work: “Das Ende ist kein Vorgang”the end is no process.13
The relevance of Bernhard to Serra becomes evident when one acknowledges that the exposed implementation of process can possess a recursive function: that form activates fate. (Crucially, the works from molten lead, produced during the late ’60s, possess their own freight of politics and psyche, attended as they are by connotations of violenceheat, toxicity, the dropping of bombsand by memory or loss.) In Serra’s works from molten lead, making is grounded in process (this includes the self-forming capacity of a given medium), but process represents forward momentum, which the eventual realization of a work in object form brings to a halt. For the splash/cast pieces, the work’s material natureits dualities of liquid and solid, of form and anti-form, of weight and scatter (or splatter, to be precise), of object and event, of container and containedreveals that potential absence is fundamental to the work’s deep interrogation of matter and site. Process is processualcontinual or forward-movingand with the realization of process as form comes the beginning of the end.
Jeffrey Weiss is a senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an adjunct professor of fine arts at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.
1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations and paraphrased remarks by Richard Serra are drawn from a conversation with the author on June 30, 2015.
2. Kynaston McShine, “A Conversation About Work with Richard Serra,” in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, ed. McShine and Lynne Cooke, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 24. According to the artist, the much-reproduced Gianfranco Gorgoni photograph in which Serra appears to be splashing lead with an extravagant overhand throw was taken after work on his splash/cast piece (for his solo show at Castelli Warehouse in 1969) was complete, and simply records his euphoric mood.
3. Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir (New York: Liveright, 2015), 247–52.
5. Yve-Alain Bois, “The Use Value of ‘Formless,’” in Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 13–40.
6. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Richard Serra’s Early Work: Sculpture Between Labor and Spectacle,” in Richard Serra Sculpture, 51–52. Buchloh’s text includes a lengthy theorization of the splash/cast works and related activity in Serra’s early practice.
7. Jasper Johns, e-mail to the author, August 14, 2015.
8. Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” in Writings on Music, 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 35. The essay was written in 1968 and published in 1969 in the catalogue accompanying “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” the exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art for which Serra made Casting.
9. Steve Reich, “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965; reworked in 1974), in Writings on Music, 21. A good deal of work by artists in the Whitney Museum’s “Anti-Illusion” show was process-based, and the exhibition included an evening performance of Reich’s “Pendulum Music,” in which Serra participated. For a recent account of the significance of process and temporality in that context, see Janet Kraynak, Nauman Reiterated (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 108–13.
11. Max Kozloff, “9 in a Warehouse: An ‘Attack on the Status of the Object,’” in Richard Serra: Early Work (New York: David Zwirner Gallery, 2013), 119. Originally published in Artforum, February 1969, 22.