Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Could a ‘Big Four’ earthwork enter a museum collection?

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In this morning’s Globe & Mail, James Adams reports that Richard Serra’s Shift, one of the four most important contemporary earthworks in North America,  could enter the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The donation would earn a developer millions of dollars in tax breaks while saving the work and preserving public access to it. Talks are at a preliminary stage and have been entirely between the museum’s curators and the developer, but the AGO sounds interested in being involved. The G&M reports that Shift would be the AGO’s eleventh Serra. [Image via Flickr user Sunshine Never Ends.]

The other three major North American contemporary earthworks are in institutional collections: The Dia Art Foundation owns Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative is in MOCA’s collection.

Shift, which is located in King City, Ont., has a fascinating history. Serra considers it a pivotal work: “To me it was a breakthrough piece,” Serra told the Toronto Star several years ago when Shift was first threatened. “You can find many pieces (by others) which came after Shift. They have direct links back to that piece.”

Perhaps because Shift is outside the United States and perhaps because Serra made it in concrete and not his trademark core-ten steel, it’s not as well-known as earthworks in the American West or Serra’s other landscape interventions, such as this one at Storm King. The Storm King piece, titled Schunnemunk Fork and made 20 years after Shift, is descended from it, as is Sea Level (1989-96).

Shift’s future had been in doubt because of exurban residential development.In November, 2009, the King City (Ont.) council designated Shift a protected landscape under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act. According to Wikipedia, “Once a property has been designated under Part IV of the Act, a property owner must apply to the local municipality for a permit to undertake alterations to any of the identified heritage elements of the property or to demolish any buildings or structures on the property.” The designation frustrated the developer’s plans to save little more than Shift’s structure and temporarily saved the site and to restrict public access to the site. The developer appealed the decision.

Related: A nice Flickr set of an April, 2010 visit to the sculpture.

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