Inside the Masterpiece: Serra’s “Matter of Time”

Born in San Francisco, the process-artist Richard Serra (b. 1939) is best known for his steel installations.  Process Art began in the 1960s as a movement which focused on the process of creating an artwork, rather than the end product itself.  We tend to think of art only as the final object that is displayed in galleries.  The process of grinding pigments to make paint, of chipping away marble to reveal a sculpture, is a means to an end.  The artwork is only an artwork when the artist determines that his work is complete, and the work is presented to an audience.  With “process art” the act of creation is the end, with the final object more a byproduct.  One example of this is performance art.  The performance is a temporal activity which may or may not produce physical art objects that endure beyond the end of the performance.  But the process of designing the performance would be considered by such artists as preparatory only—the performance is the artwork.  For process artists, the creative process runs from the initial idea through the creation and on to the end product, a complete artistic continuum.  The most famous process artist was Jackson Pollock, who would drip and splash paint on a canvas while dancing and leaping around it, this creative ritual being a key component of the finished work.  This is a movement favored by a number of contemporary artists who invent concepts and designs for monumental installations that they themselves do not create.

Richard Serra

“The Matter of Time”


Richard Serra's "Matter of Time" at the Bilbao Guggenheim

While studying art at Yale University, Serra earned extra money by working in a steel mill—experience which would prove vital for his later work.  Serra began his career creating abstract works in lead and steel.  His preferred medium early on was CORTEN steel, or large flat rolls of sheet metal, which he would manipulate into free-standing designs, such as curves or arcs, as in his first major work, Tilted Arc (1981).  Even once installed, the steel sculptures would evolve, as the metal exterior oxidizes over 8-10 years, rusting and discoloring until it achieves a burnt orange tint.  In this way, the process of the artwork continues even after the object is exhibited.

Serra’s minimalist aesthetic, and the enormous scale of his works, have frequently met with controversy.  To many viewers, his works resemble scrap-yard cast-offs, rather than fine art.  When Tilted Arc was installed at the Federal Plaza in New York City, it met with vituperative protests of both an aesthetic and practical nature.  The 3.5 meter high arc blocked foot traffic through the plaza, forcing pedestrians to walk a rather long path around the curved steel wall.  In 1985 a public hearing voted that the work should be moved, but Serra wouldn’t relent—he argued that his works were site-specific, and could not function successfully in a different environment, saying “To remove the work is to destroy it.”  Serra’s quotation was fulfilled on 15 March 1989, when the work was dismantled and reduced to scrap metal.  In 2002 another similar installation was commissioned for the California Institute of Technology.  But when plans were revealed, faculty and students condemned the work as derivative of Tilted Arc and an unwelcome addition to the campus.  It was never installed.

Beginning in 2005, the Guggenheim Bilbao installed a cycle of Serra’s work in this enormous gallery in which you stand.  The cycle, entitled The Matter of Time, includes a number of formerly independent sculptures within the same theme of CORTEN steel unfurled and twisted in organic patterns.  The works are meant to be tactile, a strong, sometimes intimidating, but ultimately beautiful and awe-inspiring presence.  They are to be walked through, seen from afar and from within.  Stare at any one swath of the oxidized steel and it feels as though you are looking at an abstract painting, a wash of earthy browns, reds, orange, and rust colors, given texture by the steel surface.  Seen from afar, or from photographs from on high, and the works look like iron fossils, the bones of some ancient mechanized creature.  Walk within the works, and you can lose your bearings, feel lost in the curves and undulations as the steel begins to feel like an organic membrane, a skin that curls up over your head, peels aside, ingests and releases you as you move through it.

It was only in 2007 that a major retrospective of Serra’s work was held in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, and met with universal acclaim.  Even in Spain, where the Guggenheim Bilbao installations have been well-received, Serra’s work provokes.  The same year as the Guggenheim exhibit opened, in 2005, the Museo Reina Sofia, which was scheduled to exhibit a massive, 38-ton Serra sculpture, announced that the work had been “mislaid.”  One imagines that their storage and filing system could use a cleanup, if they can mislay a 38-ton steel sculpture.  The museum has since announced plans to install a duplicate copy, which begs the question of what might have happened to the original?

Throughout his career, Serra has either entranced or made enemies.  While many commissions were rejected or never completed, Serra’s work is in constant demand from private collectors and has been praised to the skies by art critics.  His work was featured at the Grand Palais in Paris.  But another of his sculptures, Slat, had been displayed in a Paris suburb but had been so badly damaged by vandals and covered in graffiti that the mayor ordered it removed.  In December 2008 the 25-ton work was cleaned and re-installed in the Paris business district.  Colby College in Maine commissioned the installation of several steel cubes for their fine art museum, and boasts a collection of over 150 works on paper by Serra, making their Serra collection the second largest in the world, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Serra’s works on paper and in video art have never made the splash, both in critical praise and popular outrage, that his massive steel works have.  But here, in this wonderful exhibition space, the steel becomes skin, a wonderland of rusted mechanical dinosaurs through which we can walk, which we can admire, which we can feel and which, above all, provoke in all of us a strong reaction, whether negative or affirmative.

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