| Richard Serra: The Coagula Interview
By Mark Simmons
Sculptor Richard Serra was interviewed by Mark Simmons at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, just prior to the opening of Serra's show at the Museum's Geffen Contemporary building. Mark Simmons works as a preparator at the museum and helped install the show.
Mark Simmons: In an interview in 1993 you said you wanted architecture to be a neutral background. How has the Geffen Contemporary here at MOCA in Los Angeles fit in with what you said you wanted?
Richard Serra: Well, I basically think this (building's) architecture is like industrial shit and there are two of them (buildings which comprise the GC at MOCA) and even from the outside they kind of signify that they're industrial buildings. They have huge roll-up garage doors and they don't necessarily say "museum" they say post-war industrial marketing merchandising store. They're not bank buildings. They just look like big old industrial shit. So there's nothing from the outside that really denotes this building or connotes this building as a museum.
The way MOCA has used the building, and I think it came out of the way artists were working in the '60s, they said artists work in big loft spaces so then the museums tried to make something that would be an analogy to a loft space like a big open empty space. They've found ways of making buildings or using buildings that would accommodate the same kind of work. And that was just a very recent thing that happened in the '80s.
The way that they've used this building I think in the past for the most part is a little disappointing and what they do is they kind of egg crate containers of sheetrock walls. And the sheetrock walls act as frames in here and usually tend to neutralize everything that's within the box. So basically what they do is they cut this place up make little boxes or whatever but it reduces it it's even worse than a car show if you went to see a car show. At least you get more open space at a car show. What I decided to do when I came here is to strip out all of that notion of the neutralized space. The frame of sheetrock.
MS: Right. As opposed to Out of Action which made the Geffen (Contemporary) look like a honeycomb.
RS: Yes, I saw the Out of Action I thought Out of Action was better as a catalogue than the honeycomb because the honeycomb was like walking into one compartment and then another compartment. You might as well turn the pages of a book. And that's how the show was, like a book laid out. Like a grid. What I'm trying to do is return the building to its primary use. Function. And bring another function into that function. Its primary use, before it had sculpture and art in it, was to repair police cars. I think that's what this was. Right? So I tried to use it as the kind of industrial gesture that it was made for. And try to use the scale of it to try accommodate my work so the scale and the scale of the building would have some relationship that seemed apparent.
So you kind of know things amongst things. You don't know things independently of things. If these pieces didn't have the kind of scale they have, I think you'd have an Easter Egg hunt. And if you had an Easter egg hunt in here you were going to get lost in the space. And then you'd probably want to confine the space into some sort of box. But that's not what we had to do. We've used the shit as the container. Both shits as the container. And having said that I'm not disappointed with how the interrelated spaces between the pieces function as well as the internal pieces of the vessels or the elongated pieces.
MS: The elongated pieces are different pieces. On is titled Pinko's Progress.
RS: Pinko is the name of the manufacturer in Germany. An old guy named Pinko.
MS: Now this isn't the same one that was in Bilbao.
RS: No. Very, very different. The one in Bilbao, if there's two passages that form like an S, the one in Bilbao, one side of the passage leans continuously in. And the other side leans continuously out. This piece, if you walk halfway down one passage it's leaning in and when you get to the center then it leans back out. The passage on the other side leans parallel to the side of the curve so its internal section and its relation to your body as you walk has a very, very different kind of elongation and contraction and compression and opening than the piece in Bilbao. And it has a much deeper well as an S. The one in Bilbao is much more linear. This one is much more curvilinear.
MS: At the GC, Pinko's Progress is set up alone near these columns
RS: I don't mind the columns. The columns kind of give you a counterpoint to the curvilinear movement. They kind of give you a kind of continuous beat. And the piece intertwines with the columns. And it looks like it's made to deal with the verticality of those rigid structures. I don't mind it at all. We got into a little problem at one point where they thought that when they were digging up the building that they were going to have to satisfy an earthquake code. I mean if they start digging up Wilshire Boulevard they're not going to be able to satisfy an earthquake code so I think probably after the show comes down they'll probably need to reinforce those columns more. Because when they dug them up I think they found that it wasn't up to the way they're writing codes now but there's no reason not to do the show just because they want to redo their codes.
MS: Charles Ray once said in an interview that he never liked having his work in a museum or having retrospectives of his work because his work invariably got damaged. Can you relayte to that sentiment at all?
RS: No. I think different people have different problems and different relations to the exhibition of their work. My work is really very hard to hurt. I mean people sit on it, write on it, piss on it, you really can't hurt it, I mean you can graffiti the fuck out of it, there's not much you can do to it hurt it.
MS: That's another thing I wanted to ask you. A friend of mine lives in Germany and I think that it is the piece you have in Cologne near a train depot. He said, well you know skateboarders use that, there's a term in skateboarding called a grind, and I guess they use it for a grind and it's also like graffiti.
MS: You've probably had...
RS: Look, I'm not precious about my work. If you get it out into the urban field it's going to be used or misused but it'll also probably provide a way of people acknowledging what the aesthetic is about because people have to confront it every day. If you go into a museum you have to enter into a place that's already said "this is art" you have to view it as art. I think when you put it in the public it has to survive on its own and if it's going to be seen as art that's one thing if it's going to be seen as an extension of a graffiti wall or a kid's playground that's another but neither of those offend me in that I think eventually young people will come to understand that this differentiates itself from architecture, it'll become part of things they know in the world and it'll make the possibility of other people doing things that enter the world more accessible.
At first it may startle some people because it's finally off the pedestal, people can walk around it, they can walk into it, they can do what they want with it. And certainly the history of public sculpture has been disastrous but that doesn't mean it ought not to continue and the only way it even has a chance to continue is if the work gets out into the public. If it doesn't there's no chance at all. I would rather have the voice heard even if misused or fucked with than not have a voice at all.
MS: I was struck by the rapport that you have with your riggers. Now in an interview you said that you had been working with the same riggers
RS: Ray La Chappelle.
MS: Ray La Chappelle and son. For like the last 20 years. You still--
RS: I work with his son now. Ray retired because one of Ray's close friends stepped off a platform while they were hooking up something around a 27th floor and died and I think it just blew Ray out. And that was the end of that. He just decided to pack it in. But he'd been working for about 30-35 years.
MS: Now how did you first find Ray
RS: I needed a good rigger and there was an accident at the Pan Am Building in New York, on top of the heliport. They had to hire some riggers to take the crashed helicopter off the top of the Pan Am building and lower it down on the outside. Part by part. And this crew was doing it and they looked very competent when they were doing it. So I went and asked them if they would be interested in helping me with my work and they were.
The thing about rigging is, you can learn it if you become a master rigger but there's no book on rigging. You can't go read about it somewhere. So you have to learn by doing it. You can pass tests and all of those master riggers have to pass tests on how to use their equipment, whatever, on leverage principles, on friction principles, whatever. But in terms of how you analyze and strategize a job and how you set up to do a job, every rigger does it differently. Some riggers enjoy taking on bigger problems than others. They think it's part of what is structurally built into the qualifications of being a rigger. And I like working with Ray because he would do jobs that other people wouldn't do.
MS: Now what is it that a rigger would see that would bypass ordinary people in terms of an architectural sense, in placing your work in a piece or architecture like in this building?
RS: I think what a rigger would see immediately is that if you're setting like a 40 ton plate that has to be butted up down to the millimeter so there's no light that can come through the two plates that are being joined and that the floor is off, it has to be shimmed, and I think what a rigger would see immediately is how you place the shim, how you come along to tighten the piece down. The rigger would get into the execution of the particularities of the problem. Whereas the viewer, once the piece is resolved, doesn't look at those particularities. The rigger has to get into those processes of how you offload and how you set it. How you pull it together.
It has to be done with a great deal of patience and concentration because if you blow it you blow it big time. So they either have to pay attention or take a break because it's not something that you can do whistling in the air. Because it's hard. It's not hard work physically but it demands that you pay attention.
MS: Intense mental concentration.
RS: Yeah. Because if you make an error, there's no chance of going back and correcting it. So you have to like it really, and often times we take a break and talk about what the next couple of steps are going to be if there's a disagreement with how they're going to deal with the process. And usually I don't interfere with riggers unless I really see that there's something that I don't understand or that I think that's incorrect or unsafe. But usually you have to let the good rigger, you have to (trust them) because they have an idea of what they're doing.
At one point we had to go out to the parking lot and have a big talk and I said something kind of very humorous to him, I said the problem we're having is that I think you people think all tools are hammers and the only tool that you think isn't a hammer you think is a screwdriver and that happens to be a chisel.
MS: What would you hope that the people who assist in the production of your work would get from having experienced working on Richard Serra's vision, from idea through fruition. And I'm talking about the people who do the computer thing and the steel workers, and the riggers
RS: I think this, I think basically I'm not interested in people following my work or making work like my work. But what does interest me is the notion that if you do a lot of work it means there's a potential for other people to understand that a lot of things are possible with a sustained effort and that the broadening of experiences is possible and I think that's all art can be. A little catalyst for change. It's not going to change the world. But it can be a catalyst for thought and thought can change and how people think about what's possible can change and I think that if the work has any value at all on its interpretive level I can't get into how people are going to experience it but if it has any value at all I think it stands for one person understanding that the potential for change is in all of us.
MS: Your Torqued Ellipsis force the viewer to walk and once you walk they change. And then it becomes the point of decentering. Like there's no center. And they center themselves. Is this one of the first times your pieces have had that kind of movement? Because when you look at say a piece at street level, it looks to me like a very giant-sized Helvetica font-style H. But the fact that's it's set in the middle of that whole four street intersection, that forces you to walk around.
MS: But what's the difference between these pieces.
RS: I think just that. I think that one is really like an intrusion. Right into an urban complex which pushes people to the sidewalk or forces them directly to walk into the street-level piece so it really occupies the street as its functional aesthetic and it kind of barricades the street at the same time. So in some sense it's a real intervention within an urban context to take over the street.
These pieces function very, very differently in that you walk into them. Their location to each other is important in here because we're "in a museum" but you walk into them and the relationship to the larger context is dissipated in the relationship to you locally. Your own psychology in relation to the anticipation, memory or whatever is fairly personalized here. Where in the public it's a little more depersonalized I think. These are more probably psychologically challenging because I think they ask for a bigger subjective response, I think.
MS: You did a piece for the Tate Gallery called Weight and Measure In 1992, which for me, I looked at your rectangular boxes--
RS: Those are forged not boxes.
MS: Not boxes. I know that most of your work is forged. But none of your work is
RS: None of them are hollow. They're all massive.
MS: Right. They're all like--
MS: Solid. Now when the thing that I felt was most interesting about Weight and Measure is that there was this forged
MS: Block, that was surrounded by all this useless, superfluous, baroque, ionic all these combinations of this really garish architecture
RS: Fake stage set.
RS: And so I think what I wanted to do was to be able to suck that space into the field and I used exact measurement between the column so I wanted the play off the inflatedness of that whole and bring you down to some level of localization and still deal with the entire field and the volume of the entire space.
But I was very happy with how that piece ended up. There were two elevations there and most people when they first walked in didn't know what the thing was about and by the time they walked the entire length, like 180 feet and back, they really understand the relation to each other and their placement and their elevation and how you know them. And to have a piece that simple. It's simply reduced to just a perceptual problem and have it articulate the space and the potential of reading that space you can't anticipate how people are going to react but I thought it was a very gratifying exhibition for me because most people, it comes down to, got it. They understood what it was about. People who didn't know anything about sculpture at all got it.
I think that's true here (at MOCA), too, you don't have to know anything about sculpture. Now if you walk in these things you can be the guard here who's never seen a sculpture in her life. If I think about Los Angeles there isn't a big abstract tradition out here. In terms of modernism, there's very little abstract painting out here. Maybe you got like McLaughlin. In terms of the extension of Modernism you had Turrell and Bell and Irwin and those people dealing with the kind of opticality which really is a kind of painting problem, the space of opticality coming out of post-impressionism and they did interesting installations but in terms of the tradition of steel sculpture which starts with Gonzales and Picasso and works its way through David Smith and Calder and whatever, that's been part of the evolution of kind of what New Yorkers know about the history of sculpture because they've always been confronted with it.
I think out here there's been a little bit of a vacuum of that tradition so I really don't know. Whether people come to this show understanding the moves that have been made within the tradition I think in the final analysis, doesn't matter because I think you can understand these pieces if you know nothing about that tradition.
MS: You know I think of this song, and I don't know why I thought of this song, but Billie Holiday sings this song called I Cover The Waterfront. So very immediately you get a sense of probably a young woman on a pier at a steelyard and you see her silhouette on the pier. But at the same time, your work, because you're using, for me, which is something I've always identified as very American, the steel, and I'm not talking about ships or anything like that even if I make that analogy of I Cover The Waterfront. But I'm thinking of you using this metal, this material, that is actually the backbone of probably every major city in the world.
RS: Yeah, I never thought of it that way. And I never thought of it as having any patriotic correlation or comparison. One of the reasons I use this, as a kid I worked in steel mills so I just happened to know a lot about it.
I started as a painter and I started using rubber and lead and a lot of other things and when I finally picked up a piece of the steel, I realized that the way steel had been used in the Industrial Revolution, the way it had been used for making bridges or silos or whatever, hadn't been used in sculpture. Because the way steel had been used in sculpture was mostly like handmade into painting, they would cut it out and paste it together and it would be very pictorially arranged. I decided to use it in a way that it had been used and intended to be used for its building potential because I'd worked around it as a kid. I've thrown buildings together, there isa building in San Francisco that I stuck all the rivets on. I've worked on a lot of bridges. That's what I did for labor as a kid. I knew it.
So I thought why not give myself the benefit of the doubt, even if the doubt is it's already an "art material" having started with Picasso and Gonzales and a lot of people have mucked around with it in the 20th century. I thought the way that they've used it, seems to me, dealing still with pictorial problems. Like with "art" problems. I thought I would just bring the material into an art concern and use it in the way industry had used it. And I think that gave me an advantage because I wasn't hung up about the Academy of Art, the do's and the don'ts and I can pick up a piece of steel two inches thick, 8 by 8 plate, no one had done that before. I mean the idea of using the weight of the material no one had done. The idea of using the stasis of the material, the idea of using the flexibility of the material, no one had really investigated the properties of the material. Or how you could use it in ways that were in the building industry. And I just decided to take it on that way. Because I knew about it.
MS: Now why did you use Cor-Ten steel.
RS: Cor-Ten is an oxidizing steel and it turns orange and then after about eight years, it turns dark brown, amber, and then holds its color. Doesn't oxidize any further. So it goes through a period of oxidization. There's a lot of rust, then after it stops. And then it discontinues its colorization. It almost turns brown-black and then it stays that way forever. So it's a material that if you know what the end product is going to be you might have to live through its kind of colorization as it turns but once it turns then it seals itself and it becomes a permanent material. That's why I use it. If you don't use Cor-Ten, it'll rust away. It'll decay.
MS: You did a piece called Plumb Run and Equal Measure, both of which are set in a, like I came from a rural background, so I liked that they were these pieces of Cor-Ten steel that were set in this pastoral surrounding.Do you see in your art in a pastoral setting as opposed to an urban landscape?
RS: I think you always have to find where the boundary is in relation to the context in order to be able to kind of articulate how you want the space to interact with the viewer. So the big problem in the landscape is to find if the landscape seems undifferentiated, like is the hill on the ridge in a swell, and a valley, like how to find some way of bringing the volume of the landscape or aspects of the landscape to interplay with how you're going to lay something.
So usually what I do, I go, usually with a couple of people, try to walk the land in relation to other people and see where they are no longer in my sideline. So if two people are walking in a certain circle and they can no longer see each other that means they're outside of the frame of reference so that is one way of describing a boundary. Or I'll go with a surveyor. Or I'll make topological models. But I'll try to immerse myself in as many of the formal characteristics of site as possible in the landscape. And then you also get into how the land's been used, how the sun moves but a lot of other things. But basically I try to investigate the site in terms of its potential for interfacing some material so that if I close my eyes I can walk the land.
The last piece I built in Northern California took me like three years to just come to the conclusion about just what to do. But I had walked the land for three years before I really found it took me about a year to just find the space that I wanted to work with and it took me another two years to figure out the problem. Then I'll usually go there and mock up in cardboard or wood different pieces to see if they're actually going to function before I build.
MS: Now when you walk the land, I like that, now when you walk the land do you also take in the natural elements--
RS: I'll give you an example. If a tree's so wide and you're putting things up in relation to the tree, things the same size as the tree you're just going to reiterate that measure in the land. There are just things to avoid and things to go with and sometimes you augment what's there and sometimes you confront what's there. But you have to take all of those things, you have to take into consideration the paths, the roadways, how much cloud cover there is, how much foliage cover there is, whether there are streams, all of that comes into play. How the land moves, where the elevations are equal, where they're not. Here's the ideal with the elevations.
One of the things if you're in an urban context or in an interior space, if you bounce a ball on the floor, it comes back to your hand. If you're outside the land's always shifting so that the horizon line is in relation to a shifting field and that really changes how you see and what you see. So I try to deal with the contained space in one way, and you've seen most urban spaces are just indoor spaces outside with no wall around them. They're usually gridded up in the same way that buildings are gridded up. So there's a lot of relationship between urban spaces and interior architecture.
MS: You built an octagon for a church. What do you do the same in terms of making commissions for buildings that have no religious affiliations as opposed to buildings that do have some sort of religious affiliation.
RS: Well, I think the interesting thing about that project, in particular, is that the land in front of the building was used as a parking lot.
MS: Right. But it looks like your piece hugs this building.
RS: Well, it was used as a parking lot and what I did was I took the iconography of the Romanesque churches and one of their continuing symbols and signs is an octagon. So I forged an octagon and put it in relation to the nave and put it in the middle of the parking lot. Once you do that, the parking lot is then transformed into a plaza. So it made the parking lot into a plaza and brought the interior of the church, by reflection, to the outside and it's a way of turning a parking lot into a plaza very simply, just by putting down one sculpture on axis in the nave. And I thought it made a lot of sense. But actually the people in the town didn't mind giving over their parking lot to a plaza anyway.
MS: Since your Tilted Arc controversey, you have spoken publicly about the insidious nature of government's role in the arts. How has your position held over time?
RS: I actually think the situation in this country is worse than it was then. Now it's a little more covert. But if you look at what the NEA's done, they've completely defanged that institution whereby if you make a work now the government will only sign a contract if it gives them the right to destroy it the day after it's gone up. They've also, the government's decided now, what sexual content is. Now when you have administrators deciding what sexuality is, and what's a taboo and what's not in terms of content, you got guys, like, Trent Lott who equates homosexuality with a disease. Those are the people who are defining what can be made and what's not made. Then I think that the government really ought to step out of the arts and let the people who have some expertise or the peers who are making the art decide who makes what but I think the government's notion of still wanting to put fig leaves over dicks is ridiculous.
MS: We're in L.A., near Hollywood. You did a sculpture for Charlie Chaplin. Why?
RS: The piece is a 77 ton block cube. It's impaled into the deck of the Mies van der Rohe National Gallery and the way it's impaled into the deck gives the block a very ungainly look. Almost as if Chaplin were turning on his shoe. It has an almost comical gesture in the fact that this massive block seems to be plunged into the surface or entailed into the surface of the deck. And I think it undercuts the seriousness of the work by allowing one to see another aspect of its ungainliness. The title is Charlie, but you know what, Mark, we're going to have to wrap this up. Some people came and I gotta get out of here with them. Unless there's another question you really want to do, we'll do it.
MS: My point about Hollywood, so what cinematic experience have you had that--
RS: I used to eat lunch with Billy Wilder when I first came out here.
MS: You're kidding!?!
RS: Yeah, and he's still alive, Billy, and I really like him. In terms of movies, I'm not a big afficionado. I've made films and I kind of look at Hollywood as our kind of indigenous media entertaining but the whole relationship to it as a catalyst for change the way that other venues can be seems to be really limited by its commercial aspirations and the demands of (a movie's) backers.
MS: One last question Do you have any advice for sculptors and artists?
RS: Work out of your work. Don't work out of anybody else's work.