Richard Serra: Manifestation of a Revolution

There has been a silent conceptual revolution in regard to sculpture for some time. This slow move of human understanding regarding this discipline has pulled sculpture from the podium, transforming it from an object we look at to a presence we experience. This fundamental change of understanding has become most fully realized in the work of Richard Serra.

Serra is, arguably, one of the most significant sculptures of the past 100 years. If he was not the conceptual leader in a significant transition in the understanding of sculpture, he remains the most significant example of that change. As a totality, his entire body of work can be understood as a move away from a distancing and objective stress on the visual toward an engulfing and subjective internalizing consciousness of a felt experience.

Nancy Spector, the Chief Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, points out the fact that Serra envisions sculpture as the physical manifestation of transitive verbs. In the late 1960s, Serra compiled a list of infinitives like “to roll,” “to bend,” and “to scatter” and then set about creating sculpted works that embodied these verbs.

The New York-based artist now admits that his earliest artist expressions of these verbs were a failing of his deepest aesthetic intuitions. In the late 1960s he made works like Belts – a presentation of 9 tangled clusters of vulcanized rubber hanging on nails in a row on the wall. In retrospect, the artist saw this and others of his works as merely picturesque – sculptural renderings of notions emerging from painting.

His own critical glance at his work drove a change in his sculptural intentions. Following the primordial influences of his artistic forerunner, Carl Andre, Serra began to see that his true medium was physical space itself and that his sculptural materials merely helped him to give shape to that space. These types of notions transformed his understanding of sculpture’s ultimate intention. Essentially, they changed his understanding of art into something closer to that of an environment.

From all this consideration, he began to see sculpture as something other than an object you look at. This lead him to an aesthetic that was driven by the notion that sculpture, and maybe art in general, is something you encounter with your entire body (i.e. their entire being) in a specific sense of space rather than something you apprehend through a distancing visual cognitive gaze.

I would argue that it was this change in Serra’s intention that determined his work would inevitably become the larger, graceful, transcendent objects that he is now most known for – works like Inside Out (2013) or Torqued Ellipse IV (1998).

His increase in scale served to remove the ability of the viewer to be defined merely as a viewer because of the fact that he or she was now engulfed in the work. Thus the viewer was transformed into a participant who could no longer stand over or in front of an object as a detached, cognitive judge.

I would argue that this has made Serra’s ultimate medium the felt-experience of the viewer and served to reveal that truth, whatever it may be in art, is found in the transitions of human experiences into aspects of their consciousness. This means that the ultimate verbs determining his work seems to be “to feel,” “to experience,” “to encounter,” “to examine.”

There are profound implications found in Serra’s later work and matured artistic consciousness. I leave it to you to explore what those implications might be.

Ross Melanson

About Ross Melanson

He is a poet, visual artist, and independent scholar living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the Founding Editor of page51 – a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between art, culture, and philosophy. Read more →, or

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