“Little by little you discover your work by finding out who you are not, what you do not want to pursue, what you refuse to do…. History is something to get rid of. Although artists must learn from other artists, they must then make a self-conscious effort to forget their learning. To know is to forget. You cannot allow history to define you” -Richard Serra
Richard Serra has created his own history. Breaking from the prevailing aesthetic of 1960s modernism—the minimal industrial fabrications of artists like Donald Judd, the reduced forms of linearity in wall drawings and sculptures by Sol Lewitt, or pigment-soaked canvases by Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler—Serra returned to the athleticism of Jackson Pollock, whose overt physical participation in the creation of painterly form Serra extended into three-dimensional space with a vengeance. A photograph of Serra with goggles, a gas-mask, helmet, and ladle in hand poised to sling molten lead onto a wall, portrays an artist who has stunningly thrown off the weight of traditional art making in his time. Bringing the process of his work to the fore, we glimpse the assertion of intelligence and passion that has gone into Serra’s production from the outset. Even as Donald Judd had his “specific objects” fabricated in various forms, including iron piping and galvanized iron tubular progressions, so Serra rolled industrial material, exploding Judd’s highly finished fabrication into looser, hand-rolled configurations. The action claims front and center: The resulting work—tantalizingly hermetic and intriguingly contained—seems almost secondary. For during the years 1967 and 1968, the same period Serra created Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up, the artist published, almost manifesto-style, a list of forty-four verbs, among them “to roll,” which foregrounds a repeated process over its result, the act of manipulating and engaging materials over the art object that is purportedly its endpoint.
Yet Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up is a dazzling object, the evidence as it were, of what came to be known in the late 1960s as “pure process.” As Rosalind Krauss points out in her essay, “Richard Serra: Sculpture,” Donald Judd had in 1965 described his own work as a series, iterations that proceed as “just one thing after another” (R. Krauss, “Richard Serra: Sculpture,” Richard Serra: Props., Duisburg and Dusseldorf, 1994, p. 38). Rolling thirty-five feet of lead is just this—rolling and rolling and rolling: “just one thing after another,” the object created purely as a product of the act itself. It’s as if Serra has returned to the medium of time, the basis of narration, to create what Krauss refers to as a “visual hum,” a cycle of iterations that might well go on forever. Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up manifests a series of repetitive moves, an object that in its obdurateness provokes questions about the act of art-making, its processes and goals. The experience of both making and viewing is in this sense “auto-referential… [a] sense of the way the content of the work exists as an echo of its formal, and even material structure” (Ibid., p. 40).
Serra’s network of collaborators and peers during this period included artists and musicians who were working in relation to the Minimalist aesthetic, an aesthetic that relied on serialization as a way to move away from the Abstract Expressionists' gestural and psychically loaded expressions. Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, and the composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich all worked with the theorizations of minimal and post-minimal aesthetics. The scene was the bar downstairs at Max’s Kansas City and the conversations there went far in helping Serra form his own aesthetic attitudes. But Serra’s notions about process contrasted with his slightly elder peers: His works were open in the sense that on examination, one can discern both materials and processes, while minimal works were based on what seemed a closed, impersonal system of construction. Serra’s process and materials are clear: what is apparent is what it is—a rolled sheet of lead. Trained as a painter at Yale, Serra worked as a teaching assistant to Josef Albers and when in Paris during his year abroad in 1965, sketched from the works in the reconstructed Constantin Brancusi atelier at the Musée National d’Art Moderne. In Florence the next year, Serra, already immersed in process-oriented art-making, felt the pull of paint as material and realized that the materiality of art-making tools could be aggrandized—writ large as material per se in any medium.
Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up, then, is a work of transference, a result not just of discovering the malleability of lead and applying operations to it, but also of a physical and psychological mastery of materials. In the present work, it may seem as if Serra simply rolled the material and let it lie. But here and in those from this group, two in museum collections—Double Roll, 1968, Stedilijk Museum, Amsterdam and Slow Roll: For Philip Glass, 1968, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art—and one in the collection of the artist (Bullet, 1968), Serra establishes an objective “presence” through a perceived operation on the material. Beyond Frank Stella’s famous adage describing artworks created during this period, “It is what it is,” Serra’s creations seem more: objects in “suspended animation, arrested motion.” They are works that retain the possibility of disruption, of “disorder,” of what Serra termed “ a sense of presence, an isolated time. For movement endows the structure with a quality outside of its physical or relational definition” (R. Serra, “Play it Again, Sam,” in Richard Serra: Writings, Interviews, Chicago and London, 1994, p. 7). In this way, Serra has limned history for his own deeply personal beginnings. Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up is a signal work for the artist, proclaiming a new art form—and a new history.
Famed art dealers and collectors, Holly and Horace Solomon of New York were the first private owners of Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up, having acquired the sculpture in the year of its execution. This art world power-couple, celebrated for pioneering enigmatic shows at 98 Greene Street Loft and its later iteration as Holly Solomon Gallery, hosted provocative exhibitions of artists like Nam June Paik and William Wegman, all the while running in the circles of many of the era's most prominent society figures. Holly in fact became the subject of portraits by an impressive array of artists, from Lichtenstein to Warhol and far beyond. As trailblazers of the early alternative gallery scene in New York, with a firm establishment in haute couture, the Solomons welcomed this rare and early Richard Serra into their collection at the heart of a critically changing art world.