‘To work with steel not as a picture-making element, but as a building material in terms of mass, weight, counterbalance, load-bearing capacity, point load, compression, friction, and statics has been totally divorced from the history of sculpture. It has, however, found direct application within the histories of architecture, technology, and industrial building. It is the logic of towers, dams, silos bridges, skyscrapers, tunnels…’ – R. Serra
Closely related to Sightpoint (for Leo Castelli), 1972, a monumental 12-metre sculpture that dominates the entrance of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, Richard Serra’s Untitled, 1985, comprises five tall planes of Cor-Ten steel that elegantly lean into one another: subtly welded and folded into union, their forms seem to merge and overlap in effortless contradiction of their solid material presence. Untitled captures the power and paradoxes that lie at the heart of Serra’s work. For Serra, steel has chameleonic properties in that it can project both graceful dynamism and imposing weight, without signifying monstrous monumentality. ‘Steel is a special material whose production demands great craftsmanship, professional and technical know-how,’ he enthuses. ‘The material has virtually unlimited possibilities for the differentiated, even the subtle treatment of both the smallest and largest objects, both the simplest and most artistically expressive forms’ (R. Serra, quoted in D. Crimp, ‘Serra’s Public Sculpture: Refining Site Specificity,’ in R. Krauss, Richard Serra: Sculpture, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 1986, p. 50). In Untitled, we see this subtlety at play, the sculpture’s architectonic form interacting lyrically with the space around it; occupying a position somewhere between minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, Serra’s sculpture is at once industrial and poetic, expressive in its austerity, restrained in its drama.
‘In my work,’ Serra wrote in 1985, ‘the construction process is revealed. Material, formal, contextual decisions are self-evident. The fact that the technological process is revealed depersonalises and demythologises the idealisation of the sculptor’s craft’ (R. Serra, quoted in D. Crimp, ‘Serra’s Public Sculpture: Refining Site Specificity,’ in R. Krauss, Richard Serra: Sculpture, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 1986, p. 169). In this Constructivist approach, the sculptor’s craft nonetheless remains central: Serra’s ultimate mission is to understand the very basis of sculpture, and this is achieved by foregrounding its creation, focusing on the action and decisions involved rather than on the final presence of ‘sculpture’ as a completed noun. He also employs sculpture’s physicality – its relationship to the body in space – to critique the architectural settings in which many of his works are installed, even as he proposes the tectonics of building as a ‘lost origin’ for sculpture itself.
In works such as Untitled, by propping sheets of steel together in a carefully coordinated play of weight and measure, Serra applies building principles in a basic syntax of ‘point load, balance, counter-balance and leverage’ (R. Serra, Writings, Interviews, Chicago 1994, p. 45) that finds its antecedents in the grand triumphs of engineering. ‘The history of welded steel sculpture in this century – Gonzalez, Picasso, David Smith – has had little or no influence on my work,’ Serra has claimed. ‘…To deal with steel as a building material in terms of mass, weight, counterbalance, load-bearing capacity, point load has been totally divorced from the history of sculpture, whereas it determines the history of technology and industrial building. It allowed of the biggest progress in the construction of towers, bridges, tunnels etc. The models I have looked to have been those who explored the potential of steel as a building material: Eiffel, Roebling, Maillart, Mies van der Rohe. Since I chose to build in steel it was a necessity to know who had dealt with the material in the most significant, the most inventive, the most economic way’ (R. Serra, Writings, Interviews, Chicago 1994, p. 69). If Untitled is modest in scale compared to Serra’s vast, site-specific steel installations, it exhibits all the cerebral magnetism that is fundamental to his practice. Through the lens of building Serra deconstructs and reconstructs the idea of sculpture itself, leaving us in no doubt that the object we are experiencing is a thing of central importance to human life.