Rarely exhibited publicly, Torqued Ellipse III hails from the critically cherished titular series completed by Richard Serra in the late 1990s. Walking along the 13 foot high, two-inch thick sheets of handsome auburn-hued steel, one is enveloped in awe of the grand monumentality of the sculpture. Rounding the curve, a slitted opening in the structure allows and invites viewers to enter into a space of peripatetic rumination and suspension of optical comprehension.
Serra undertakes sculpture with a hunger for complexities. As a true titan of sculpture, the artist uniquely reigns in utilizing space as a sculptural media, and manipulates steel as if it were elastic. The experience of entering Torqued Ellipse III encompasses both majestic sculpture and experiential performative art. The steel plates undulate inwards and outwards ever so subtly, contrasting the powerful industrial material in a contour evocative of a supple petal. Serra describes the conception of Torqued Ellipses: “I was starting with the void, that is, starting with the space, starting from the inside out, not the outside in, in order to find the skin” (Richard Serra: Torqued Ellipses, exh. cat., New York, Dia Center for the Arts, 1997, p. 13.)
The Torqued Ellipse was a thoroughly novel invention of form conceived in 1996. The inspiration for destabilizing a generic oval emerged during Serra’s trip to a 15th century domed church in Rome. In observing an oval shape depicted on the floor meant to correspond with the dome, the artist experienced a perceptive incongruity, believing the two opposing shapes were perpendicular. As he approached the central space, he realized his misjudgement and his curiosity leapt forward. The obvious adjacent architectural concept for him was the iconic Guggenheim Museum architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, its own type of sanctuary.
In 1970, Serra spent time in Kyoto. He grew fascinated with the treatment of pathways and space in zen gardens adjacent to temples, as he found that perspective, motion, and meditation were all aspects he found radically different from that of Western culture. The artist cites this as a formative period for his sculpture practice, and this influence is prominently displayed in Torqued Ellipse III.
In a 1997 interview with Lynne Cook, Serra compares interacting with Torqued Ellipse works to aspects of walking inside the Buddha at Kamakura or the arm of the Statue of Liberty. Serra notes, “in those cases you’re actually inside the volume as it’s rotating” (Ibid,17).
In opposition to a conical form, a torqued ellipse faintly furls both inwards and outwards, and the radius of the shape does not change with elevation. Fabricating such a permutation from a traditional conical form proved an engineering feat, as the shape is unaccounted for in nature. The Torqued Ellipse form “doesn’t exist in architecture, nor in pottery. But once you see it, it seems quite logical” (Ibid, 13).
Said Serra, “I have never before worked on a series where I was so convinced about the necessity of continuing, even though initially I had a lot of doubts about where it was going, what it was going to be, and even whether it was ever going to be done” (Ibid, 19).
Serra partnered with Beth Ship in Maryland, a fabricator that used a rare type of machinery first used to bend steel for battleships in World War II. The series took three years to actualize the first four works, and the first two attempts to build Serra’s vision resulted in the steel plates fracturing mid-fabrication. This work is unique. Nine unique single Torqued Ellipse sculptures were created in total. Torqued Ellipse I and Torqued Ellipse II are in the collection of the Dia Art Foundation, NY; Torqued Ellipse IV is a promised fractional gift to the Museum of Modern Art, NY, Torqued Ellipse V and Torqued Ellipse VI are in the collection of the artist, T.E.U.C.L.A. is in the collection of UCLA and a Torqued Ellipse is included in The Matter of Time, a permanent commission for the Guggenheim Bilbao
Torqued Ellipse III was the second work from the series that was successfully fabricated, and carries the most subtle curvature of the grouping.
Regardless of standing on the interior or exterior, a complete perception of the shape is never fully feasible. Serra expands: “I’m trying to deal with the substance of space, to make it affect your body in ways that haven’t happened before. These pieces are primarily predicated on your eye, as much as on the movement of your body.” (Ibid, p. 26).