Recovering Site and Mind: Richard Serra’s Sequence Arrives at Stanford

Over the course of its three-day installation in July 2011, Richard Serra’s “Sequence,” on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation, both reveals itself and conceals the expansive space it inhabits. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is engaged in a dangerous experiment, and it is not the levitation of a twenty-ton piece of Richard Serra’s steel sculpture, Sequence, 2006, thirty feet into the air. Nor is it the gyration of a 200-foot tall crane lifting the first of twelve panels—each almost thirteen-feet high and between thirty- and forty-feet long—from a flatbed trailer onto a concrete slab three-quarters the size of a baseball diamond. The ironworkers from the Hauppauge, New York, rigging company, Budco Enterprises, have handled all of Serra’s North American installations for the past 20 years. The dangerous experiment is, instead, the transplantation of the sixty-five by forty-foot labyrinthine sculpture into a site that the artist did not specify when he first created the piece.

Two 20-ton plates from Richard Serra’s Sequence, on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation, swing into place. Video: Rob Marks, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Serra is famous for his site-specific sculptures. Of Tilted Arc, 1981, the 200-foot long grandparent to arced works like Sequence, Serra proclaimed, during a U.S. General Services Administration hearing to determine the disposition of the piece, “To remove the work is to destroy the work.” Commissioned and approved by the Carter administration, and constructed in lower Manhattan’s Federal Plaza, Tilted Arc was eventually decommissioned, forsworn, and bundled into storage by the Reagan administration. We can never know whether the Tilted Arc controversy—the first salvo of the 1980s culture wars—would have subsided had the surrounding political context not pre-empted the community’s process of coming to know the sculpture. Many of Serra’s public works, however, are now valued by the communities that first rejected them.

Other Serra pieces, including Clara-Clara, 1983, and Torqued Spiral (Closed Open Closed Open Closed), 2003, have, with Serra’s participation, found second homes. Sequence, however, may evolve into the most itinerant of Serra’s behemoths. Conceived for a gallery at the New York Museum of Modern Art and installed there in 2007 for Serrra’s 40-year retrospective, the sculpture traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008. This year, Sequence, now owned by the Fisher Art Foundation, traveled from LACMA to the Cantor Arts Center, where it is currently on loan from the foundation and where it will reside until in 2016. Then it will move, perhaps finally, 35 miles northwest to a new wing of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Left: Trailer as it prepares to move a plate from storage lot to installation site. Riggers remove the chains holding a plate to its trailer. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Can Sequence, removed from its place of origin, sustain its prodigious capacity to shape space and lead us to the conscious and embodied experience of what we often take for granted? Will it still unmoor space and time from the feet and inches, seconds and minutes that define them in everyday life and provoke the reorientation of thinking and the individual psychological experience that Serra seeks for participants who engage the sculpture? In 2007, Serra told PBS’s Charlie Rose, “I think these pieces really need the definition of architecture,” referring to Sequence and its two gallery siblings. “They need a flat floor. They need a certain contained volume. I think these pieces might be able to be in a courtyard, but if you put these pieces outside, say in a big field, they’re going to get lost.”

Left: Master Rigger Joe Vilardi (center, in black shirt), and riggers John Barbieri, Joe Berlese, and Bill Maroney, survey the concrete slab. Right: Master Rigger Joe Vilardi (right) and rigger John Barbieri (left) plot reference points that will guide the installation of Richard Serra’s “Sequence” (on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation). Photo: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

The gallery at New York MoMA, an awkward H-shaped space with a low ceiling, seemed barely able to contain the three pieces. For some, this was the exhibit’s flaw: the sculptures had no room to breathe. We are used to viewing sculpture from the outside, framed by an expanse of space. For Serra, who seeks always to confound the viewer’s desire to see the entire sculpture at once, the cramped MoMA quarters may, in fact, have been preferable. Indeed, the frustration some visitors felt may have stemmed from the sculptures’ ability to stymie the creation of a purely visual experience separate from the body’s active engagement with them. In New York, Serra had produced new space in a place where visual inspection suggested there was little to spare. Within each sculpture’s orbit, the participant’s perception of space expands and contracts, independent of the gallery’s concrete dimensions. In this context, Sequence seemed akin to a magician’s hat from which emerges far more matter than could be contained by the dimensions of the magician’s head.

How then can such a piece successfully reconform itself—and the experiences of its participants—to an exterior space 3,000 miles away? How can the activity of getting lost in what Serra describes as “a seemingly endless path between two leaning walls” about which “you cannot recollect or reconstruct a definite memory” be preserved in a courtyard where landmarks—a roof, a terrace, a tree, even a hanging cloud—continually orient the participant?

Left photos: Lost inside Richard Serra’s Sequence (on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation). Right: Parapets of the museum’s old wing peek above the sculpture. Photo: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

On Monday, July 18, the bare concrete pad seems to provide some reassurance. Two- to three-feet thick and doubly reinforced with rebar, according to Cantor Operations Manager, Steve Green, the pad should satisfy Serra’s desire for a flat floor. More than this, however, nestling the bulk of the sculpture into the cul-de-sac formed by the Cantor’s original building, its octagonal extension, and its new wing, seems to realize the “definition of architecture” Serra had specified for Sequence and its siblings. Further, Museum Director Tom Seligman said that the Cantor Center had been in close contact with Serra, and the artist approved of the site.

Half of Richard Serra’s “Sequence” (on loan by the Fisher Art Foundation) nestled in the cul-de-sac formed by the museum’s old and new wings. Photo: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

At 1:00 p.m., the pad is empty. Seen from the second-floor McMurtry Family Terrace of the new wing, the 200-ton crane that would lift each plate sat idly on the dirt to the left of the slab, the site of a past and future lawn. In the distance, each of the steel plates sat on its own flatbed trailer. The silence was barely disturbed by the arrival of Budco Master Rigger Joe Vilardi and his crew. Brandishing a floor plan, a T-square, two tape measures, a spool of hot pink twine, a roll of lime green masking tape, a hammer and stakes, the team carefully mapped out the reference points for each steel plate to guide the assembly of the sculpture.

Joe Berlese (left) and Domingo Tejada work with John Barbieri and Joe Vilardi (behind the plate in the left hand photo) to guide it into position. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. “Sequence” is on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation.

Over the course of the next three days, the assembly unfolded, at times like a dance, but one that never masked the painstaking process of hauling the trailers, attaching the plates to the crane, hoisting, swinging, lowering, and positioning the plates, and winching, clamping, hammering, grinding, and welding.

Riggers from Budco Enterprises undertake a variety of tasks to install Richard Serra’s Sequence, on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation. Video: Rob Marks, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

The assembly mimicked the disorientation and confusion I felt when I first walked Sequence’s pathway—formed of two nesting S-curves—in 2007. The first plate, closest to where I stood, curved from the terrace, blocking the space beyond from my gaze. Each succeeding plate seemed not only to bare itself and define the growing form, but also to hide more of the concrete and abscond with the expanse—compressing the volume as if into the magician’s hat. I had not expected that this process, as beautiful as the evolving form was, would also entail a feeling of loss, a spurned desire to see.

Time-lapse video portrays the four-day installation of Richard Serra’s Sequence, on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation. Video: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Serra describes the primary experience of Sequence as confusion: “After a point . . . you become confused about whether you’ve been in the same place before or whether you are turning back on yourself. And then you arrive at an exit and you think, ‘This isn’t where I thought I was going to be.’” Sequence is not only about this confusion of orientation, but also about the veiling of space, about the theft of the certainty of my bodily relationship to the space I inhabit. Experiencing a new perspective, I lose the old one. Retracing my steps, I fail to recover the space that was.

On the fourth day, I walk through the completed sculpture. My experience of Sequence matches both Serra’s description of confusion and my New York memories, at least until I look up. Hovering above the sculpture is a bit of parapet, the curved wall of the terrace, a tree top, the octagon’s wall, the building’s pediment—all landmarks that might orient the Sequence participant and fix reference points that establish what Serra calls “your body’s own axis.” Do these markers undermine Sequence’s ability to steal, along with everything else, a consistent sense of verticality by registering not only top and bottom, but also north, south, east, west?

Landmarks of the Cantor Arts Center do little to orient the participant walking through Richard Serra’s “Sequence,” on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

To remove the work is to destroy the work? It is a mistake to assume that Serra hews to site specificity out of abstract and unyielding principle rather than out of practical necessity: to collaborate with a site is the unavoidable means he applies towards his goal of engaging space. A sculpture’s intended site is integral to this process of creation. That particular site, however, may not always be integral to the resulting sculpture’s capacity to achieve Serra’s goals for his participants. Tilted Arc could achieve Serra’s goals for it only in Federal Plaza. As Serra wrote in 1985, “Tilted Arc was constructed so as to engage the public in a dialogue that would enhance, both perceptually and conceptually, its relation to the entire plaza.” And, as art historian Douglas Crimp notes, “[Tilted Arc] imposed a construction of absolute difference within the conglomerate of civic architecture. It engaged the passerby in an entirely new kind of spatial experience that was counterposed against the bland efficiency established by the plaza’s architects.”

Can Sequence, born in the cramped MoMA gallery, achieve Serra’s goals for it in the expansive space of the Cantor courtyard? It remains, I suspect, that Sequence works best in the place where it originated. Sequence’s seeming expansion of the New York MoMA gallery space seemed magical in a way that Sequence, situated in the Cantor courtyard, cannot match. But Sequence’s capacity to reconceive space is far more potent than the mundane verticals of the courtyard’s architecture. And the sculpture’s capacity to confuse is far more significant than the landmarks that might otherwise orient me within the Google-mapped world of my mind.

Serra’s goal for Sequence was not to perform a political or social critique of the New York MoMA gallery’s space, as his goal for Tilted Arc had been to engage Federal Plaza. Instead, he sought to finesse the limitations of the gallery’s architecture toward the goal of engaging the participant in this disoriented experience of space and time.

Video of a walk through the interior passage of Richard Serra’s Sequence, on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation. Video: Rob Marks, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Ultimately, Serra seeks this work to “be a catalyst for thought, [to] change how people think . . . and how they see.” In this sense, his work remains profoundly political. It is political, too, in its capacity to force the subject back and forth between the positions of outside observer and embodied participant, and to construct an environment in which the participant freely relinquishes, or at least shares, agency with the sculpture. Sequence, then—at Stanford as in New York—is not just movement and meter. It is an emergence from the safe cocoon of autonomous selfhood into the danger of an unpredictable dance, a negotiation with the sculpture, the space it reveals, and other visitors, as each participant navigates a self-contained—yet profoundly communal—encounter.

Richard Serra’s Sequence, on loan from the Fisher Art Foundation, is on view now at the Cantor Arts Center. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, © 2011, with permission of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

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