Richard Serra (1939-) is an American minimalist artist known for his challenging and inventive site-specific sculptures. His work is often categorized within the Process Art or Land Art movements. Serra is celebrated on a global scale for his free-standing installations that often function to dwarf the spectator under their immense scale and material weight. He has fundamentally extended the definition of sculpture. The formal and ideological aspects of Serra’s seminal Tilted Arc of 1981 offer a critical response to its surrounding urban environment.
Tilted Arc is greatly influenced by the Land or Earth Art movement that transpired within the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. The movement materialized out of a growing disillusionment towards the commercialization of popular art. It served as a reaction against this ruthless obsession with commodification. The Land Art movement also endeavored to break free of the elite, restrictive traditions of the art institution. With this came the development of a new goal of liberating landscape art from the highly controlled settings of the museum or gallery, and moving the artistic practice outdoors. This was a commentary on the commercialization of art and the growing environmental predicaments emerging as a result of modern industrialization. Most importantly, however, the movement also attempted to transform the way the traditional museum setting fostered a completely detached, disembodied gaze of the viewer. Land Art also served as a reaction against a Modernist tendency to disengage art from socio-political issues in order to achieve a more utopian reality. The Land Art movement saw a shift towards working outdoors and incorporating materials from the natural landscape. Earth Art from the 1960s and 1970s frequently exists outdoors in remote locations where it remains isolated from civilization and is left to erode and change under the natural conditions of the environment.
Perhaps one of the most emblematic and highly recognized Land Art sculptures ever is Robert Smithson’s (1938-1973) Spiral Jetty of 1970. The piece lies fifteen feet wide by fifteen-hundred feet long near Rozel Point, just off the shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah. The work is composed of only natural material found in the landscape such as basalt rocks, earth, mud, and salt crystals. Spiral Jetty takes on the form of a counterclockwise coil that protrudes from a line on the shore. The work undergoes morphological transformations throughout fluctuations in weather and the tide. There have also been instances where the water surrounding the sculpture turns red in response to a biochemical reaction. Furthermore, evidence of the vital impact the environment plays on Spiral Jetty lies in the fact that the piece only surfaces when the level of Great Salt Lake falls below an elevation of 4,197.8 feet.
The influence of Smithson’s seminal Spiral Jetty resonates within the formal and conceptual elements of Serra’s Tilted Arc. Serra, much like the original Land artists of 1960s, moves towards the outdoor environment in order to resist the exclusive elitism inherent within the framework of the traditional gallery or museum. He is inspired by the Land artists’ innovative practice of creating decidedly site-specific works. Following their influence, Serra designs the majority of his public sculptures in a manner that fits each piece to the exact site in which they are situated. Similarly, Smithson considered this approach in the placement of Spiral Jetty off the coast of Great Salt Lake, Utah. Also drawing upon the influence of the Land artists of the 1960s, Serra’s outdoor sculptures are directly changed and transformed by environmental conditions over time. Although very much inspired by the Earth artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Serra’s pieces represent a departure away from isolated landscapes and a shift towards a greater focus on urban locations.
Tilted Arc was constructed by Serra in the summer of 1981. The piece was commissioned by the United States General Services Administration’s Arts-In-Architecture Program. The administration selected Serra to build a public sculpture in front of the entrance of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building within the Federal Plaza, located in downtown New York City. Tilted Arc stood twelve feet high and reached over one hundred-twenty feet long. The entire piece weighed approximately seventy-three tonnes. It was assembled from a single, colossal, unfinished slab of COR-TEN steel. COR-TEN is a steel alloy often used by sculptors because the raw surface develops rust as it begins to erode over time in response to the changing environmental conditions. The work slopes upward and on an angle towards the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building. Gravity, balance, and entropy play a fundamental role in the conception of this work.
Furthermore, the formal elements within Tilted Arc are largely based on the aesthetics of Minimalism. The Minimalist movement took hold in post-war America and lasted into the 1970s. Minimalism endeavored to eliminate representation and focus solely on reducing art to its simplest form. The movement has roots within the Constructivist style of the early twentieth century. It is generally considered that Minimalism was born out of the power struggles and the anti-authoritative mindset of the 1960s counter-cultural revolution. It has also been said that the movement was a response to the economic changes of the decade, as an ever-expanding corporate America gained financial domination through the acquirement of numerous international corporations. Minimalist sculpture dealt with this rapid spread of commodification and consumerism in an effectual manner. By eliminating ornament and opting for a highly simplified appearance, any unique or decorative quality had been completely removed from the art work. Minimal sculptures functioned to defy the fetishistic commodification of popular culture aesthetics. Also, many sculptors made use of the same industrial materials and manufacturing processes as used by the powerful corporations as an act of critique and subversion against their dominant authority. Serra’s Tilted Arc is an excellent illustration of this initiative.
The sculpture was installed in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building within the Federal Plaza in New York City. This site was specifically chosen because it represents an area of great consumer and commercial power within the city. Many important federal government agencies, including the FBI's New York City field office, the Court of International Trade, as well as the district field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are located inside The Jacob K Javits Federal Building. Situated within the heart of New York City’s financial district, The Federal Plaza is literally bursting with commotion and activity. The open plaza is a busy intersection for business professionals and government administrators to travel across on their way to and from work. The architecture in the area surrounding the Federal Plaza consists mostly of high-rise office buildings constructed from concrete, glass and other industrial materials. Tilted Arc shares materials and production methods similar to those used in the construction of the buildings that encompass the sculpture.
Tilted Arc participates in an effective dialogue with this urban environment due to the phenomenological approaches evident within the work. The artists of the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s were among the first to embrace the phenomenological domain of philosophy as introduced by prominent philosophers such as Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), and develop their theories into a revolutionary new way of viewing art. No longer could a viewer simply stand from their detached place in a gallery and look at a piece; art was something that had to be experienced by the entire body. Phenomenological art involves a physical, tactile relationship between the artist and the site. Also, since spectators must exit the gallery into the outdoor space, they can no longer be static and inactive, but must be embodied viewers, moving around the space and having an awareness of their sensations and personal relationships to the land.
Tilted Arc perfectly exemplifies the phenomenological approach to art as inspired by the original Land artists. The enormous sculpture engulfs and surrounds viewers, forcing them to have an engaged, physical relationship with the piece and its always-fluid surrounding environment. Serra’s work also embodies the same phenomenological approach to art as that of the Land Art movement of the 1960s, as the viewer is taken out of the gallery to the outdoors. When coming across Tilted Arc in the Federal Plaza, Serra requires the viewer to immerse oneself in the environment and have a totally dynamic, multi-sensory experience of the sculpture.
These conceptual and formal elements inherent within Serra’s Tilted Arc relate to the greater social climate of New York City. The formal elements of the piece were taken into consideration in order to create an effective dialogue with the surrounding urban environment and architecture. Firstly, the sculpture is made from weathering steel that consists mostly of iron - a metal that comes from the natural earth. This ignites a consciousness that the urban buildings of modern society are still constructed from the basis of natural materials. This is something that is often overlooked or completely forgotten in an atmosphere dominated by high-rise office buildings and lacking in greenery, much like the space surrounding the Federal Plaza. Also, Tilted Arc is completely subject to the natural processes of the environment. The structure erodes and changes much like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The piece throws earth in your face, because as the steel rusts, one is able to witness the environment in action.
Some critics have also speculated how the height of Tilted Arc is particularly relevant to the way the piece relates to its socio-political environment. Standing at exactly twelve feet tall, the height not only functions to dwarf the viewer, but there may also be a historical rationale behind its exact measurement. The lowest altitude point of the Great Wall of China also stands at exactly twelve feet tall. Constructed during the fifth century BCE to the sixteenth century CE, the wall was erected with the purpose of fortifying the northern borders of the Chinese Empire against attacks from a treacherous nomadic tribe called the Xiongnu. It is said that this minimum twelve foot standard was implemented to prevent a fully grown man from standing on top of a horse and climbing over the wall. Although it is not certain whether Serra deliberately or randomly executed this, it has often been contemplated that he may have used this exact height as a symbol of the great power held by this economically and politically influential area of the city. Much like the Great Wall, Tilted Arc also forms an obstacle or barricade with the purpose of blocking human passage.
The particular direction in which the sculpture is tilted is also relevant to the social context. Tilted Arc slopes upward on an angle towards the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building. Many critics believe this may be a further comment on the power dynamics of the urban centre. The way in which the arc tilts up towards the Javits Building may demonstrate the unequal division between those who hold political and financial power and the general public. When constructing Tilted Arc, Serra appears to have been aware that although the sculpture was meant to be a public artwork, it is actually situated within a superficially public space dominated by the business community. This location highlights the power discrepancies between the business professionals who work in this plaza and the everyday population.
There is also an additional factor that influenced Serra’s decision to place such an antagonistic sculpture within the political and financial district of the Federal Plaza. In the early years of the 1980s, the United States economy was deep in an economic recession. Upon his inauguration, President Ronald Reagan began introducing numerous cuts in spending for many social programs, in order to provide more funding for military operations. In addition to this, Reagan introduced a fifteen percent deduction in public funding for galleries and museums. This resulted in over one third of American museums running a significant deficit. Even further cutbacks were implemented with the eruption of the Culture Wars in the 1980s. In short, the Culture Wars were a time of great political struggle between the conservative advocates for decency, morality, and censorship, and a more liberal stance in defense of artistic expression and freedom of speech. The tensions that developed during the Culture Wars caused the American government to further institute tremendous cutbacks in public funding for the arts. Although the plan was eventually discarded, upon entering office in 1981, President Reagan attempted to persuade congress to completely eradicate the National Endowment of the Arts by the year 1984.
In an effort to respond to these turbulent conditions within the art world, Serra decided to take advantage of the commission given to him in 1981 by the United States General Services Administration to build a public sculpture suitable for the Federal Plaza. Ironically, Tilted Arc served as an audacious critique of the values presented by the very buildings that surrounded it. Placed immediately in front of the federal government agencies, Tilted Arc forces art in the face of those who attempted to eliminate it. The sculpture poses an aggressive intervention in order to subvert and resist the power of a government unwilling to support art.
The phenomenological elements of the work had also been conceived in response to the urban environment. By placing Tilted Arc in the hectic urban centre of the Federal Plaza in downtown New York City, it gives the opportunity for millions of viewers to see, consume, and experience it daily. A dynamic conversation is formed between the piece and the viewer, creating an interactive dialogue of exchange. Although early Land Art contained a successful phenomenological component in terms of introducing a new way of seeing through an embodied corporeal experience with the work, Serra’s Tilted Arc pushes this notion to a whole new level. No longer was it only imperative to have a multi-sensory experience with a sculpture, it was completely impossible to avoid Tilted Arc. The piece physically interrupts living spaces while reconfiguring sightlines and urban architecture. By engulfing entire fields of vision, blocking views, and redirecting foot traffic, the sculpture impeded upon people’s lives and the overall utility of the Federal Plaza. The monumentality of Tilted Arc lies in its ability to actually disrupt the otherwise unstoppable pace of the ever-moving city.
Furthermore, Serra’s sculpture pushes phenomenology to the point where the viewer is able to experience the sublime. The seventy-three tonnes of unsupported steel appear to be delicately balanced without a single reinforcement. The overwhelming vastness of the piece allows the viewer to experience the weight of the material, placing them in a seemingly threatening situation. A rigger was even killed while attempting to install one of Serra’s sculptures when it fell over and crushed him under its weight. By exciting feelings of danger and the sublime, Tilted Arc truly pushes phenomenology to the limit.
Delving further into the conceptual aspects behind Serra’s formal choices also reveals clear connections to the social climate of New York City. This busy urban city is located within a nation that is still feeling the devastating effects of the recent Cold War (1945-1991) and the Vietnam War (1959-1975). This, along with ruthless capitalism, urban industrialization, and the recent economic recession led many individuals to experience a great sense of anonymity and alienation within the chaotic environment of New York City. Often in a space completely engulfed by urban architecture, one has a tendency to forget that nature still exists. One is capable of forgetting that many of the modern buildings are still made from natural materials. Serra’s purpose behind using a natural, rusting steel alloy in the creation of Tilted Arc is to force the viewer to really reconsider this notion and to become more aware of the vital role of nature within an urban environment.
The significance of creating a sculpture with such phenomenological potency is due to its ability to help viewers get back in touch with their senses. When residing in the city, people often behave like robots, disembodied from themselves and constantly moving to keep up with the pace set by the city that never sleeps. Phenomenological art, such as Tilted Arc, helps the viewer get back in touch with their senses by encouraging them to take time to slow down and really experience something. Also, the formal structure of Tilted Arc allows for the successful breakdown of the overpowering sightlines of looming urban architecture. Furthermore, in a city so preoccupied with commodification, commercial advertisements are constantly being pushed in the faces of the public. These advertisements are purely visual images, created with the purpose of being consumed very quickly. The viewer becomes inundated and desensitized by the consistent saturation of consumer imagery. But the phenomenological impact of Tilted Arc does not permit the work to be rapidly consumed. The sculpture forces you to slow down again. This method is particularly effective within the fast-paced financial centre of the Federal Plaza, where art is something that often remains forgotten or overlooked in the exclusive domain of business and government agencies.
Regrettably, a jury voted in favor of removing Tilted Arc from the Federal Plaza on March 15, 1989. Complaints over the sculpture ranged from claims that it was aesthetically unattractive; it increased the amount of graffiti, garbage and rats; it provided cover for muggers; and it caused an unbearable interference on the daily lives of the public. Serra, upset by this decision, claimed that to remove Tilted Arc from its specific site would be to destroy it. Although the piece was dismantled, its legacy continues to flourish today. Through its formal and conceptual elements, Serra’s sculpture presented a creative method of responding to the social and political atmosphere of New York City in the 1980s. By boldly challenging issues such as environmental concerns, consumerism, power dynamics, and social isolation within the urban landscape, Tilted Arc remains one of the most influential contemporary sculptures of this generation.
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29. Sherrill Jordan, Public Art, Public Controversy: The Tilted Arc on Trial (New York: ACA Books, 1987), 131-132.
30. Richard Serra, Writings/Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 205.