A Rusty Eyesore or a Work of Art? Sculptor Richard Serra Defends His Controversial Tilted Arc

Joseph Titera was ambling across the patterned-stone plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan recently when he noticed that his path was blocked by a rusted steel wall 12 feet high and 120 feet long. This was no ordinary rusted steel wall, however. This was Art. It was, to be more specific, Tilted Arc, a sculpture by the prominent American artist Richard Serra. In early March Tilted Arc was the subject of three days of frequently bitter debate at a full-scale federal hearing in a crowded Manhattan courtroom. On one side were government workers, who think it is an ugly obstruction and want it removed, and on the other was the art establishment, which feels that it should remain there forever—or at least until the government workers are aesthetically educated enough to appreciate it. Joseph Titera heard about the debate and wanted to see the sculpture for himself. He stopped and stared. He walked from one side to the other. He peered along the curve of the arc. He rapped the steel with his knuckles. Then he pronounced his verdict. “It’s terrible,” he said.

Titera, a 45-year-old chef, is quick to add that he is not a practicing Philistine. A Czech immigrant, he enjoys visiting galleries and museums and likes “something appealing for the eyes.” It’s just that somehow Tilted Arc failed to make his soul swoon. “If I had some explanation, some kind of background material,” he said wistfully, “maybe it would help to explain it.”

Titera is in luck. Faced with the prospect that his sculpture might be removed, Serra, 45, appeared at the hearing to explain his artwork to the aesthetically impaired. “As you cross the plaza on the concave side, the sweep of the arc creates an amphitheatre-like condition,” he said. “This newly created concave volume has a silent amplitude which magnifies your awareness of yourself and the sculptural field of the space. The concavity of the topological curve allows one to understand the sweep of the entire plaza. However, upon walking around the convexity at the ends, the curve appears to be infinite. Understanding the simple distinction between a plane leaning toward you that is curved and concave, and a plane leaning away from you that is curved and convex, is crucial. This establishes new meanings among things.”

Does that explain it, Mr. Titera? Does that establish new meanings among things? Does the silent amplitude now magnify your awareness of yourself? Or does all this theorizing make you long for a Michelangelo, a Henry Moore, even a big-eyed naïf painted on black velvet?

Somehow it seems appropriate that Tilted Arc was inspired by the federal bureaucracy. In 1979 a panel of art-world professionals, convened by the National Endowment for the Arts at the behest of the Art-in-Architecture program of the General Services Administration, invited Serra to submit a design for a sculpture in the plaza of the Javits Building. Serra did, and after review by several more panels, the design was accepted. In 1980 he was invited to the White House and congratulated by Jimmy Carter. At this point the 9,000 federal employees who work in the Javits Building knew nothing about this plan. They got the word in 1981, when the 75.3-ton sculpture was installed, right smack in the middle of their little lunchtime oasis. Immediately the silent amplitude magnified their alienation—and 1,300 of them signed a petition demanding that the $175,000 GSA-funded sculpture be removed. The bureaucracy lumbered at its usual glacial speed and finally William Diamond, the GSA’s regional administrator, convened a public hearing on the fate of Tilted Arc.

Given the chance to sound off, dozens of federal employees who work in the building spoke with distinctly un-bureaucratic straightforwardness. Tilted Arc was slammed with a whole thesaurus of negative adjectives—”arrogant,” “ominous,” “overbearing,” “barren” and “depressing”—and a few disparaging nouns like “eyesore” and “iron curtain.” The sculpture was accused of ruining the plaza, collecting litter, attracting graffiti and aiding potential terrorists. The solution, said William Toby, regional administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration, was “relocation to a better site—a metal salvage yard.”

In response, an army of art-world heavies defended Tilted Arc. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg decried the efforts of “vigilante-type” laymen to “override the opinions of better-qualified persons.” Composer Philip Glass said the hearing was “an attack on artistic freedom.” Sculptor George Segal compared the anti-Arc movement to Pope Julius Il’s efforts to interfere with Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel. Jacob Javits, the ailing ex-senator for whom the building is named, sent a message defending artistic freedom. Joan Mondale said that “art is sometimes misunderstood by people who see it for the first time,” and Pop artist James Rosenquist seemed to feel that the best defense was a good offense. “Federal Plaza should be torn down,” he suggested, “and a new environment should be built to enhance the work.”

After three days of fireworks, the hearing ended with a bureaucratic whimper. Diamond announced that his panel would study the testimony and forward their recommendations to Washington, where GSA acting administrator Dwight Ink would announce a decision within 60 days.

While he awaits that decision, Richard Serra is seething. An intense man, he sees himself as a victim of government repression. “I have the weight of the government—not only their deception but their heel—on my head,” he says, without even a hint of irony. “It is strange that in 1985 the government would have a policy of art extermination.” Serra is incensed that the GSA, which asked him to submit a proposal for a sculpture and then accepted it, could now be contemplating its removal. “I was told that this was a binding contract with the government,” he says, “and I believed them.” If the GSA decides to remove the work, Serra plans to sue them. If that fails, he says, he and his wife, Clara, a German-born art historian, will go into exile. “I can’t stay in a country that commissions my work and then wantonly and willfully destroys it,” he says.

Serra ought to be accustomed to controversy by now. Nearly everything he has created in his 20-year career has been provocative. In 1966, shortly after receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale, he attracted international notice by exhibiting caged animals—including a 97-pound pig—in a gallery in Rome. In 1969 he exhibited three avant-garde films he had made. “In the first,” reported the New York Times, “a grubby hand snatched at an endless succession of unidentifiable—but unpleasant-looking—objects. In the second, another hand held a rolled-up wad of cloth at arm’s length until it dropped from exhaustion. In the third, a pair of extraordinarily unattractive male hands struggled for some minutes to untie a rope around their wrists.”

After that cinematic debut, Serra channeled most of his creative energy into sculpture. Working in a style he calls “postminimalism,” he has created sculptures by rolling up sheets of lead, by piling 15 steel slats on top of one another, and by placing 12 huge logs atop a concrete slab. In 1973 Serra won a commission to build a large outdoor sculpture in St. Louis. He responded with Quadrilateral, eight slabs of 10-foot-high rusted steel—what else?—arranged in an irregular triangle. When the $250,000 work was finally completed in 1982, it was greeted with the same chorus of raspberries that met Tilted Arc. But Serra shrugs off such criticism. “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” he says.

If Serra’s art has not exactly captured the heart of the masses, it has pleased the movers and shakers of the international art world. He has installed permanent sculptures in Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany, Holland, Finland and France. Next year New York’s Museum of Modern Art will stage a major retrospective of his works.

Serra is supposed to be working on that show now, but the controversy over Tilted Arc has obsessed him, and he has been spending more time in his lawyer’s office than in his 3,200-square-foot studio-apartment. One afternoon, Serra, who lives only a few blocks from the Javits Building, wandered over to take a look at his embattled artwork. He paused to pick up garbage that had gathered at the base of the sculpture and then deposited it in a trash can. He squatted down to point out some black paint that he had spilled on the plaza while sketching studies of the Arc. “I’ve probably made 2,000 drawings here,” he said. “I love this piece.”

A moment later, a federal worker carrying a cane limped past the sculpture and recognized Serra. “It’s just scrap metal,” he yelled.

Serra grinned. “Go get ’em, tiger,” he said with a laugh.

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