Richard Serra ’62 ART ’64 received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Yale this spring. While his installation in the sculpture garden at the Yale University Art Gallery has been on display since 2006 in this location, this sculpture, as well as his other works, demands multiple interpretations. It is now, in 2009, as Serra is recognized for his lifelong contributions as an artist, that the “Stacks” take on a new meaning. Lucas Zwirner reflects on how Serra’s work teaches us to question unchallenged positions.
Richard Serra’s Corten steel sculpture, entitled “Stacks,” in the Yale University Art Gallery sculpture garden is significant because it asks the viewer to address not only the objects themselves but also the space that surrounds it.
Walking into the garden, a few things immediately become apparent: The blocks are quite large, the metal is oxidized in the middle but not at the edges, and both blocks are slightly crooked. These physical attributes initially draw attention to the work itself, but this attention is short-lived.
Once the awe inspired by the physicality of the pieces subsides, what remains is the uncomfortable feeling that comes from spatial distortion. Because of their imposing size, the two blocks dictate not only the space they occupy as a sculpture but also the space they don’t. First, it is the two blocks that appear crooked. Then, suddenly, it is the space of the garden itself.
In creating these works, Serra manages to discuss space as an object or a medium rather than just as a vehicle to house other mediums, forcing the viewer to realize its sculptural qualities. With one set of things in it, a space will take on a very specific, unchanging shape, but once objects are removed or added, the space immediately shifts to accommodate.
While this idea is intuitively obvious, it is difficult to focus on because many sculptures require too much attention for the viewer to also examine space. Serra’s works, though, are simple. They are bent or unbent metal shapes made of Corten steel, which, after eight to 10 years, will oxidize, creating a solid, maroon patina. This sculpture does not demand attention to detail or intricacy (especially after the initial oxidation period is over). It focuses attention much more on shape and scale, two traits easily recognizable in space. The work makes the viewer ask more elusive and uncomfortable questions by avoiding multiple levels of attention to physicality.
Through difficult exploration and discovery, Serra has managed to make us stop merely considering all the things that physically surround us, and to start examining space as its own sculptural entity. Especially today, as we are forced to reconsider many institutions we take for granted, it is important that we challenge what is fundamentally accepted in any field.