Richard Serra – Tilted Arc

I have just had to write an essay about Richard Serra’s sculpture titled Tilted Arc.  This was a public commission won by Serra in 1979, for a sculpture to be placed in Federal Plaza in New York, in front of buildings occupied by the US Federal Courts Office and the US Department of Immigration.

The sculpture was completed and installed in 1981, a 120ft long and 12ft high tilted slab of cor-ten steel in its natural state, designed to rust over time.  Immediately it was met with criticism and hostility.  A vigorous campaign to get Tilted Arc removed was ultimately successful despite Serra’s huge objections and it was taken down in 1989.  Harriet Senie’s book titled ‘The Tilted Arc Controversy’ covers the whole saga and explores the different agendas of the many parties involved.

The story of Tilted Arc particularly speaks to me at present: it was a controversial art work which interrupted views and the routes people walked, its massive and perilously leaning aspect was experienced as menacing; it provoked reaction and consequently it was rejected by its audience.  Richard Serra’s father lived all his life in the USA, having arrived from Spain as a baby; he died the year Serra was commissioned to create Tilted Arc without ever receiving US citizenship.  Given this fact, why on earth would Serra create an artwork to stand in perpetuity outside the US Department of Immigration that was comfortable?

The sculpture I made to encourage donations for the museum, titled ‘Bawbie’ is at present not wanted by the West Highland Museum.  After putting a lot of work into it I am obviously disappointed; however I did know that what I was making had the capacity to rattle cages and therefore might not be entertained by a traditionally conservative institution. 

Serra maintained that his work had an absolute right to remain, regardless of the feelings of local people that had to look at it all day every day.  Personally I think his approach was belligerent and arrogant and gave public artists a bad name.  But there is a tension, between making work of integrity, and that of such blandness there are no objections.

On the Harvard Law website there is a discussion on the nature of minimalist artworks, the context in which the movement arose, and their relationship with the general public and public bodies. The same questions are asked. 

How can the Minimalist artist blame the public for rejecting a work created in a style that they essentially find inaccessible?  Should Public Sculpture always be visually and therefore psychologically appealing, considering its context?  Who is right here?

A recent public artwork unveiled at St Pancras Station in London shows the depressing direction where this is headed:

The Meeting Place by Paul Day or “Welcome to London, home of heteronormativity!” as it is titled on the wonderful blog celebrating the life of Mary Wollstonecraft,  Day also has designed a frieze to go around the enormous base of this sanitised and idealistic giant, but whilst the top of the sculpture has been generally liked by the general public, the bronze frieze which shows a more realistic and also challenging view of London life has been met with a storm of protest.  Familiar and tedious stuff.


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