As a young artist eking out a living and trying to find his niche in the fertile and frenetic New York art world of the mid-1960s, Richard Serra composed a list of transitive verbs—“to roll, to crease, to fold … to bend … to splash,” which he interspersed with phrases such as “of tension, of gravity, of entropy, of inertia, of equilibrium” —describing various forces acting on matter. This concrete poem of sorts became a lifelong “to do” list for Serra that would lay the conceptual groundwork for his sculptural practice, one shared by artists such as Robert Morris and Eva Hesse, who privileged the physical over the metaphysical, process over product, the literal over the abstract. According to Serra, “I was very involved with the physical activity of making. It struck me that instead of thinking about what a sculpture is going to be and how you’re going to do it compositionally, what if you just enacted those verbs in relation to the materials, and didn’t worry about the result? So I started tearing and cutting and folding lead.”
In 1968, he began exploring the formal possibilities of this previously nonart material, which he favored over other metals for its weight and malleability. With composer Philip Glass, who for a time had become Serra’s studio assistant, he began splashing molten lead with a large ladle into and against the angle of intersection between his studio wall and the floor. It was at this moment of discovery that he began to create his first “props,” works of raw psychological power based on the fear of collapse. These cantilevered, completely self-supporting sculptures were created in perfect balance and counterbalance based on the artist’s calculations, testing the laws of physics without recourse to clipping, gluing, or welding. Each element was integral to the integrity of the form, as is the case with a house of cards, the subtitle of the artist’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969). In this piece, four lead plates were placed in an upright position and inclined toward the other, overlapping by two and one half inches to form an irregular cube. When discussing this body of work produced in the wake of Minimalism, a movement by which he is often co-opted, Serra explained, “The perception of the work in its state of suspended animation, arrested motion, does not give one calculable truths like geometry, but a sense of presence, an isolated time.”
The previous year, the artist had begun to create “wall props,” for which he hand-rolled massive sheets of lead into poles and leaned them up against flat sheets. The Walker Art Center’s Prop (1968) is one such work. In a 1980 interview, Serra recalled the genesis of this and other pieces like it: “I realized that I was making one form, the lead roll, and I wanted to combine it with the other form, which was the sheet. It occurred to me that the roll could be used as a pole and the sheets could be propped from and off the wall without utilizing a joint. These pieces utilizing the floor and the wall retained a memory of pictorial concerns even though their content was predicated on their axiomatic building principles.”
At the end of 1969, Jasper Johns commissioned Serra to produce a splash piece in his Houston Street studio, and Serra was happy to oblige. He used one small, freestanding steel plate placed perpendicular to a wall and one wedged into a corner as the backdrops for his piece, and in so doing, had an epiphany regarding the use of the existing architecture as the sole means of structural support. This was the genesis of his next body of work, which also represented a pivotal shift in his practice. For his next major piece, Strike (1969–1970), Serra hired a professional rigging crew for the first time to place an eight-foot-high, twenty-four-foot-wide plate of hot-rolled steel so that it bisected a ninety-degree corner. From this point onward, he turned almost exclusively to steel, which in turn prompted him to abandon the studio for the steel mill, the locus of his sculptural production to this day.
The artist has recalled that the works from 1970 to 1971 represented “a real sea change for me. I began to think about declaring or dividing the space of a room, and about the spectator walking through and around a piece in time, rather than just looking at an object. The spectator became part of the piece at that point, not before.” Another important work from this period, the Walker’s Five Plates, Two Poles (1971), was created to function equally well indoors and out. The massive Cor-Ten steel plates appear to have been shuffled off axis as they lean precariously against one another in a rhythmic dance of mass and space. Its height, taller than the average person, frustrates sight lines, which creates the need to constantly move around the piece in order to comprehend its gestalt. Five Plates, Two Poles is experienced by many as confrontational and intimidating, and by others as perversely playful, but Serra does not concern himself with psychological readings. For him, it is enough simply “to continue.”