The Shift, by Richard Serra

Other than maybe patching up a “few cracks in it,” Richard Serra says he isn’t worried about Shift (1970-1972), the American sculptor’s stone work on a rugged stretch of farmland near King City.

But many local residents continue to fret about the future of the meandering wall-like structure adjacent to Keele St. until it is officially protected under the Ontario Heritage Act…

“You can find many pieces (by others) which came after Shift,” [Richard Serra] says on the phone from his New York office. “They have direct links back to that piece.”

Now best known since the ’80s for his enormous work made from Cor-Ten steel and situated in urban spaces, Serra in the ’70s worked in parallel with the late Robert Smithson in forwarding the very macho idea of land art.

Serra reminds me that he helped “stake out” Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), the mammoth earth piece spooling out into the chemically tinctured Great Salt Lake in Utah that’s arguably still the best known earthwork on the planet.

Spiral Jetty is best seen by way of an aerial view from an airplane. “But Shift was really about an insertion into the landscape,” says Serra. “To me it was a breakthrough piece,” the 68-year-old artist goes on. “There wasn’t any precursor for that kind of work. No one had yet used the measure of one’s body walking to deal with the perception of elevation and the rise and fall of the landscape. (Shift) was determined by two people walking in opposite directions.

“We had an engineer who took core samplings so that we could put its foundations as deep as they needed to be in order to sustain the load. So far it’s proven to be correct. Because if it does crack there’s going to be a problem in terms of the alignment and the piece might get out of plumb. There hasn’t been a structural upheaving yet.”

Securing a colossal Serra work seems to be a must for any new arts space. The 2005 installation of the New York sculptor’s Tilted Spheres (2002-2004) literally affected construction of Pearson airport’s new Terminal 1 to make room for the work’s four mammoth plates, each 4.54 metres high.

Serra’s 1,000-plus-tonne sculpture The Material of Time is the centrepiece of the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, northern Spain, along with an earlier work, Snake. Only this month these works have caused Basque cultural figures in Bilbao an equally mammoth guilt-trip. Originally expecting to pay some $30.5 million (Canadian) for the work in 2005, museum officials admitted they must now pay about $9 million more due to a “mistaken” calculation in currency exchange rates.

Serra only just finished installing two new pieces in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, part of the newly renovated Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) due to open Feb. 16. Sequence, on loan, may eventually end up in a new contemporary museum proposed for San Francisco, Serra’s hometown, by Gap founder Donald Fisher. Band, “a more abstract piece,” in Serra’s view, remains at LACMA. “It is hard to understand,” says Serra. “It has a very fast, ground-hugging motion to it.”

In April he’ll begin installation on yet another large-scale work. It opens May 6 in Paris’ Grand Palais as part of its Monumenta series, which began last year with Anselm Kiefer.

“It is probably the biggest indoor site in Europe,” says Serra. “The piece will have 12 elements 120 feet apart.”

Yet, he balks at the term “monumental” being attached to his work. “I don’t know of any sculpture that’s not figurative that’s monumental,” he says. “Monuments signify a code that has usually something to do with a personage or an event. I build a lot of landscape pieces that are not monumental.”

Peter Goddard
The Toronto Star