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This story by Pat Summers was prepared for the November 8, 2000

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Richard Serra: Hedgehog

It gathers the whole space even better than I had

expected." Richard Serra, sometimes seen as the world’s foremost

contemporary sculptor, reflects on his work, "The Hedgehog and

the Fox," at Princeton University. With its installation last

spring between Peyton and Fine Halls, near the new Princeton Stadium,

it immediately became the largest sculpture on campus — a venue

already endowed with significant sculptures, thanks to the John B.

Putnam Jr. memorial collection of 20th-century works.

Already a landmark for pedestrians in the area and drivers on

Washington

Road, and a rallying point for contemporary public art proponents,

the three rust-hued steel curves have prompted general excitement

and, if graffiti is any indication, mixed reviews. A $1 million gift

to the university in honor of his son and daughter from the late Peter

T. Joseph (Class of ’72; MPA ’73), it will be dedicated Friday,

November

10, at 2:30 p.m. Both the artist and members of the Joseph family

are expected to be there.

Like all of Serra’s recent sculpture, the work at Princeton is

gargantuan:

three curving steel plates, each are 2 inches thick, 15 feet high,

and 92 feet long. Parallel to each other, with spaces to walk between,

the work is 20 feet wide. In the aggregate, the plates —

originally,

six of them before being butt-jointed and tack-welded at top and

bottom

— weighed about 174 tons (or 174 times 2,000 pounds). And those

measurements do not include the bulk or weight of the work’s

underground

foundation.

Higher than a single story house and nearly five cars wide, "The

Hedgehog and the Fox" is six times heavier than Stonehenge and

four times as heavy as the biggest jumbo jet, while nearly half as

long. It is almost as long as the Blue Whale, the largest animal that

ever lived, and nearly 20 tons heavier. For comparisons in its

immediate

neighborhood, it is about one third as long as both the Princeton

Chapel and the football field.

Early in September, recently returned from his long-time "head

space-place" on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and preparing

to leave his New York base for Europe, New Zealand, and California,

to check on various sculpture projects, Serra responded to E-mail

contacts about the Princeton work with a phone call that came as a

surprise. His voice sounding controlled — or maybe resigned to

the conversation — he spoke deliberately, articulately. Coming

from a Yale graduate (BFA ’62; MFA painting ’64) who has often spoken

and written well enough to infuriate others in the art world, this

should not have come as a surprise.

Born in San Francisco in 1939, where he was raised with his two

brothers,

Richard Antony Serra has said that it was his mother (whom he

describes

as "more than a Sunday painter") who first took him to museums

and gave him art books. His father was a blue-collar worker in a candy

factory, and together the parents encouraged Serra to draw and paint.

His paternal grandfather was a woodcarver, and family friends as he

grew up included the di Suvero family, including Mark di Suvero, who

was also to become a noted sculptor. In 1957, Serra began studies

as an English major at the University of California, first at

Berkeley,

then Santa Barbara. At first to finance his undergraduate education,

and later to learn more about the material’s potentials, he

periodically

worked in steel mills — "sweat work" he thought of as

fun and a quick way to earn a lot of money.

In 1961, he was accepted to Yale’s School of Art and Architecture,

where in his last year he studied with Philip Guston, Robert

Rauschenberg,

and a young Frank Stella. Following two post-graduate fellowships

that allowed him to study and work in Paris and Italy, Serra returned

to New York. Minimalism was then on the rise, and because he shared

some of the philosophies of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, his work has

often been discussed as part of that movement.

Described as "process" works, his early sculptures shifted

the focus from the art object to the process of making it. Serra tore,

tossed, and splashed his materials, including molten lead and rubber,

forcing viewers to reconstruct his procedures visually. Exploring

weight, balance and counterbalance, tension and gravity in the late

’60s, he produced series of propped or stacked pieces. "One-Ton

Prop (House of Cards)" — four rectangular plates of lead

antimony

leaning together — was one ponderous example, and "Stacked

Steel Slabs" was 20 feet high — and tilting. Serra also

produced

experimental films, such as "Hand Catching Lead" and

"Hands

Scraping," that addressed esthetic issues of repetition and

process.

Around this time, the artist’s 10 weeks in a steel plant, surrounded

by scrap metal and gigantic equipment to match, suggested the

possibility

of working large in this material. His resulting outdoor public

sculptures

in landscape settings led in the late ’70s to urban public sculptures,

including "Terminal," a vertical steel work in Germany, and

"Tilted Arc," in lower Manhattan, a site-specific commission

that became an art world cause celebre in the 1980s.

Commissioned

in 1979 by the General Services Administration (GSA) as part of its

"Art-in-Architecture" program, "Tilted Arc" was

installed,

at a total cost of $175,000, in 1981. This was also the year that

Serra married Clara Weyergraf, whom he had met four years earlier.

Since then she has worked closely with him as editor, collaborator,

and critic; in his words, "Clara runs my ship."

"Titled Arc" was a 73-ton steel sculpture that resembled a

free-standing curved wall 120 feet long and 12 feet high. The work,

which "cut an oppressive swath through Federal Plaza" as one

critic put it, provoked public controversy that included petitions

for its removal from nearby office workers and EPA representatives,

and three days of public hearings in 1985. Responding to a GSA panel

recommendation to remove the work, Serra filed suit in Federal Court

in December, 1986. His suit and all other counter-arguments, including

NEA support, came to naught, and "Tilted Arc" was dismantled,

at night, on the Ides of March, 1989 — at an estimated additional

cost of $50,000. If, as argued, removing a "site specific"

work is tantamount to destroying it, the one-time sculpture is now

reportedly in Brooklyn, stacked and packaged behind barbed wire.

Besides leaving a residue of mistrust and bitterness, this brouhaha

crystallized any number of issues, including the distasteful notion

that to succeed, public art, and the artists who make it, must be

more ingratiating, less confrontational. In an April, 1989, letter

to the New York Times, Serra, whose "abrasiveness" had been

criticized by one of its writers, claimed, "`Tilted Arc’ was not

destroyed for personality reasons or for the political and theoretical

content of my writings. `Tilted Arc’ was destroyed because art

acquired

by the Federal Government has no protection from destruction under

the existing law. The destruction . . . established a precedent for

the priority of property rights over free expression and moral rights

of artists."

Not only enormous, Serra’s works are also grandly

non-traditional

as sculpture goes: No pedestal; no familiar figurative image; often

more horizontal than vertical; never a memorial purpose or social

message; and raw-looking steel as the medium. As early as 1982,

writing

in the New Yorker about urban public art and "Twain," Serra’s

projected work for the St. Louis Gateway Mall, Calvin Tomkins said

his sculpture "has been characterized by power and

aggressiveness."

This in contrast to the unthreatening impermanence of Christo’s soft

wrappings of buildings and landscape, or even more, to Andy

Goldsworthy’s

earth-friendly, deliberately ephemeral works.

Sympathetic both to Serra’s long preparation for what was his first

public commission in the U.S., as well as to his design for

"Twain,"

Tomkins noted that, "Walking through it would become an act of

participation in the sculptural idea." The importance of

participatory

sculpture, or "peripatetic perception," continues to be one

of the artist’s major values. He wants viewers to be able to enter

the physical space of his works — both the mass of the sculpture

and the volume it encloses and defines — insisting that a work

of art is a "complex interplay between perceived object and

perceiving

subject."

The mid-’90s marked the beginning of Serra’s curving steel-plate

works.

In 1996, in a space that could accommodate three Boeing 747s, his

"Snake," comprised of three curving steel plates, was shown

in the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Critics noted the

visual

analogies between Serra’s sculpture and architect Frank Geary’s

spectacular

curving titanium-clad museum exterior. Friends, mutual admirers, and

occasional design partners, Serra and Geary have used the same

computer

design program in their respective projects.

In 1997, Serra’s "Torqued Ellipses" went on view at the Dia

Center for the Arts, New York. "I’ve always been interested in

trying to make something that has no equivalent in terms of nature

or anything that’s been made," the artist has said. Also of steel

and huge in a different way, these "pieces have no equivalent

in terms of the spatial situations you’ve been in or you’ve seen

before.

Space here has become a material for me." This was the exhibit

that donor Peter Joseph saw and recommended to Michele Minter, a

Princeton

development officer. It was not long before she learned that Joseph

had decided to give a Serra sculpture to the university.

In fall, 1998, seven torqued ellipses were exhibited at the Los

Angeles

Museum of Contemporary Art, and commenting on that show, Time

magazine’s

art critic, Robert Hughes, called Serra a "Steel-drivin’ man,"

peerless in handling heavy metal. Hughes describes Serra as "more

interested in truth than beauty. Particularly the truth of materials.

He doesn’t paint, polish, grind or otherwise fiddle about with his

metal. It rusts naturally and bears the marks of its making."

Early this year, at Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea branch, Serra showed

"Switch." Mammoth and mysterious, its six curving plates,

in pairs, formed a triangle shape, and one could walk through its

narrow passages, as if between the hulls of rusted ships, to reach

a central space that seemed to be both inside and outside the work

at once. Then came "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Princeton.

Today, anyone on the Princeton campus can practice "peripatetic

perception," walking up to, around, and through the three

enormous

curving slabs of steel. Their massive presence can at first seem a

bit ominous. Make a sound and you’ll hear an echo part-way down each

of the two blacktop walkways between the three curves, when the rest

of the campus and the world at large can seem very far away. Visit

the artwork with a friend, and you can place your cheek against one

metal edge, whisper quietly, and have your words carry 92 feet to

a listener at the other end.

Now the pathways are scattered with autumn leaves; just imagine deep

snow trapped there. With its 15-foot-high walls, concave to convex,

rising on either side, effectively creating a rusty canyon that

defines

the sky far above, the work seems dramatically different from the

"delicacy of finely folded ribbon" that Serra’s steel works

have been likened to. But think back on the experience, and pretend

you’re an ant traversing the loops of a giant gift-box bow, and the

analogy’s not bad.

"The torqued ellipses are enclosed pieces with one open end,"

says Serra, discussing the shapes of his recent sculptures. "From

the outside, you can’t see in. The linear work [such as the Princeton

sculpture] has to do with parallelism. It’s more about a passage than

a contained space." Although titles are a sometime thing with

Serra, in this case he alludes to the Greek poet Archilochus who

wrote:

"The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great

thing."

This, says the artist, could describe a student’s reaction to the

academic experience.

In late October, the Serra sculpture at Princeton — now marked

with graffiti not thoroughly erased, although somewhat effaced —

was site-specific in a seasonal way: its rusty tones fed a brilliant

color-tension with the surrounding foliage. Rising from the blacktop,

it seemed more integral to its setting by now, never soft or yielding,

but somehow less raw and intrusive. Sealed by its rust, the

weatherproof

steel will eventually corrode to a dull, stable surface. For now,

though, has anyone else noticed the poetic symbolism of its burnt

orange tones with the blacktop beneath it?

Not long ago, this site was grassy and open. Then in

October, 1999, an atypical gift to the university was reported: the

late Peter T. Joseph had commissioned a sculpture by Richard Serra.

A banker/venture capitalist and arts patron, Joseph had founded the

Peter Joseph Gallery in Manhattan to exhibit and sell "studio

furniture" handcrafted by American artists; his home and office

were furnished with designs by artists he admired. A company-saving

contributor to New York’s American Ballet Theater, and then chair

of its board, Joseph had begun to think of Princeton University in

"creative and generous ways," says Minter, who first met him

during the university’s 250th anniversary year.

Joseph, who had endowed two undergraduate courses in human values,

was the reason ABT’s junior company visited campus to benefit the

Princeton Atelier, the arts program directed by Nobel Prize-winner

Toni Morrison — a program he also aided with a new brochure and

an endowment. Before Joseph died in 1998, he spoke with Serra about

his wishes for the sculpture commission, later carried out by the

Peter T. Joseph Foundation. The sculpture honors its donor’s

"undying

love" for his children, Danielle Eve and Nicholas Evan Joseph.

"Peter Joseph was a creative and generous donor to both the arts

and academic programs at Princeton. He took an active interest in

the areas he supported and enjoyed being able to contribute his time

and ideas in addition to his money," observes Van Zandt Williams,

Princeton’s vice president for development.

Press coverage did not, could not, convey the roiling reaction on

campus around the issue of where the Serra work would be placed. The

sculptor and the university had to agree on its siting, and, given

the sculpture’s projected visibility and potential environmental

impact

— affecting the flow of foot traffic and redefining the landscape

— it is easy to understand, in retrospect, why a spokesperson

at the time said, "many-pronged negotiations" became necessary

and "a lot more blood than usual was spilled."

With his successful oversight of the Serra operation, Thomas H.

Wright,

university vice president and secretary, should probably add

"statesman"

to his credentials. In moving toward actualizing what has now become

reality, he dealt with countless people, philosophies, and things

to be done — the donor, his foundation, the artist, the university

and the community, the money, the security, the transport, the siting.

Asked if the university had any fears about accepting a huge Serra

work, Wright describes the president and board of trustees as

"wildly

enthusiastic.

"They wanted to have such a work on campus," he says. The

challenge was to find the right place for it, hoping to satisfy the

artist as well as the many advisers on esthetics and architecture

who then surfaced. The first proposed site, near Firestone Library

and within 75 feet of Washington Road, necessitated a hearing with

the subcommittee of the community planning board, at which

participants

exchanged views about public art and argued strongly both for and

against that placement: that the sculpture would surely change

the experience of the site was a given; whether it should do

so was the question. With a meeting of the full planning board looking

like the next likely step, the university chose instead to look for

a different place.

Once the site near the stadium came up, its architect, Raphael

Vignoli,

"became an important participant in the discussions," Wright

says. Ultimately, "the exact work we have was built for that

site,"

he notes. Serra changed the dimensions considerably, although the

basic concept was maintained — something like the artist’s linear,

curving work for the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Most important to Serra,

Wright recalls, was that his work should sit on the earth in almost

a "found" way. He wants it to be encountered, interacted with,

moved through.

Now, Wright says, there’s "general, quite strong support for the

work. It would not be accurate to say that everyone agrees," he

says, "but we tried to accommodate people’s opinions, we reached

some compromises." He’s happy to tell a related human interest

story: Reading that the university would look for sources of money

to transport the piece, a young artist and his wife wrote in support

of the sculpture, enclosing a check for $100 toward the expense.

Wright

was "particularly moved by that gift," which he believes they

could ill-afford — but which they refused to take back.

On transporting the work from Germany, where it was fabricated, to

Princeton, and then installing it correctly and safely, Robert

Barnett,

A.I.A., assistant director of the university’s physical planning

office

and Serra sculpture project manager, is pretty matter-of-fact: It

was like any other construction project, he says, with models,

drawings,

discussions, approvals — and plenty of heavy work.

The sculpture was moved by river to a port and shipped to

Philadelphia;

from there, the six original pieces were brought to town on flatbed

trucks. Meanwhile, back on the campus, a structural engineer had

designed

a concrete-pile foundation that included a steel base plate to

distribute

the work’s weight into the concrete. Even before the base could be

designed, the ground was tested to determine its bearing capacity.

Timing for preparing the foundation had to be closely coordinated

with arrival of the steel plates, and at least four construction

trades

— iron workers, riggers, concrete, and excavation — were

involved,

besides the predictable heavy equipment that included two cranes,

one to lift, one to stabilize. By now it’s clear that unlike some

of Serra’s earlier work, this one is not self-supporting in any sense

of the word, even though its appearance might suggest that it just

rests on the surface, following the slope of the land.

"Minimalist" or not, Richard Serra creates colossal sculpture.

And there can be no doubt that just as the weight of "The Hedgehog

and the Fox" is distributed over its concrete foundation, whatever

financial return Serra realizes from a commission is spread out over

a virtual regiment of assistants, specialists, and facilitators, whose

crucial contributions range from steel mill fabrication to legal

advice;

from archives to installation know-how. Just as Serra’s sculpture

is so atypical — no horses, generals, fountains — his entire

operation is the antithesis of the artist in the garret, working

singlehandedly

to produce a work of art. But the result is the same.

Richard Serra, Princeton University , Ivy Lane,

609-258-3000.

Dedication ceremony for the Richard Serra sculpture "The Hedgehog

and the Fox," installed near the entrance to the Princeton

Stadium,

a gift of the late Peter Joseph, Class of ’72. President Harold

Shapiro

and the donor’s widow will speak, and the artist is expected to

attend.

Friday, November 10, 2:30 p.m.

Material Language: Small-Scale Sculpture after 1950, Art

Museum, Princeton University , 609-258-3788. An exhibition designed

to complement the dedication of the Richard Serra sculpture features

works selected from the permanent collection by professors Peter

Bunnell

and Hal Foster, and museum director Susan Taylor. Artists include

Alexander Calder, Kenneth Snelson, Leo Steppat, Jasper Johns, Anthony

Caro, George Segal, Jonathan Shahn, Claes Oldenburg, and Christopher

Wilmarth; to December 30. Also on exhibit, Richard Serra’s "Weight

and Measure" etchings. Free.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;

Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours are every Saturday at 2 p.m.

Also see www.princetoninfo.com/200011/01108p04.html


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