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This story by Pat Summers was prepared for the November 8, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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,
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
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 —
six of them before being butt-jointed and tack-welded at top and
— weighed about 174 tons (or 174 times 2,000 pounds). And those
measurements do not include the bulk or weight of the work’s
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
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
Richard Antony Serra has said that it was his mother (whom he
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
then Santa Barbara. At first to finance his undergraduate education,
and later to learn more about the material’s potentials, he
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
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
leaning together — was one ponderous example, and "Stacked
Steel Slabs" was 20 feet high — and tilting. Serra also
experimental films, such as "Hand Catching Lead" and
Scraping," that addressed esthetic issues of repetition and
Around this time, the artist’s 10 weeks in a steel plant, surrounded
by scrap metal and gigantic equipment to match, suggested the
of working large in this material. His resulting outdoor public
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.
in 1979 by the General Services Administration (GSA) as part of its
"Art-in-Architecture" program, "Tilted Arc" was
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
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
Not only enormous, Serra’s works are also grandly
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,
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
This in contrast to the unthreatening impermanence of Christo’s soft
wrappings of buildings and landscape, or even more, to Andy
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
Tomkins noted that, "Walking through it would become an act of
participation in the sculptural idea." The importance of
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
The mid-’90s marked the beginning of Serra’s curving steel-plate
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
analogies between Serra’s sculpture and architect Frank Geary’s
curving titanium-clad museum exterior. Friends, mutual admirers, and
occasional design partners, Serra and Geary have used the same
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
Space here has become a material for me." This was the exhibit
that donor Peter Joseph saw and recommended to Michele Minter, a
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
Museum of Contemporary Art, and commenting on that show, Time
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
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
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
"The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great
This, says the artist, could describe a student’s reaction to the
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
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
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
— 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.
university vice president and secretary, should probably add
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
"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
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
"became an important participant in the discussions," Wright
says. Ultimately, "the exact work we have was built for that
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,
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.
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
A.I.A., assistant director of the university’s physical planning
and Serra sculpture project manager, is pretty matter-of-fact: It
was like any other construction project, he says, with models,
discussions, approvals — and plenty of heavy work.
The sculpture was moved by river to a port and shipped to
from there, the six original pieces were brought to town on flatbed
trucks. Meanwhile, back on the campus, a structural engineer had
a concrete-pile foundation that included a steel base plate to
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
— iron workers, riggers, concrete, and excavation — were
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
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
to produce a work of art. But the result is the same.
Dedication ceremony for the Richard Serra sculpture "The Hedgehog
and the Fox," installed near the entrance to the Princeton
a gift of the late Peter Joseph, Class of ’72. President Harold
and the donor’s widow will speak, and the artist is expected to
Friday, November 10, 2:30 p.m.
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
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.
Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours are every Saturday at 2 p.m.
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