For over 40 years, the American artist Richard Serra—who says “I have used tons of steel to attain lightness” and speaks about sculpture as “drawing in space”—has tested the confines and possibilities of art. In 1964, after graduating from Yale with a degree in painting, a Yale Travelling Fellowship took Serra to Paris for a year. While in the French capital, the San Francisco-born artist found there was not much that interested him, apart from Constantin Brancusi’s reconstructed studio, which he visited almost every day. Over 40 years later, the Beyeler Foundation near Basel has brought together works by Brancusi and Serra in an exhibition that was one of the highlights of Art Basel week (“Constantin Brancusi and Richard Serra”, until 21 August). The show creates a dialogue between the two sculptors, demonstrating shared traits, as well as exciting contrasts and includes steel works by Serra that are close to his heart, such as Olson, 1986, and Fernando Pessoa, 2007-08, as well as recent large-format works on paper. Renowned Brancusi pieces such as The Kiss, 1907-08 and Endless Column, 1918, also feature.
The Art Newspaper: How do you remember your first encounter with Brancusi’s work? Did you feel surprised? Or pure joy? Or mystery?
Richard Serra: I did not have any of those emotions. It was just the experience of a young student discovering and observing and looking at Brancusi’s work as a handbook of possibilities.
But if you repeated the visit almost daily something must have affected you. Did his work open your eyes or take you somewhere else?
At that time I was not making sculpture. I was a painter and my relation to painting changed. But Brancusi was not the only reason I started to make sculpture. I do not believe in this kind of causality. Things happen in a more subconscious way. Other than Brancusi there was Giacometti who made me think that there were many possibilities of how to deal with space in new ways.
You used to wait for Giacometti to show up at La Coupole [restaurant]. How was that?
When I was student and I was living in Paris, I was kind of a Giacometti groupie. Phil Glass and I would go to La Coupole every night and Giacometti would come in at 2 o’clock in the morning with plaster stuck in his hair. He loved the night; he used to be in Becket’s company. When I was young, if anybody proved working as an artist daily was a struggle it was Giacometti. He epitomised the notion of existential dictate in sculpture.
Existentialism embodied the spirit of the times in Paris in the 1960s. In what sense was that the greatest influence in your life?
Existentialism, probably more than anything, influenced how I approach materials and process. It got me to the point where I thought matter imposed its own form and you have to deal with the immediacy of matter in relation to process. I owe a lot to the writing of the existentialist writers and philosophers. Music is also terribly important to me. I listen to Bach almost every day.
Brancusi was very influenced by Zen Buddhism and you have a fascination with Zen gardens…
When I was living in Japan, I spent hours in those gardens trying to understand what it meant to walk in circular movements. And it was completely refreshing and just the opposite of having lived in Florence. All of a sudden I found myself in an open field, dealing with time and space and relating to movement in a very calm and subjective way, paying particular attention to the mass and the detail. That really helped me in relation to my sculpture. It took me years to figure out, but finally I got to the point where I started constructing with the void first, and the material just became the container for the void.
At first sight the similarity between your work and Brancusi’s is the pure formal simplicity. Brancusi stated: “simplicity is the complexity resolved”. Do you relate to this?
This statement is not relevant to me, it is not meaningful to me. I am not interested in the specifics or purity of form, I am interested in what form can do in relation to space and movement, that’s essentially what I’m up to. I am not preoccupied with Brancusi as the title of the show in Basel might suggest, in fact I do not think there is any relationship. You can go on about reduction of form, purity, simplicity, or whatever. What is interesting about the show are the contradictions and differences, not the inter-relationships .
Can you expand on the most interesting contradictions?
I deal with the notion of the viewer’s relationship to space, while Brancusi’s work deals with objects as seen. His sculptures are mainly on pedestals, I took sculpture off the pedestal to deal with space in relation to time, in relation to movement.
Brancusi considers art to be a “pure joy”. Do you mind if art is difficult and austere?
No, I don’t. But I do not set out to make difficult or austere art. This is not what motivates me. I think artists in some sense have to be obstinate; they have to accept they might be marginalised instead of trying to please.
As one of the most renowned contemporary sculptors, what made you say “yes” to the show?
I do not mind the juxtaposition of my work with Brancusi’s. I liked the selection of work that the curator Oliver Wick proposed for the show. I am happy about the inclusion of Olson, 1986, and Fernando Pessoa, 2007-08; they made the show more important to me. All of the other works in the exhibition are much earlier.
What do you like about the Beyeler Foundation?
The museum has great circulation and beautiful filtered daylight. I have never shown there and always thought it could be an interesting place to have an exhibition.
Your work is becoming more and more austere [something Serra sees as a virtue], for example Fernando Pessoa, 2007-08, which is a powerful rectangle.
Two years ago I was reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. I like his writing and decided to dedicate a piece to him. The questions that he asks over and over again are: “Who am I?” and “Why do I write?” By extension, I find myself asking: “Why do I do what I do?” For Pessoa, to live is to think and to feel is merely food for thought. The piece I titled Pessoa is the most simple and most singular statement I could make and it deals with everything that is relevant to my work.
The exhibition was on during Art Basel in June. What do you think about art fairs?
I never go to art fairs. I suppose the art fair brings a lot of money to the city of Basel.
You are often described as the world’s greatest living sculptor. How important is this recognition?
If that is people’s opinion, that’s okay, but I do not pay much attention because opinions change year by year, decade by decade.
Do you want to be understood or do you mind if people just feel your work?
I want people to understand themselves, to give them another idea of what an experience of the world can be. I am not interested in other people making sculptures like my sculptures but I am interested in people having an experience that is private and singular. What differentiates one person from another is their memory and their anticipation, where they were born, what they have been subjected to. I am just presenting a possibility, an experience that is different in kind (I am not saying in quality) than others. Some people might find it useful—they will connect to other experiences and it might make their life more interesting. I know sculpture is not going to change the world but I do think the way we understand different countries is by the expression of what arts they put forward and how we extend the definition of boundaries, of what we consider to be relevant in terms of feelings and emotions
What is the most interesting thing about art?
Art is unexpected youth. It always takes a direction you could not have foreseen because art is not linear.
Your recent large-format drawings feature in the Beyeler exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also holding the first retrospective of your drawings, covering the past 40 years [until 28 August]. How significant has drawing been for you?
I have been drawing all my life. I started at a young age. Drawing was the primary mode of experiencing the world for me and that is still how I understand what I see. Actually I majored in literature as an undergraduate student, but I was admitted to the Yale School of Art and Architecture for graduate school based on 12 drawings. What I have done in sculpture and construction (and in all that I’ve done) is use the avenue of drawing to assist my vision in relationship to form making. On the other hand, drawing has not been a mere representation of my sculpture. I’ve always thought of drawing as an autonomous activity, something that exists by itself.
Early on you also decided to try and redefine drawing in relation to time and space, or as sculpture…
I am not so interested in the history of academic drawing but in the people who have changed the definition of drawing. I have great admiration for Georges Seurat and Jasper Johns. I also admire Cy Twombly, he has a particular lightness of touch. Drawing has always been considered an understudy rather than a statement in and of itself. It is interesting that it has almost become a private language among artists; young artist continue to draw, I find drawing totally refreshing. If anyone wants an indication of how artists think, the easiest way would be to see how they go about making their drawing.
You defend children’s very free way of looking. Do you yourself embrace this childish spirit?
I am old enough to be very free; I am as unrestrained as I’ve ever felt. I think you get to a certain age where the only thing that limits you is your own ability to proceed, and I am very able and capable to continue my work. I have a lot of work in front of me to do and I am very grateful for that. I have no more anxiety in relation to history and to other artists. I no longer feel the burden of influences, like you have to kill the father figure. You reach a certain point or age where you just do not care. All of those things that were part of your education are not relevant anymore. You just want to continue to work and you are happy if you have opportunities to create your work. My childhood was a happy one. I had an extremely loving mother and father (with Spanish origins). I came from a very poor background but my mother understood my need to draw. She would go to the butchers’ shop and ask if she could have a roll of butchers’ paper. And I would unroll the paper in the street and make drawings of everything from the dogs around the block to aeroplanes, to ships in the ocean near the beach. I was extremely happy in the middle of the sand dunes. During third grade the teacher asked my mother to come to class. The teacher had taken all my drawings and had hung them around the upper space of the walls, so they encircled the periphery of the room. She took my mother aside and said: “Look, you have to take this kid to museums, you have to introduce this child to the nature of art history.” My mother was Jewish and took this very seriously and she started to introduce me as “Richard Serra, my son, the artist”. In some ways she preordained what I was going to become. n
Born: 1939 San Francisco, California
Education: 1961-64 Yale University, 1957-61 University of California, Berkeley and Santa Barbara
Represented by: Gagosian Gallery, New York; Leo Castelli, New York; Barbara Krakow, Boston; Carreras Múgica, Bilbao; Galerie M Bochum, Bochum
Selected solo shows: 2011 Foundation Beyeler, Riehen; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 2008 Kunsthaus, Bregenz; Grand Palais, Paris; 2007 Museum of Modern Art, New York; 2005 Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Selected group shows: 2011 Serralves Museum, Porto; Rodin Museum, Paris; Contemporary Art Museum, Saint Louis; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; 2010 Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea
Lives and works: New York and Nova Scotia
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The difference between Serra and Brancusi'