Richard Serra discusses his earliest interests as an artist and how he spontaneously named his large-scale installation in San Francisco Charlie Brown.
ART21: You’ve been working as an artist for over forty years now. What were some of your earliest interests?
SERRA: When I first started, what was very, very important to me was dealing with the nature of process. So, what I had done is, I’d written a verb list: to roll, to fold, to cut, to dangle, to twist. And I really just worked out pieces in relation to the verb list, physically, in a space. Now, what happens when you do that is, you don’t become involved with the psychology of what you’re making, nor do you become involved with the afterimage of what it’s going to look like. So, basically it gives you a way of proceeding with material in relation to body movement, in relation to making, that divorces from any notion of metaphor, any notion of easy imagery.
As the work becomes more extensive, and I had a need to walk into and through and around it, then you get involved with what effect the work has physically, on your body, as you walk. So, time and movement became really crucial to how I deal with what I deal with—not only sight and boundary, but how one walks through a piece, and what one feels and registers in terms of one’s own body in relation to another body. So, in that sense, as the pieces became bigger, and you walked into and through and around them, they took on other concerns, which were more psychological—even though implied and not specific than in the early work, where process was the key to organizing the principle of how one would structure something.
So, I would say, particularly in the ellipses and now in the spirals, one’s body in relation to an unknown place that’s revealed as you walk in it has probably a bigger psychological factor than the earlier work. Now, that could be what people respond to; I don’t know. Particularly when these are being built now (the spirals), there is a sense that as the piece unfolds, it’s ongoing and you really have no idea where the path is going to lead you. And that’s very, very different than the earlier work, which was very axiomatic—in that, once you saw it, you understood how it went up, how it was being held together, and how you could enter and walk in, through, and around it. So, it was all revealed. Here, there’s more of a concealment before it’s revealed.
ART21: Now, I know that your naming of the piece in San Francisco was somewhat spontaneous.
SERRA: Absolutely spontaneous.
ART21: Could you tell a little about the naming of the piece?
SERRA: Well, I’m standing there with the client. It was the morning that [Charles] Schulz had died, and everybody had just read about it in the paper. And he’s from the Bay area; he’s from Petaluma. And I grew up in San Francisco. I said to the client, “What do you think: Charlie Brown?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, too bad . . . about Charlie.” He said, “Oh, too bad about Charlie Brown.” I said, “No, the piece. Should we name it Charlie Brown?” He said, “Yeah, why not?” And that was it. But it just was the propitious moment, to give the piece a name, kind of as an homage to somebody that all of us have grown up with and have an enormous affection for, and it seemed as if I was ever going to do it, I would do it then. So, I did it. It was a very spontaneous thing. I certainly didn’t think I was building a work of art called Charlie Brown. And, if the work brings a smile to your face, and it’s hard to put down something called Charlie Brown . . . (LAUGHS) I’ll accept that.
ART21: What are the steps involved in making a work like Charlie Brown, which is just enormous in its size?
SERRA: Yeah, okay. How the work evolves in terms of its manifestation, from thinking about an idea. Either it originates in the place and then back to the studio—but then there’s a kind of elaborate process that goes on, bringing work into being. And that usually goes from my studio models, then to Frank Gehry’s studio, to an engineer there named Rick Smith, and then they’re worked out with the CATIA computer program. Then it’s back to models, and back and forth between the models and the CATIA program, until we finalize the solution of how we’re going to build, where we’re going to build, and what we’re going to build.
In the intervening time, usually the models change because I return to the site and see the condition of the place. Other things that change is certain things in terms of earthquake codes and other things that you have to build into the design of works, particularly in a place like California. So, that means that the subsurface condition has to be something that you have to take into consideration. Also, if you’re bringing heavy work in—unless you’re coming in where the building is being constructed initially—all of those things have to be carefully looked at in terms of coordinating different groups that come together and interplay in bringing a piece in.
With this piece in particular, we had to load it, ship it, get it to a port in Europe, ship it again through the Panama Canal, offload it. In San Francisco, we had a group of people called Bacchini, and their family had built the Golden Gate Bridge. And in terms of riggers, I could not have had or wished for a greater group of riggers. I’m working with them again now in the Bay Area. They took a great pride in what they did. They kind of lived work. And I was very, very respectful and happy we had them. Albeit, I brought two people with me that I’ve worked with for twenty-five years from Germany to set the pieces, because these pieces are down to a millimeter in terms of how they have to be placed. And if they’re off of the bottom an inch, they’re off ten inches at the top. So, you really have to pull these pieces in and rig them in a way that has to do with a certain expertise. And even though people can follow given plans, in order to set a lot of my pieces, people have to be very, very familiar with them. So, I travel with a crew, usually from Germany, two people in particular.
ART21: That leads to me another general question, and that is: it seems to me you’re living on an airplane a good part of the year. Could you talk about the complexity in your life, of projects in different parts of the world?
SERRA: Usually what I try to do, when I go on the road, is stay on the road, accomplish what I can—either in terms of things being on the front burner and the back burner—and then get off the road. I usually don’t make trips in and out of New York. So, I travel and then get off. When I was very young, I remember watching Pancho Gonzalez, and somebody asked him the same question: “How do you feel about the speed of being on and off the plane?” And he said, “If I’m making the shots, I don’t care.” And I think that’s true. If you’re traveling and it’s fulfilling, then it’s fun. If you get knocked off your feet or something goes wrong, then it’s hard. And, oftentimes when you can’t anticipate breakdowns, weather conditions, being held up for days, then you just have to make the best of it. But I pretty much have been on the road since I’ve started. I’ve been on the road for thirty years now, so I’ve learned to adjust. But I think there are a lot of people who work everyday, who are on the road a lot.