RICHARD SERRA’S Torqued Ellipse I and Torqued Ellipse II (1996-97), now permanently installed at Dia:Beacon, remind me of Simone Weil’s axiom that “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by the laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception” [see Plate 1]. These lines, from the opening of her book Gravity and Grace, offer a fitting description of the intuitive pull and moral weight of Serra’s art.

PLATE 1. Richard Serra. Torqued Ellipse II, 1996, and Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997. Weatherproof steel. 12 x 29 x 20 ½ feet. 13 x 33 ½ x 27 feet (outer ellipse) and 13 x 26 x 21 feet (inner ellipse). Collection of the Dia Art Foundation. Gift of Louise and Leonard Riggio. Photo by Richard Barnes. All images © 2008 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society.

Although many critics and scholars have applauded Serra’s torqued ellipses and explored how we experience them, the question of why we respond to these agile giant passages of steel, space, and light remains evasive. Weil’s law can give us a new way of looking at Serra’s massive sculptures, as arenas of gravity and grace, and can show us how this ostensibly secular work touches on religious and moral dimensions of the human condition. Weil’s articulation of our corporal, psychological, emotional, and spiritual estate in the language of physics lends itself to an appreciation of Serra’s work as an exploration of the precariousness of our ontology.

Richard Serra. Joe: Torqued Spiral, 2000. Weatherproof steel. 13 ½ x 45 x 36 ½ feet. Plate thickness: 2 inches. Collection of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Saint Louis. Photo by Dirk Reinartz. © 2008 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Weil describes grace as a dynamic intervention into the processes of entropy that define all natural movements; Serra’s strategy, as it has developed across his oeuvre, has been to explore our gravity-bound state and our longing for release. Whereas earlier works like One Top Prop (House of Cards) (1969) or Tilted Arc (1981) impress us viscerally with a sense of our own gravity, the more recent torqued ellipses draw us up into a comprehension of grace—in a way that is unique in contemporary sculpture [see front cover].

Serra and Weil may initially appear to have little in common beyond similar politics and a Jewish heritage. Her mysticism would seem to conflict with the carnality of his sculpture. But certain aspects of their approaches complement each other in ways that reveal new dimensions of each. Serra has hinted that he sees a spiritual dimension to his work. He told interviewer Liza Bear that he felt that art had more in common with religion than with philosophy or science, fields he dismissed as “descriptive disciplines.” His point was that, rather than rational analyses of experience, art and religion are experiences. When Bear asked whether any moral beliefs affect his work, he simply answered yes, and Bear didn’t urge him to elaborate. As we shift the discussion from the work’s phenomenological operation to its ontological manifestations and moral consequences, Weil’s axiom might help us to open up this mysterious territory.

During the seminal years of 1968 and ’69, the sculptor worked almost exclusively with lead. Serra, who has skillfully shaped the reception of his own work through numerous interviews and essays, wrote in the catalogue for his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, “Lead’s weight and density are double those of steel yet you can hand-manipulate it. I thought it would offer me the same possibilities as rubber with more mass, more weight, more gravitational load.” Echoing Weil, he adds, “I realized that lead, with its low order of entropy, was a gravity-bound material.”

PLATE 2. Richard Serra. One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969. Lead. Four plates, each 48 x 48 x 1 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Grinstein Family. Photo by Peter Moore.

The heavy, precarious form of One Ton Prop appears to be undermined at every moment [see Plate 2]. The work is constructed of four freestanding lead plates, each weighing five hundred pounds, leaning together in a cube. According to Serra, the piece is “solely based on axiomatic principles of construction, where everything [is] holding everything else up simultaneously.” The plates overlap by two inches at the seams, but are not welded or affixed in any way. The gravitational force of each plate leaning against another is what allows the piece to stand. The tension within and between each part is the activating force that stabilizes the whole. Here gravity offered Serra what he called a “structuring device.” He says:

Working with gravity as a force, I realized that it was a way to attack the stability of form. I decided to establish conditions of gravitational balance where the necessity for every part in a structure was self-evident and where there were no fixed joints. In terms of the logic of traditional methods, the working process was unregulated, for sculpture had never been constructed with apparent potential for collapse, where the proposition to do also contained the condition to undo. Gravity is both a structuring and destructuring force. Forms can be held in arrested motion when opposing gravitational forces are in equilibrium.

As its title suggests, One Ton Prop’s weight defines its form, structure, and content. “Weight is a value for me, not that it is any more compelling than lightness, but I simply know more about weight than lightness,” Serra says. “Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight.” As a substance, lead “is always under strain of decaying and deflecting.”

Serra scholar Harriet Senie has suggested a parallel between Serra’s use of lead in his early work and the writings of Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor. In The Periodic Table, a book of linked, somewhat autobiographical stories named for chemical elements, Levi writes, “Lead is actually the metal of death; because it brings on death, because its weight is a desire to fall.” Though Serra did not read Levi until around 1992, Levi’s description of lead’s entropic qualities corresponds to Serra’s own interests in that material, and the two men seem to have a natural kinship of spirit.

Serra was also interested in the possibility of using lead in ways that abated the material’s weight: “I’ve found that at certain balance points the weight would actually negate itself. One does not sense force or weight acting as a fulcrum, a lever, or counterbalance. If the pieces are equally balanced, the weight is cancelled out; you have no thought of tension nor of gravity.” Defeating gravity by using it against itself, Serra transposes the dense materiality of lead to seeming immateriality. In the dynamic quality of its equilibrium, One Ton Prop’s entangled factors correspond to the internal and external contradictions (physical, pragmatic, psychological, moral) of our own existences. It is our recognition of ourselves and the precariousness of our positions that stirs our empathy with One Ton Prop.

Many works of sculpture are single forms cast from a mold, carved from a block of material, or welded together. Serra’s works are constructed of independent, unjoined, parts, either freestanding or propped. Their potential to shift or change is critical to their presence. One Ton Prop is a fluid work; neither an open nor a closed form, it seems to be in the motion (however slow and slight) of closing and opening. Serra writes, “What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are.” This alchemic pressure in Serra’s art generates a tension between essence and condition. If the cube is an essential form, One Ton Prop struggles to realize that perfection. Art historian Hal Foster has noted that Serra’s works “develop the ‘ontological consequences’ of the tectonic in a way that evokes spiritual conditions—not in opposition to secular conditions (of sculpture, body, and site) but by means of them.” Serra will not allow any naïve shortcuts to transcendence that would deny the reality of our estate. We are not what we once were; we are not yet what we will become.

In Gravity and Grace, Weil’s idea seems to be that all material desires to rise to become immaterial (a force she calls grace), while all immaterial is pulled toward becoming material (a force she calls gravity)—a process of evaporation and condensation of material. In this spiritual process the total amount of matter and energy remains constant. Every movement is balanced by countermovement. The result of this process, over time, is equilibrium.

Although One Ton Prop is poised in a state of tension and transformation, it nevertheless points to an unchanging state of being. This is the tension that, according to Weil, we feel both internally and in relation to our environment. We bring an understanding of entropy and equilibrium to Serra’s art, which in turn expands and intensifies our understanding. If Weil’s description of a spiritually and materially dynamic universe is accurate, these are systems of forces that the human mind cannot fully grasp, but Serra’s art materializes this macrocosmic process in an experience that we can comprehend.

By placing his work directly on the floor, Serra asserted its material presence. Later, his principal critique of his early works like One Ton Prop was that they perpetuated a “pictorial convention” by establishing a figure-ground relationship between the object and the floor, especially when viewed from above. “I started building pieces very early (1968) that had to do with balance and weightlessness…. What disappointed me was that you couldn’t enter into their physical space…because they weren’t based on the idea of behavioral space.” Serra next began to create works that articulated volumes of space that the viewer moved into. The best known and most controversial of these, Tilted Arc, illustrates both the successes and failures of his art. With Serra’s shift from lead to steel as his principal material, his psychological and behavioral interrogations became more aggressive. Between One Ton Prop and Tilted Arc there is a sea change, from an exploration of the forming and shaping of material to the forming and shaping of experience itself.

PLATE 3. Richard Serra. Tilted Arc, 1981. Weatherproof steel. 12 feet x 120 feet x 2 ½ inches. Federal Plaza, New York. Collection of the US General Services Administration. Photo by Anne Chauvet.

Serra’s oeuvre is often viewed through the controversy surrounding Tilted Arc. The work was commissioned in 1979 by the General Services Administration to be a permanent, site-specific installation for the Federal Plaza at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, a space bounded on two sides by generic modernist buildings and on two sides by sidewalk and street [see Plate 3]. Before the sculpture was installed, the plaza was adorned only with a fountain and a pavement design of concentric arcs. Tilted Arc, 120 feet in length, gently curved across this plaza between the buildings and the fountain, arcing in the opposite direction from the paved design and at a gentler angle. Standing twelve feet high and leaning slightly inward, Tilted Arc demonstrates that Serra’s aesthetic can be at once refined and lyrical but also controlling and even imperious. Its detractors have characterized Tilted Arc as aggressive, threatening, and coercive. Whereas One Ton Prop mirrors our struggle to remain poised amid a precarious counterbalancing of forces, Tilted Arc generates a conical volume of space that leans or falls into the plaza, creating a sense of undertow that drags anyone caught in its gravitational pull down into the ground. (This connection to water and the theme of drowning continues across Serra’s oeuvre.)

In defending Tilted Arc, Serra has most often discussed it as an attempt to subvert what he found to be a physically, psychologically, and socially oppressive public space. Dismissing the plaza as a “pedestal site” where one would “expect a sculpture next to the fountain, so that the ensemble would embellish the building,” Serra described his planned work: “I found a way to dislocate or alter the decorative function of the plaza and actively bring people into the sculpture’s context…. [Tilted Arc] will cross the entire space, blocking the view from the street to the courthouse and vice versa…. It will be a very slow arc that will encompass the people who walk on the plaza in its volume…. After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture.” It would seem that the most common objections to Tilted Arc—that it blocked visual and pedestrian pathways through the plaza—were not entirely misconstructions of its aims.

Tilted Arc can be understood in terms of Serra’s contention with modernism and modernist architecture:

I think that if a work is substantial, in terms of its context, then it does not embellish, decorate, or point to specific buildings, nor does it add on to a syntax that already exists. I think that sculpture, if it has any potential at all, has the potential to create its own place and space, and to work in contradiction to the spaces and places where it is created in this sense. I am interested in work where the artist is a maker of “anti-environment” which takes its own place or makes its own situation, or divides or declares its own area.

Serra has observed that works of public art “usually lack any physical manifestation that can counter the preponderance of the architecture” in whose context they are located. Tilted Arc causes us to rethink or re-experience other architecture and public spaces by exposing their directional authority. Serra’s initial solution to this problem was to counter spaces that he describes as “overblown, authoritarian, and a bit heavy-handed” with an equally dominant and severe art. Serra sets up a combative exchange between his work and the site, such that “there will be enough agitation in relation to the field that the function of the sculptural elements will be acknowledged. There must be enough tension within the field to hold the experience of presence in place.” Serra achieves this dominance, tension, or activation of the space through the carefully, sometimes precariously, balanced placement of forged volumes of steel that contend with the volumes of space.

There is an obvious egotism (which may not be entirely bad) in Serra’s insistence that his sculpture contend with its environment and retain a sense of autonomous identity and presence. At the same time, this militant dimension of his work, so often criticized, touches on what may be its most urgent moral purpose: Serra’s art plays out an Emersonian drama of self-reliance. Serra, who was an undergraduate literature major at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has expressed an affinity for American pragmatists and transcendentalists like Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville. A little-examined aspect of his art is the way his works embody Emerson’s ideas. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” wrote Emerson in 1841. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” and “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” Tilted Arc, both as an installation and as a controversy, played out a drama of the individual’s assertion of his own existential being, his freedom to choose between conformity and transgression. If the capacity to act and assume responsibility for that action lies at the core of what it means to be human, this moral faculty finds form in Serra’s working method, the substance of his creations, and in the viewer’s experience of these works.

In Tilted Arc, Serra challenged an ill-conceived public space, a “leftover” area overshadowed by severe architecture, with little aesthetic, social, or leisure function, by cutting a fatal gash into the plaza and all that it represented. Serra cast himself as the artist-hero, combating and subverting malevolent forces (modernist architecture, capitalist economic structures, the United States government). However, Serra seemed indifferent to the fact that the viewer became, at times, a casualty in this contest. Ill conceived as the plaza was, it did serve the function of allowing people to enter and leave the buildings. Tilted Arc significantly negated the plaza as a usable space. Serra had addressed the dehumanizing effects of modernist urban planning but failed to appreciate the effect of daily and personal awareness of the tension between Tilted Arc and its environment. One can imagine that negotiating the Federal Plaza day after day was like living with neighbors who constantly fight (as many New Yorkers do). After eight years of bitterly divisive lawsuits and countersuits, Tilted Arc’s neighbors had it evicted. The federal government had it destroyed on March 15, 1989.

If Tilted Arc’s demise was, in part, a consequence of its overstatedness, the work did manage to focus aspects of Serra’s art that are less sharply evident in his more genteel projects. By tilting volumes of steel that could easily crush us and disrupting our sense of spatial stability, Tilted Arc incarnates our experience of our own precarious existence. It makes us feel as if the ground beneath our feet were shifting. The density of Serra’s art isolates, and thereby intensifies, our perception of gravity. “We are all restrained and condemned by the weight of gravity,” says Serra. “We face the fear of unbearable weight; the weight of tolerance, the weight of resolution, the weight of responsibility, the weight of destruction, the weight of suicide, the weight of history.”

Serra’s sensitivity to moral gravity—as well as the unyielding aggression of works like Tilted Arc—may be partly rooted in his sense of self. Senie has observed that “Serra’s need to define a given space sculpturally in terms of implicit instability and explicit tension, if not imminent danger, may be understood in terms of his personal history of repressed Jewish identity.” Serra first publicly disclosed this identity in 1992, when he exhibited a work entitled The Drowned and the Saved at the Stommeln Synagogue in Pulheim, Germany (one of the few German synagogues to survive the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938). In the accompanying catalogue, he wrote: “When I was five years old I would say to my mother: What are we, who are we, where are we from? One day she answered me: If I tell you, you must promise never to tell anyone, never. We are Jewish. Jewish people are being burned alive for being Jewish.” Although Serra’s family would have been in little imminent danger in 1944 in San Francisco, Gladys Serra seems to have been overwhelmed by the psychological weight of her Jewish identity and to have feared for her family’s safety. “I was raised in fear, in deceit, in embarrassment, in denial,” Serra says. “I was told not to admit who I was, not to admit what I was.” Senie has suggested that although Serra’s mother believed she was protecting him, she “imposed a condition of perpetual risk” that affected him profoundly. Gladys Serra committed suicide by drowning herself on February 14, 1977.

PLATE 4. Richard Serra. The Drowned and the Saved, 1992. Forged weatherproof steel. Two right-angle bars, each 56 x 61 x 13 ¾ inches. Kirche Sankt Kolumba, Erzbischöfliches Diözesanmuseum, Cologne.

Serra is generally dismissive of biographical readings of his art, but his Jewish identity becomes a direct subject in The Drowned and the Saved, a work based on the book of the same title by Primo Levi [see Plate 4]. Levi’s collection of essays on his Auschwitz experiences is remarkable for its attempt to apply an analytical method, perhaps born of his training as a scientist. One consequence of this approach is Levi’s awareness, forty years after the Holocaust, of the precarious fragility of memory, its dialectical relationship with the present, as well as the temptation to forget or deny experiences.

Serra’s The Drowned and the Saved does not commemorate the Holocaust or reference Levi’s memoir in any illustrative way. The work is composed of two identical, inverted L-shaped beams of forged steel that abut and thereby mutually support each other. (Because each piece has a longer horizontal than vertical arm, neither can stand upright on its own.) Given Serra’s interest in engineering, it is intriguing to think of this work as a bridge, perhaps a bridge of memory across time. As the mirrored halves of The Drowned and the Saved offset each other’s top-heaviness, they might evoke the past and future meeting in the present, each dependent on the other for survival, each shaping the other. Like Levi, Serra seems to assert the necessity and consequence—the gravity—of remembering: the drowned survive in the memory of the saved, and the saved draw strength and determination from the drowned. Writes Hal Foster, “in this support is a reciprocity that suggests a resolution of the drowned and the saved, if not a redemption. But the ‘grace’ here is immanent, not transcendental; it depends on the ‘gravity’ of the structure, to which it is equal and opposite.” The Drowned and the Saved is now installed in the roofless sacristy of Sankt Kolumba, a Catholic church in Cologne that was bombed during the Second World War. In the midst of these ruins, The Drowned and the Saved rises as a marker, drawing the past as an enduring force in the present.

PLATE 5. Richard Serra. Gravity, 1993. Weatherproof steel. 12 x 12 feet x 10 inches. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

Concurrently with The Drowned and the Saved, Serra was designing a permanent installation at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that opened in Washington, DC, in 1993. Working in dialog with the museum’s architect, James Ingo Freed, Serra created Gravity, a twelve-by-twelve-foot steel plate that tilts slightly into the base of a steep staircase [see Plate 5]. Whereas The Drowned and the Saved is a bridge, Gravity, as a form, divides its space, bisecting the steps that take visitors from the open space of the atrium to the museum’s lower-level galleries. As we descend, the work requires us to move either to the left or right. We choose our destiny, though we may not be conscious of making a decision. Since consciousness is essential to true volition, Gravity creates a situation that raises the moral question of our capacity for free will. In the context of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gravity conjures thoughts of prisoners descending from trains and being sorted, against their will, to the left or right, to destinies unknown, to life in the concentration camp or death in the gas chambers. Weil, who witnessed the rise of Vichy France but escaped internment by emigrating to America and then England, wrote, “The wretchedness of our condition subjects human nature to a moral form of gravity that is constantly pulling downwards, towards evil, towards a total submission to force.”

In conceiving Gravity, not wanting his art to be co-opted by a space and yet unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do to the Holocaust Memorial Museum what he had done to the Federal Plaza, Serra arrived at a breakthrough that would change his work from here forward. Whereas Tilted Arc established a confrontational relationship with its context, Gravity collaborates with its site, without either conforming to or overwhelming it. Instead, Gravity activates space, and by extension activates our movement. Serra’s work gives form to our sense of descending into the history of the Holocaust as memorialized throughout the exhibits on that floor. Gravity materializes our descent into the darkest parts of the human soul. The work does not represent the Holocaust in any symbolic way, or even represent Serra’s response to the Holocaust; rather it heightens our sense of our own mortality, vulnerability, and bondage to physical and moral entropy. The work prepares us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to enter the museum.

For the most part, critics have ignored the serial numbers, chalk lines, gashes, and tool markings that appear on the surfaces of so many of Serra’s works, including One Ton Prop and the torqued ellipses. In Gravity, these markings appear in the upper left corner of the left-hand side as we walk down the staircase. To a viewer with engineering knowledge they provide a partial history of the work’s construction. They are evidence that each piece of steel has endured a certain amount of suffering—the cost of grace—to become what it is. In the context of the Holocaust Museum, the serial numbers have an additional significance. (I observed that visitors passing by Gravity stopped to note these markings more frequently than did viewers of other Serra works.) The Drowned and the Saved and Gravity, because of their titles and sites, clearly address the human condition, a theme that has been present throughout Serra’s oeuvre—and has continued to develop in his most recent work.

Given the battering Serra’s reputation took in the wake of the Tilted Arc controversy, his 1997 exhibition of torqued ellipses at the Dia Center space in Chelsea, New York, was a resounding and surprising success both with art critics and the public. Even Serra expressed amazement at their reception and confessed an inability to account for their effect, telling Jonathan Peyser:

I didn’t anticipate the kind of response that occurred with the torqued ellipses. Up to that point there had been a lot of aggression or hostility toward the work, the kind of bashing that you get for doing something that people find overbearing or threatening. While the Dia show was up, I found people going back to the same piece several times, and I found another kind of collective or shared experience…. I think the ellipses provided an experience that they hadn’t had before, neither in nature nor in architecture. It was new for them, and they wanted to figure out exactly what that experience was. You don’t need to be educated in the history of sculpture to respond to work like this, because the understanding is basically behavioral and experiential…. I watched a woman being helped out of her wheelchair to slowly walk into one of the ellipses and touch the walls. Things like that made me feel that there was something that people related to that was different in kind, if not quality, to the work that I’d made before, but I have no way of explaining it.

I would suggest that the torqued ellipses have viscerally resonated with audiences who have no history with Serra’s art, or any contemporary art for that matter, because they affect our intuitive discernment of our own materiality and immateriality.

The torqued ellipses may be among the most visually, theoretically, and historically complex sculptural achievements of the last decade. They demonstrate Serra’s artistic versatility and ingenuity. Their structural simplicity is evident in photographs (in order to focus attention on their form, Serra insists that nearly all his works be reproduced in black and white), while their experiential complexity is evidenced by the diversity of descriptions in the literature. The works are constructed from two or more plates of weathered steel, each weighing about twenty tons. (Torqued Ellipse I and Torqued Ellipse II are each composed of two plates.) Joined seamlessly, except for an opening that allows the viewer to enter and exit the work’s interior volume, these plates create a freestanding elliptical wall of steel twelve to thirteen feet high. As we approach, we are initially overwhelmed by the work’s presence (physically if not also phenomenologically). The only way to get an “objective” view (to see them pictorially as objects, that is) would be to stand back in an attempt to take in the whole—but we cannot see the entirety from any single vantage point. In contrast to One Ton Prop, whose approximate sameness from every side allows us to picture the whole, each torqued ellipse is elaborately nuanced, distinctly different from every angle. Taking in the work requires the viewer to walk around the perimeter, developing what Serra calls a “peripatetic perception.” Serra is less interested in creating sculptural objects that please the eye—although the weathered steel surfaces are beautiful—than forms that test our perceptual sensitivity, sensibility, and memory by drawing us into a closer, more personal experience of their volume.

Although Serra’s works induce multi-sensory experiences, it is still appropriate to refer to the “viewer,” because sight remains the primary sense by which we navigate them. The torqued ellipses test our perceptions by setting up conditions that create a dialectic relationship between seeing and moving. What we see affects how we move, and how we move within and around the ellipses affects what we see. Even our own physical construction—our height, for example—affects how we experience the angling plates. “On a very simple level these pieces are about walking and looking,” Serra says. “And being inside of a contained space where, if any content is going to be revealed at all, you have to pay attention to every part of the surface that’s surrounding you. The work in its deformation asks you to do exactly that. There’s no way of not doing that. As soon as you walk into these pieces, you enter into a dialogue with their physical existence. You become an accomplice to your own vision.” Adding the element of time, Serra creates a dialectical relationship between the viewer’s pace and perception. A slower pace results in a more evenly shifting perception, which then propels the viewer forward more quickly. This leads to a heightened sense of shifting space and a desire to slow down.

The torqued ellipses have proven to be Serra’s most popular works, in part because they are his most gracious and open, despite their towering presence. Even after several visits, the experience remains fresh and full of unexpected turns. These forms have the feel of organic, living things. The plane of the wall seems to fall away from or in on us, sometimes even cantilevering out over us. Even the floor seems to tilt. The exterior and interior surfaces of the same curved plate—inverse versions of the same space—generate very different experiences. Only after you’ve spent a lot of time with a piece does your memory begin to construct the whole.

Stepping into the torqued ellipses, we begin to understand them less as objects than as volumes of space that are defined by the rotation of the torque. Their basic form is an ellipse that turns, in relationship to its footprint, as it rises up from the floor without ever changing its radius. The radius of the ellipse at the base and top, and every point in between, is identical but rotated. As the elliptical form rotates upward, the steel plates bend continuously in such a way that the work’s topology has no plumb lines or right angles. Serra summarized their formal simplicity and spatial complexity as follows: “One of the things that I find interesting is that once people have seen these pieces they immediately say: ‘I could not have imagined this, but now that I’ve seen it, it’s totally understandable….’ It’s one of those forms waiting to be discovered.”

When Serra proposed these torqued ellipses—forms that have no precedent in nature or architecture—engineers and manufacturers doubted that plates of steel could endure the stresses of the torquing process, or that machines existed that could exert the degree and precision of force required. Serra rejected proposals to create the ellipses out of concrete, because the effect he intended depended on the evidence of the material’s stress. After several years of research, Serra found that there was only one shipyard in the world with the machinery needed to execute his designs: a Hull-Smith. Even then, the first torqued ellipse took a year of trial and error to manufacture. Each plate is pressed in a process that involves heating and cooling as it passes through an enormous set of rollers that were designed to shape the hulls of World War II battleships. Formed by fire and water, the plates bear the marks of the stresses by which they were created. Serra’s materials suffer tremendous heat and pressure to achieve the form of grace that we experience in them. Serra is not interested in symbolism or romantic notions of the redemptive function of suffering. His materials suffer because the laws of physics require this process, and he is obedient to that reality. Nevertheless, when we are confronted with these forms of steel under tremendous stress, we may be led to understand something of our own process of spiritual transformation. Perhaps this is why we respond to these works so instinctually and intensely.

Torqued Ellipse I is twelve feet high, with its top circumference rotated a full ninety degrees from its base. The sharp torque creates an exaggerated form with five feet of overhang; however, because the top and base are at right angles, they counterbalance each other, creating a sense of stability. At thirteen feet high, Torqued Ellipse II has a top ellipse rotated only fifty-five degrees from the base. It is at once more gentle and dynamic than Torqued Ellipse I. Since the top rests just slightly beyond a one-quarter counterclockwise rotation, it draws us into its elliptical orbit. The inside of the ellipse has a seemingly uneven horizon line as it curves. As we walk into the center of the interior, we begin turning our bodies as a way of following and understanding the torque of the space, often without thinking about it. In fact, it is difficult to remain standing still in the center, because the space begins to shift without you, creating a sense of unease and disorientation. When the external reference points that orient us are removed, our sense of spatial relationships is challenged. As Serra noted, “You become implicated in the tremendous centrifugal force in the pieces.”

Serra credits the inspiration for the torqued ellipses to a visit in the early 1990s to the baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by Francesco Borromini. Entering the elliptical nave from the side, Serra had the sensation that the ellipses of the dome and floor were offset from each other (which they are not). Although he regained his sense of the space, that momentary disorientation gave Serra the idea for the torqued ellipses.

As he has developed the torqued ellipses over the past decade, one of Serra’s principal points of inspiration has continued to be church architecture. He describes a 1991 trip to visit Romanesque churches in France with Alfred Pacquement:

That was important. Another crucial experience—I have notebooks full of drawings—was Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, which I visited the same year. The solid and the void really are one there. You understand that the space is holding the walls and vice versa, that it’s one field. You’re in a volume unlike any you’ve been in before, and it affects you physiologically and psychologically in a way that nothing else has. I thought, if architecture could do that, so could sculpture…. Ronchamp is small, but you don’t sense it or remember it as small. It has enormous volumetric presence, which comes in part from the pierced walls and the way they let the light in.

Serra has never been pressed by interviewers to describe how he, as a non-Christian, related to these spaces as sacred; perhaps his interviewers have lacked either the knowledge or interest in the history of church architecture—specifically the question of how structures relate to their liturgical function. However, if his response to these spaces finds fruition in the torqued ellipses, we can see that Serra learned from Hagia Sophia, Ronchamp, and other churches how to create arenas in which the gravity of our human condition is transposed into an experience of grace.

Given that Serra has never encouraged religious or metaphoric readings of his art, his open and repeated use of church architecture as one of the principal points of reference for his torqued ellipses is particularly revealing. The success—and failure—of Serra’s work has proceeded to a significant extent from his sense of personal urgency, an individual-versus-world outlook informed and reinforced by a multitude of experiences—from his mother’s admonition to conceal his Jewish identity, to her suicide, to his attraction to Emersonian self-reliance, to the Tilted Arc controversy. In Serra’s best works, this gravity, without losing any of its force, is transformed into grace. Ten years after their initial presentation, Serra’s torqued ellipses continue to provoke and thrill jaded art critics and new viewers alike, wrapping us up in their extravagant volumes of rising and falling space, and renewing our sense of the gravity of who we are and what, by grace, we might become.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest