Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jason E. Smith reviews Conversations about Sculpture

Hal Foster and Richard SerraConversations about Sculpture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018. 272 pp.

Review by Jason E. Smith

12 June 2019

Conversations about Sculpture (2018) compiles over three decades of dialogue between one of our most celebrated living sculptors, Richard Serra, and an eminent art historian, Hal Foster. Serra established his place in contemporary art in the late 1960s as a postminimalist sculptor. Foster is a writer and critic who has been, since the early 1990s, a professor at Princeton and an editor at the journal October. They represent an unlikely pairing, not only due to the generational divide between them, but also to their respective “ideological” positions within contemporary art debates: Serra, with his longstanding commitment to the phenomenology of space and materials, and Foster with his work on Surrealism and psychoanalysis, and his early advocacy for the photo-based and politicized critique of representation typical of the so-called “Pictures” artists like Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman. These differences create occasions for the kinds of friction and even misunderstandings that are necessary for authentic dialogue. 

Conversations’ 250 plus pages, complete with a large number of black and white illustrations, makes for an almost always compelling give-and-take that begins with details of Serra’s life and early career before fanning out into more open-ended discussions of art, art history, architecture, monumentality, and public space; the book closes with some of the more painful and even controversial aspects of Serra’s work and career. Serra’s sculptural work began with his process-based postminimalist pieces using materials like rubber, felt, and lead. He then started working with steel sculptures deployed as architectural interventions and, moving outdoors, as what Rosalind Krauss once called “marked sites” hovering between architecture and landscape. By the late 1970s, Serra was embedding his work in urban sites, often in the form of commissioned sculptures that toyed with the function and form of classical monuments placed before important civic buildings or sites. This naturally led to an engagement with a larger, and sometimes hostile public, whose response to these works ranged from neglect to outright vandalism; the removal of Tilted Arc from Foley Federal Plaza in 1989 marks perhaps the extreme result of this antagonistic reception (though Serra and Foster here probe the political machinations behind this episode as well). From this apparent nadir––as Serra perceives it in these pages––in his career trajectory, Serra’s reception has been, beginning with his Torqued Ellipse series in the late 1990s, overwhelmingly laudatory, his pariah-like status eclipsed by a public and institutional embrace that continues to this day. 

The opening chapters of the book linger over Serra’s rupture with the reigning minimalist doxa of the mid-1960s. Serra came into his own through a rejection of the strong “Gestalt” forms typical of 1960s sculpture, which he understood as concentrating space in a given shape staged against an ambient field that functioned, pictorially, as a ground. The unitary forms––the boxes, slabs, spheres, and pyramids––of 1960s sculpture, with their impeccable surfaces and spatial compactness, relied for their effects on a denial of both materiality and real space. Serra set out to bring these elements to the surface, with his prioritization of gravity over shape, his insistence on process and action over form, and his “all-over” dispersal of sculptural elements in space. Yet it is only with his architectural intervention from 1969, Strike, that Serra was able to “break into space,” to cite a powerful and recurring formulation in these pages. Where sculptural precedents like Smith and Judd ended up capturing and containing space, reinstituting the logic of pictorialism’s voids and solids despite their best efforts and rhetoric, Serra understands his achievement as definitively opening out into space in a new way.

It is around the notion of sitedness that the pair’s differences are most visible and pointed. Serra’s conceptual language is rooted in architectural principles like plan and elevation, interior and exterior, orientation and site; throughout these pages, he makes it clear that he holds at most a passing interest in contemporary sculpture, and feels a deeper affinity for architects and even engineers. Foster, however, probes what can seem like a blind spot in Serra’s self-understanding, a “deflection” of the political dynamics implicit in the notion of site. “Does your very insistence,” Foster asks, “on the formal, structural, and phenomenological aspects of your sculpture end up being a way, inadvertently, to deflect certain realities of urban life. . . .? Don’t you divide site from context, treating site primarily as physical and context as primarily social, privileging the former and bracketing the latter?” (p. 81). It is here that Foster’s intimacy with a psychoanalytic discourse organized around trauma, repression, and “deflection” seems to force its way to the surface. Serra’s seeming reticence to address the political dimension of his notion of site––this, despite his emphasis elsewhere on class, labor, industrial materials, and production––can be traced back to the bruising experience of the attack on Tilted Arc. Seen in this light, the pairing of Foster, sensitive to traumatic wounds and the compulsion to reopen them over and over, with Serra seems especially propitious.  

There is at times a testamentary quality to these pages, as Serra looks back on a long and at times embattled career. Often, he wants to set the record straight: to clarify his position vis-à-vis other artists, to raise and resolve old debates and controversies, occasionally to ponder his place in the history of sculpture and art. But this dialogue is just as much a discreet portrait of Foster as a writer, critic, and historian. Over the past two decades, as his critical attention has turned more and more to contemporary architecture, the phenomenological idiom worked out by Serra since the 1960s has asserted itself in Foster’s own recent critical writing. The insistence on site, the refusal of the image, the declaration of material and process, the emphatic structural clarity, the activation of the lived body: all of these features of Serra’s work recur in Foster’s critical response to the relentlessly “spectacular” tendency of much contemporary architecture. Notwithstanding the examination of this notion of site’s political limitations in their conversations about sculpture, Foster deploys the terms of Serra’s sculptural idiom in his writings on urban space and spectacle with political purpose.