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Richard Serra in conversation with Lucy Steeds

Richard Serra, Shovel Plate Prop, Close Pin Prop and Sign Board Prop, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, 1969

US sculptor Richard Serra lived in Paris and Italy in the mid-1960s, before settling in New York. His first solo shows were at Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966 and Galerie Ricke in Cologne in 1968. During this period he started making work from non-traditional materials, including rubber, fibreglass, neon and lead. For both ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ he made a Splash Piece (1968/69) by throwing molten lead at the juncture between wall and floor inside the Kunsthalle Bern and between wall and ground outside the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Serra also hung works in rubber and neon in the galleries, and exhibited propped pieces of rolled and sheet lead. Related works were shown a year earlier in New York, as part of the exhibition ‘Nine at Leo Castelli’, at the Castelli Warehouse.

Lucy Steeds: Let’s take ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ first, if only because it opened before ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. How do you remember the Stedelijk exhibition?

Richard Serra: It caused quite a stir amongst local artists in Amsterdam. I went there with Phil Glass and my assistant Bob Fiore. The first thing we did was a lead Splash Piece [1968/69] against the wall and ground on the outside of the museum. The next day – or maybe it was overnight – some local artists tore it up, they ripped the lead off the wall and scraped it off the ground. They removed it from the exhibition. Apparently these artists were protesting against the work, they thought we had defaced the building. Apparently they felt the North Americans were up to no good – that we were abusing the institution.

LS: And yet there were local artists actually included in the exhibition who also worked on the exterior of the building.

RS: This hostility had nothing to do with the artists in the show – it came from the audience for the show, who felt threatened by the unconventional nature of what we were doing.

LS: You mention that Philip Glass was with you in Amsterdam, what do you recall of the performance he gave the night before the exhibition opened to the public?

RS: We had taken Michael Snow’s film Wavelength [1966–67] with us to Europe hoping we would have a chance to show it. That was how the evening began: we started screening Wavelength in a little room. Not long into the movie some people in the audience got up and knocked over the projector – they wouldn’t allow the film to go on because they were so horrified and angry. But something more extreme happened: Phil Glass started playing Two Pages [1968] and people were attentive for a while.

Then someone decided to participate in Phil’s performance, walked over to the piano and started playing alongside him. Phil is a very composed, quiet, gentle, sensitive person, but he got up and punched this man in the jaw and knocked him down. So that immediately rippled through the museum. There was a certain amount of aggression levelled towards the North American artists.

LS: Were there differences of opinion amongst the exhibiting artists that also ran along national lines?

RS: No. Most of the North Americans were accepted for what they were contributing, whether it was [Bruce] Nauman or [Robert] Ryman, [Robert] Smithson, [Lawrence] Weiner, or whomsoever. And, for the most part, the artists who were brought together were all very much aware of and involved in each other’s work.

LS: What work did the exhibition, or exhibitions, introduce you to?

RS: What was interesting for me was that I hadn’t seen a lot of the Europeans. I didn’t know [Joseph] Beuys’s work well and I hadn’t seen much work by [Richard] Long, [Jannis] Kounellis or [Mario] Merz. For that reason the exhibitions were an eye-opener. I had met Pino Pascali when I was in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship, but the others I hadn’t met. So I spoke to Long, I spoke to Kounellis, I spoke to Merz – I went and stared at Beuys. I was obviously more familiar with the work of Nauman, Eva [Hesse], Ryman and Smithson, but I don’t think there was a continental divide. We all shared a common language and sensibility. With our generation there was a possibility for dialogue between European and North American artists. That was not true for the generation before. Pop and Minimalism didn’t seem to travel, they were more of a US expression, more localised.

LS: How would you characterise the interests you shared?

RS: One could say that a group of artists in New York – myself included – was involved with process in relation to time and in relation to place, and that our European contemporaries, perhaps coming out of fluxus, were similarly involved with the idea of how things come into being more than with the end product. Fluxus was still involved with Dada in some way, with mocking art or exaggerating the mocking of art. Our generation, Europeans and North Americans, wanted to find new ways to make something, ways that weren’t dependent on academic hand-me-downs. Whether it was a shared interest in time or process, or new materials or materials that would disintegrate, there seemed to be a new common understanding that matter itself was imposing its own form on form. That led to a different kind of exhibition – it led to exhibitions that weren’t pre-conceptualised in terms of being scripted and programmed beforehand.

LS: And that’s the case for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’? What was different about how they came together?

RS: Artists were invited and works were conceived and built in place. That is the way I constructed my Props. There were no finished sculptures that were shipped to the show. I got lead sheets and plates. I had to unroll the lead, then roll it back up the other way and I had to balance the lead plates in position – you really had to build in situ. That was even more true for my Splash Pieces. Other artists were working in the galleries in a similar manner and that gave me confidence that I wasn’t out there alone.

LS: How do you recall the installations of the exhibitions – perhaps the installation of your own work in particular, or works by other artists?

RS: I don’t remember the gallery in which I showed my work at the Stedelijk, but I do remember that Nauman showed films and neon in the gallery next door. And I remember Long building a stone piece coming out perpendicular from the wall. In Bern they gave me a big long room right at the top of the staircase, a big long entrance hall – it was a good space to work in. I remember [Claes] Oldenburg’s work in the Bern exhibition. He showed a big pair of pants hanging on a clothes hanger [Pants Pocket with Pocket Objects (1963)]. His pants were next to some work by Beuys. I’d never made a connection between these two before. I had some inkling that Oldenburg and Beuys might have some origins in common but I had never thought that Pop art had anything to do with what Beuys was doing. Seeing their work together, it was clear that their approach to material was the same, and that you can make a correlation between the two. Take Oldenburg’s plaster pieces and Beuys’s early fat pieces. Both are very hands on in terms of how they were formed.

LS: Of the two artists, only Beuys showed in ‘Op Losse Schroeven’. What other differences between the two exhibitions do you recall? How would you compare them?

RS: To tell you the truth, I liked the show in Amsterdam better. The relationship of the rooms seemed to be more coherent; I thought that the spaces in relation to each other worked better. But maybe it was the light, maybe it was the marble staircase, maybe the work just held its own better in smaller rooms. In Bern the building was very baroque. Also, Beuys had a bigger presence there, so the European aspect seemed more pronounced than it was in Amsterdam. Maybe it was also that the Stedelijk’s was the initial show, and after that we all just moved on to Bern. Maybe it was because of my personal experience. With the hostility and all that, we really felt we were up against it – and that aligned us as artists.

LS: What would you say were the precursor exhibitions? What shows had you previously been involved in that felt related?

RS: I don’t know what the precursors were in Europe, but for sure the ‘Nine at Leo Castelli’ warehouse show was the precedent in the US, although that show was on the outer reaches of the city and you had to be very interested in the work to go there. 01The New York Times covered it, but still people weren’t ready to travel up to the Bronx to see it. It was an artist–artist show, it wasn’t an artist–client show and it was hardly a dealer show. To tell you the truth, [Robert] Morris, who organised it, seemed almost incidental. The group of people that he put together seemed to have more in common with each other than with him. I think Morris collected a group of people who he felt dealt with the theory that he was postulating. It did not quite work that way. Nauman and Eva [Hesse] and myself and [Bill] Bollinger and [Keith] Sonnier – we all knew each other, we were already a somewhat cohesive group – we brought our own energy to the show.

LS: How do you remember the curators of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’? What did they bring to the exhibitions?

RS: The person who was really the pied piper of it all, who introduced everybody and kept everybody together and friendly, was Harald [Szeemann]. Harald was really the ringmaster. I remember [Wim] Beeren, but he was more reserved. He was more into organisation, more into how the work was going to be extended into the public, more concerned with the house and the preservation of the house – a very nice man, very likeable and sympathetic, but more of an administrative diplomat, more of a suit, whereas Harald seemed closer to the spirit of the artists. He was like a poet who happened to be curating a show. The charismatic leader was Szeemann.

LS: What was he like to work with?

RS: Harald was very hands on. He was up in the morning before everybody and got drunk at night with everybody. He had a great sense of humour and a great deal of bravado. He took everything very seriously and at the same time would say ‘I don’t give a shit’. There was something good about Harald. He would entertain almost any idea and he was a great champion for all of us. I haven’t met anyone quite like him since. I hope every generation finds their Szeemann.

LS: Do you remember him working closely with commercial galleries? RS: I don’t think he was working with gallerists at all. I think that would have been a conflict of interest for Harald.

LS: Szeemann’s show has been far more celebrated than Beeren’s. How do you see the shared historical importance of the two exhibitions?

RS: The shows in Amsterdam and Bern marked a defining moment. All of a sudden there seemed to be an expression that was relevant both in Europe and North America, led by younger artists. And the younger artists from North America were appreciated in ways they hadn’t been before. I think myself and Ryman and probably Bruce [Nauman] found more of an audience in Europe than we did in North America.

LS: How do you look back on ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ now?

RS: Given the current situation, those shows seem radical in terms of demonstrating the potential for a new kind of work that was not primarily image-based. The opposite of that is true now – image dominates over process. Most of the artists in those 1969 shows were in some sense involved with – I’m not saying it’s political but – the potential for a new way of thinking about what art can be.


  • ‘Nine at Leo Castelli’ took place at the Castelli Warehouse, 103 West 108th Street in New York, 4–28 December 1968. It was organised by Robert Morris and included work by Giovanni Anselmo, Joseph Beuys, Bill Bollinger, Rafael Ferrer, Eva Hesse, Stephen Kaltenbach, Bruce Nauman, Alan Saret, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier and Gilberto Zorio.