Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981)

(Author unknown. Found originally at

In the early morning hours of March 15, 1989, the culmination of an eight-year struggle between government bureaucracy and the artist Richard Serra took place.  Serra's site-specific structure, Tilted Arc,1981, was  removed from 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, despite overwhelming local and worldwide support for its remaining at that site.  The General Services Administration (GSA) established a complex arrangement of checks and balances with the selection and commission of this work, but the response from civil servants and others working in and around the Plaza was uncompromising: Tilted Arc would have to go.  William Diamond, the GSA's New York Regional Administrator,  had recommended (after three days of hearings that seem to suggest a solution other than the one implemented) that the sculpture be relocated, with a panel selected by the GSA and including Serra himself.  This ruling outraged Serra.  He claimed that because the sculpture was site-specific, to remove it would be the equivalent of destroying the piece.  In addition Serra filed a $30 million lawsuit against the GSA to prevent the government agency from removing the sculpture. He cited as his defense breach of contract, trademark violations, copyright infringement and the violation of First and Fifth Amendment rights (Serra, May 1989, 137).  Unfortunately, after months of legal wrangling, the courts stayed the original decision, and Tilted Arc was no more.

Many factors leave the "final solution" for this sculpture troubling.  For example, what role does the public play in determining the location and content of public sculpture?  Was it inevitable that the Government, with its agenda of International-Style-architecture-complete-with-giant-Minimalist-sculpture-out-in-front would someday meet its match, finally getting  what they asked for?  How can the Minimalist artist blame the public for rejecting a work created in a style that they essentially find inaccessible?  Should Public Sculpture always be visually and therefore psychologically appealing, considering its context?  Who is right here?

Serra himself was born November 29, 1939, in San Francisco1.  His parents were European immigrants, and both parents worked long hours to support the family.  Between 1957 and 1961 Serra studied at the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Barbara, earning a B.S. in English Literature.  It is at this time that one of many defining elements of Serra's work manifested itself.  To support himself, Serra worked part-time at a steel mill, which seems to have affected his later large-scale steel works of the late 1970's and early 80's2.  Serra's postgraduate work at Yale University between 1961 and 1964 is more well known.  Here the university awarded him BA., M.A., and M.F.A. degrees.  It was during his years at Yale that he worked and studied with Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Graves (his first wife), Frank Stella, and Chuck Close, among others.  During 1965 Serra traveled through eastern and central Europe on a Fulbright Fellowship Yale granted him.

Serra moved to New York in 1966, meeting other future Minimalists and Environmental Artists such as Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Bruce Naumann, Steve Reich, Robert Smithson, and Michael Snow.  It was at this time that Minimalism was beginning to take hold as a valid art form.  Serra's own work of this period, strange Hesse-like rubber belt sculptures were well-received, but Serra's most famous works were yet to come.

Minimalism, the seemingly logical extension of Greenbergian ideology, was a movement preoccupied with Modernist goals of reduction and simplification (in the rhetoric of Geometric Abstraction) of painting and sculpture.  Minimalism's artistic pedigree descends from Constructivism of the early 20th century, but is the first international art movement pioneered exclusively by American-born artists (Atkins 99).

Minimalist sculpture eliminated representation and sometimes even the hand of the artist.  Most Minimalist sculptors employed industrial and commercial materials or fabrication processes.  This effectively blurred the line between art objects and the everyday world.  Its "restricted vocabulary of geometric shapes (Chave 44)" closely resembles the prevailing contemporary architectural aesthetic of late-modern interior design and especially the International Style3, which I will shortly address.

For an aesthetic seemingly unadulterated by personal experience, symbolism, and moralistic judgement, Minimalism presents a series of unusual paradoxes.  For one, this is a movement born out of the turbulent Sixties, with its "violent ambivalence toward authority" and " . . . transforming [of] power relationships" (Chave 44).  This could be the result of events in Vietnam and actions by police on campuses across the country.  Corporate America began to overtake economies through Multinational corporations, which were further legitimized by this "Military/Industrial Complex (Chave 44)."  Minimalism responded to these issues in interesting ways.  By using these industrial-commercial processes and materials, they subvert these same processes and materials.  Minimalism effectively steals the language of those wielding power (the military/industrial complex), and by association, the American Federal Government. This "Rhetoric of Power" as Anna Chave describes it, more often than not refers to Consumerism and Capitalism.  Minimalist sculpture is a critique of commodification, with its outwardly simplified visual schemas which seem to diminish the uniqueness of these objects.  Their artistic value can be difficult to extract.  In this sense, Minimalism reflects many of the social and political issues addressed by the American counterculture.

    With this established, the relationship of Minimalism to International Style architecture is not difficult to appreciate.  The visual simplicity and architectural angularity relate well to each other.   The International Style's similarities to Classical architecture relate to Minimal sculpture in the same ways (Chave 53).  In addition, both can be produced relatively easily and inexpensively because of the simplicity of design and reliance on industrial materials.  This relationship is so consummate that the art in architecture program of the GSA, which oversees construction of the government's buildings, allots one-half-percent of the building budget to purchase art4.  It was into these peculiar circumstances that Tilted Arc was born.

It is easy to understand the defensive stance adopted by a number of employees in and around Federal Plaza.  Tilted Arc was a 120 ft long, 12 ft high slab of Cor-Ten steel.  Weighing in at 73 tons it angles precariously toward the Jacob K. Javits Federal building with a 12/1 foot slope.  This tilting is a throwback to Serra's work of the early 70's, where gravity and entropy played crucial roles.  The surface of the sculpture is unfinished, rusting and raw, a testimony to Serra's belief in the honesty and integrity of materials.  The scale of the piece dwarfs that of the viewer, and seems to refer to historical precedents5.  Seen from different vantage points around Foley Square, the piece seems to shrink, contract, stretch, twist, and bend its way across the plaza.  Tilted Arc shares much formally with other sculptures Serra completed around this time, including St. John's Rotary Arc (1980), Waxing Arcs (1980), and T.W.U. (1980) (right).  These works mark a shift to urban locations and themes, and a departure from the Environmental Artworks created in the 1970's, predominantly influenced by the Earthworks of Smithson, Morris and Nancy Holt.

    The physicality of this sculpture is difficult to deny.  To be frank, Tilted Arc is extremely intimidating.  The site-specificity of the piece is extremely important to the reading of Tilted Arc in this context.  Here in a bastion of commercial and consumer power (The Javits building coincidentally houses the Court of International Trade, with government offices in the building across the plaza) lies an anti-monument to these same values.  True, many other Federal Plazas throughout the US have commissioned major sculptures from artists such as Oldenburg, Segal, Calder, Noguchi, di Suvero and many others. In this instance, however, the artistic hallmarks of conventional public sculpture are virtually nonexistent.  Without these indicators, the average person cannot derive the meaning of the piece.  This may explain the numerous complaints regarding Tilted Arc, from the fact that it restricts lines of sight and provides cover for muggers, to the bizarre accusation that a rat problem in the area was a result of the sculpture (Serra, Art in America 35).  Serra's work draws attention to the fact that this place is only superficially a "public" space, and without this sculpture the space makes no sense6.  Serra seems to have intentionally negated the openness of the plaza, providing a physical expression of the division of power.  The viewer is forced to respond to this because of the unavoidability of the structure.  The arc angles toward the Federal Building, attesting to the division of those who hold power from those who enforce it.  He wants us to examine these objects not as "Art" but elements of our urban fabric.  Even with the similarity of form and materials Tilted Arc shares with the buildings that surround it, it is hopelessly rejected by the general public, like a donor organ in the body of a transplantee.  Without acknowledgement of its value, it is fundamentally useless.

An interesting counterpoint to Tilted Arc is Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial (1981-83).  Formally similar to Tilted Arc, Lin's piece elicits a rather different response publicly.  Although located in a Federal context, like Tilted Arc, the Vietnam War Memorial makes its case through subtlety rather than cynicism.  Both are monolithic, dark, slab-like constructions which emphasize the sacrifice of the individual in the larger context of imperialism and capitalist folly.  However, Lin's work is infinitely more accessible.  Its tranquil and serene setting allows for reflection and meditation.  Even the surface quality of the polished granite facilitates reflection in a more physical sense.  The viewers can see themselves (on many levels) in the names of the 57,700 dead or missing soldiers.  It can be easily understood as sculpture.  Serra rejects this slickness in his work, provoking a much different response.  These differences between works are central both to the location and context in which they are sited.

Both works are successful.  They anticipate the audience as a result of context, and force the viewer to evaluate the work without the benefit of the stimulus conventional to public sculpture.  Because of this, in Serra's work one can only see the values we have individually ascribed to our interpretation of beauty and appeal.  Serra believes that these values have been imposed by our consumer culture, and by producing  work critical of this, he can draw attention to the superstructure that controls our lives.

Serra intended to create a work that would "engage the public in a dialogue that would enhance, both perceptually and conceptually, its relation to the entire plaza.  This experience of sculpture may startle some people (Cembalest, 50)."  Serra could not have been more right.  Despite the fact that Serra has since denounced Tilted Arc, the questions it raises and the dialogue that arose make it an extremely effective work.  Although its physical presence can no longer elicit responses from artists and public alike, its conceptual form still facilitates discourse even ten years after its unfortunate removal from the public domain.

  1. Biographical information, unless otherwise indicated, is from Richard Serra. Ernst-Gerhard Güse, Ed.(Cat.); New York: Rizzoli, 1988.

  2. Serra continued working at numerous manual labor jobs throughout his career between creating artworks.

  3. The general form of architecture developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and others, was characterized by simple geometric forms, large untextured, often white surfaces, large areas of glass, and general use of steel or reinforced concrete construction.

  4. Michael Brenson, "The Case in Favor of a Controversial Sculpture" (Public Art, Public Controversy 162).

  5. The Great wall of China is also 12 feet tall.  It is said that this standard was implemented to deter a fully grown man standing on the back of a horse.  It is not known whether Serra intentionally or arbitrarily chose this height  but within the context of power, it seems relevant.

  6. Even the fountain in the plaza is useless, because a shortsighted planner did not account for strong gusts of wind which spray water all over the square (Grace Glueck, "What Part Should the Public Play in Choosing Public Art?" Public Art, Public Controversy 158).

Works Cited