Few artists have been so closely associated with transitive “doing” as Richard Serra. The “Verb List” he compiled over 1967-68 (“to roll/to crease/to fold,” etc.) became a banner for his generation, deferring the materials of sculpture to primary processes. So the realization, which comes slowly, that the massive steel plates of his Torqued Ellipses series do not torque in actuality but only in apparition snaps one to attention. The steel has been precision rolled into complex free-standing curves that demarcate eccentric torquing spatial volumes imagined, and quite possibly invented, by Serra.
Serra’s inspiration came from Rome, where he encountered the singular space-as-illusion effect cast under the oval dome of Borromini’s renowned San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1634-38). Sharp observation on S. Carlo, such as British architect Gerald Wellesley’s from 1932, can be aptly transposed to the experience of standing inside Torqued Ellipses: “As the eye wanders round the church [sculpture], a mysterious sense of movement is felt. It is as though the walls of a marble [steel] cavern had been pushed hither and thither by some incalculable pressure from the outside.” One should allow that corollary interior pressures are at work too, perceptible from without but no more calculable.
In his studio, Serra began to investigate how the elliptical plan might ascend and turn through space. He sheathed lead around small wood maquettes (ellipses pivoted at various angles to one another at either end of a dowel). The resulting templates showed gentle essing bands which could bend into a level bottom and top. With computer aid, Serra scaled this exercise up to industrial fabrication. Could these warps be rolled from two-inch steel plates? Given available technologies, what sizes were possible? What potential relationships would be generated between the sculptures, the exhibition space and viewers? The sculptural method Serra sets for himself can be seen as guess-work manipulating of resilient material, performed at a highly ambitious level. Meaning necessarily follows the dogged pursuit of form. This is why impressive statistics (dimensions, weight, costs, man-hours) sometimes get posed as plausible substitutes for descriptions of Serra’s work.
Undeniably, the looming materiality of Torqued Ellipses makes a powerful first impression. Three versions of Torqued Ellipse (out of the four so far fabricated) whorl over a gridded ground plane, each steel skirt both cleaved to and cleft from the hard concrete floor. Perfect ellipses are incised under the intense burden of the plate-steel edges, yet the mass also billows up, disguising gravity. This sway and loft of the Torqued Ellipses guides one’s attention to the roof and its reliable system of trussed beams. Discovering stability and solidity overhead triggers a sensory inversion, a feeling that one and all are hanging off the floor. The sculptures present forms which the eye recognizes to be logical, resolved and whole, but without meaningful grounding in the experiential world. They have an arrested pulse akin to the new images of dying stars relayed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Torqued Ellipses have that nebular warp and ineffable, incipient, monocolorings – light orange, deep brown, black.
The steel surfaces show physical mutation, evident in their rectonic strain (cross-hatched roller stress marks and the gouges of hoist clamps) and the lunging seams cut in each enclosure. The turning Torqued Ellipses deny perpendicularity and have no discernible internal relationships. The entry cuts reveal this especially where, over just a few feet of void, the continuous steel bend cannot be mentally restored. Instead, the breaks whip off at unsprung vectors. Looking into or, better, stepping over this psychosensory threshold, the circulation of space and energy within the sculptures is palpable.
This creaking containment raises the question of action anew. Further into Serra’s “Verb List” we find “to mark,” “to encircle,” “to enclose” and “to wrap,” applicable to the sheerly physical steel but not accounting for the fascination of the works. Taking deconstructive license, “to differ” (in that the steel both exemplifies and differs from its intrinsic nature) begins to explain the phenomenological play Torqued Ellipses exert on optical sense: ravishing vision, delaying it, prompting it to premature conclusions which the haptic senses (locomotion, equilibrium and the skin) dispute.
The Torqued Ellipses modulate themselves considerably with respect to human presence. Their size (Torqued Ellipse I is typical at thirteen feet high with a base ellipse of twenty by twenty-nine feet) towers over a solitary onlooker and one-on-one the sculptures appear menacing and possibly unstable. This eases considerably as other people step into the situation, although their agitation is also evident. Visitors pace restlessly in a futile search for points of comprehension or balance. This brisk circulation seems more assertive than anxious however, insisting upon the resolved experience that the sculptures imply. With many visitors likely at this highly frequented exhibition, the Dia Center becomes an uncustomary social space. The salient movements directed by the Torqued Ellipses are not formal but communal.
Resolved to carry on a traditional mantle of the sculptor, mastery of inanimate substance, Serra has met limitations in orchestrating the reception of his earlier site-specific works. Screens, obstacles and other barriers have deflected attention from the public environment to confrontation with the sculptures themselves. The penetrable Torqued Ellipses allow differences to be ascertained with mobility (and without the payoffs of comfort or satisfaction). The logic of these curious forms can be inferred but not confirmed, a quality which shifts power from the object’s “doing” to the subject’s “being.” Serra’s steel is far less imposing, less resistant than it has ever been before.