Looking Back at Richard Serra's Controversial Tilted Arc

March 10, 2020

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new generation of artists interested in abandoning inherited patterns of art-making entered the art world and introduced innovative approaches in a variety of media. Under the influx of Minimalism and Conceptual art, the two radical tendencies at the time, some practitioners developed exceptional and lasting bodies of work that revolutionized the contemporary art currents.

One of them is Richard Serra, a highly regarded figure whose "sculptures in the expanded field" (the phrase explored by an art critic Rosalind Kraus in her seminal 1979 book of the same title) changed the notion of this medium. Although produced in the public space, throughout the decades his works were often misunderstood and disputed for their rigidness and aesthetic.

Such was the case with Serra’s outstanding public art installation Tilted Arc put up in New York from 1981 until 1989 when it was demolished after a tiring trail. This particular case doesn’t just unravels the artist’s socio-political consideration and treatment of the public space; moreover it nicely illustrates the lack of public debate on public art and the ways it should contribute to a certain community.

Richard Serra - Clara Clara
Richard Serra - Clara, Clara, 1983. Image via Flickr.

Tilted Arc - The Commissioned Work by Richard Serra

In 1979 the United States General Services Administration Art-in-Architecture program decided to commission a public artwork that was suppose to enrich the open space in front the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan, New York City. The National Endowment for the Arts panel of art experts recommended Richard Serra, the leading Minimalist sculptor at the time, to release a project. That was granted the U.S. General Services Administration administrator and the contract for the commission was signed underlining that the work becomes the state property.

The post-minimalist piece titled Tilted Arc was designed and installed in 1981. It was a grand and, as the title suggests, slightly tilted, unfinished steel plate, 120 feet (37 m) long, 12 feet (3.7 m) tall, and 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) thick, positioned on the Federal Plaza. The steel used for the construction was self-oxidizing with an aim to develop a natural rusted opaque over time.

The work dissected the space, twisting the views and paths of the frequented passeresby at the plaza. As a matter of fact, any person going through Tilted Arc was able to experience a different kind of movement and perception as the sculpture contracts and expands. Serra’s was mostly concerned with such a quality of the work that eventually made him treating it as a site-specific.

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc (Interview)

The Trial

Just after it was commissioned in 1979, Tilted Arc attracted intense negative feedback, as well as support from the art community. While the defenders of the work underlined its importance by focusing on the fact it transformed the public space and expanded the concept of sculpture, the ones who criticized it spoke about the ugliness of the work and perceived it mockery of the site.

The people working around the area found Tilted Arc disruptive for their daily routines, and within just a few months over one thousand three hundred bureaucratic employees signed a petition for its removal. There was also an argument that the sculpture overshadowed the site and forced it to function as an extension of the sculpture. The initiative Storefront for Art and Architecture summoned prominent NYC artists and architects to envision the future plaza for the purposes of After Tilted Arc protest. Having in mind all the reaction, Serra commented stated "it is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work."

As a result of this public debate, in 1985 a Federal lawsuit was filed against the work which led to a public trial considered to be the most notorious public sculpture controversy in the history of art law. One of the arguments heard at the trial claimed that the sculpture induces the risk of deflecting explosions into government buildings opposite and impeded adequate surveillance of the area beyond. A public hearing happened in March the same year with one hundred and twenty two people testifying in the favor of Tilted Arc, and fifty eight demanding its removal. Among the supporters were notable artists such as Keith Haring, Phillip Glass and Claes Oldenburg, as well as other artists and art historians.

Finally, the jury of five voted 4–1 for the removal of the sculpture. The decision was confirmed by Serra, leading to few years of legal battle; however, the sculpture was eventually removed by federal workers in March 1989 and stored in a government parking lot in Brooklyn. The dismantled sculpture was moved to a storage space in Maryland in 1999, however, Serra decided for it not be erected again except on its original location.

The Trial of Tilted Arc with Richard Serra

The Influence of The Memorable Titled Arc

At one point, Richard Serra stated that the Tilted Arc case perfectly illustrates the capitalist nature of the U.S. legal system concerning property rights, which in any case cannot be taken for granted. If we look closer from the contemporary perspective, this particular public artwork, and the way it was removed, exemplify the domination of economic policies over any art project.

Of course, with this statement another thing comes to light: the fact Serra created a critical work with the aim to break through the rigidness of the bureaucratic matrix and the Kafkaesque atmosphere typical for the large business enterprises; to empower people to rethink dystopia not as an imaginary concept, but the real one, the artist used a still and tilted form.

The Tilted Arc controversy influenced the inauguration of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) in 1990 as an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976. Namely, VARA provides "moral rights" to the artist - claiming they have rights to maintain their integrity when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but in 2006 the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that VARA does not protect location as a component of site-specific work.

After all stated above, it is quite clear that the debate regarding the sculpture unraveled the lack of understanding and potential for a critical articulation of the capital and power structures in the period marked by the Cultural wars run by the Reagan administration.

Editors’ Tip: The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent ?

Since its installation at and subsequent removal from New York City's Federal Plaza, noted sculptor Richard Serra's Tilted Arc has been a touchstone for debates over the role of public art. Installed in 1981, the 10-foot-high, 120-foot-long curved wall of Cor-Ten self-rusting steel instantly became a magnet for criticism. Art critics in the New York Times and the Village Voice labeled it the city's worst public sculpture, and many denounced it as an example of the elitism associated with art and as an obstacle to the use and enjoyment of the plaza. Harriet F. Senie explores the history of Tilted Arc, including its 1979 commission and the heated public hearings that eventually led to its removal in 1989 (it was dismantled and is currently stored in a government warehouse in Maryland).

Featured image: Richard Serra Tilted Arc, via YouTube.

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