The Law of Gravity: Carl Andre and Richard Serra
Posted by Leslie on May 8, 2012 - 11:58am
Categories: On the Walls

When an apple inspired Isaac Newton’s treatise on the Law of Gravitation, I wonder if he foresaw how his insights on the effects of gravity might impact twentieth-century art. Sculpture, in particular, relies heavily on the force of gravity. Two works in the Modern’s permanent collection utilize gravity as a sculptural tool, but in very different ways.

Carl Andre is an artist associated with Minimalism, a movement characterized by impersonal, geometric forms. These artists rejected the expressive movements that came before, such as Abstract Expressionism, and took a much more hands-off approach to their work. Andre applied this hands-off principle to the Element Series, to which the Modern’s Tau and Threshold (1971) belongs. He used standardized cuts of wood—each 12 x 12 x 36 inches—to eliminate evidence of the artist’s involvement; there is no sense that Andre carved these forms by hand.

A key element of Minimalist philosophy is being true to materials. Andre was so dedicated to this precept of material purity that he did not alter or add to the red cedar blocks that make up Tau and Threshold. He didn’t change the color or texture with a coat of paint, nor did he use adhesive or nails to secure the work. Rather, he opted to simply stack and arrange the wood blocks so that they are held together by their own weight and the sheer force of gravity.

Although Andre’s work is not joined by any sort of bonding agent, it appears stable and solid. That is not the case with Richard Serra’s Right Angle Corner Prop with Pole (1969). Serra came of age during the 1960s, when Minimalism was in full swing. Much like the artists that came before, he too began to react against the mainstream. While embracing certain aspects of the Minimalist vocabulary, he also rejected as much as he adopted. (Although not an organized movement, Serra and others who worked within this new vocabulary were referred to as postminimalists.) In Corner Prop, for example, there is the same interest in nonreferential geometric forms and material purity. But whereas the Minimalists were hands-off, the postminimalists were actively involved in the creative process.

In the late 1960s, Serra made a list of verbs that he then proceeded to act out: to roll, to fold, to cut, to twist, to bend, to tie, to dangle, to lift, to splash. These verbs served not as end products, but as actions that interested him. For example, Serra took the verb “to roll” and rolled a sheet of lead. He then decided to balance various lead pieces, including lead plates and the rolls he had made, against one another. Right Angle Corner Prop with Pole is not welded together, rather each piece is precariously resting on the other, with each form contributing to the overall stasis, achieving a state of equilibrium that relies on gravity, but at the same time seems to defy it.

For Andre and Serra, gravity is as important an element as the materials used. Be it an interest in material purity, balanced equilibrium, or implied destruction, both artists incorporate and rely on the unseen force of gravity.