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Richard Serra, "Torqued Ellipse IV"

Richard Serra talks about discovering "the potential for what steel could be." To learn more about what artists have to say, take our online course, Modern and Contemporary Art, 1945-1989. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: When Richard Serra first became interested in bending plates of steel over 25 years ago he felt he'd had little experience with large scale curved surfaces. Richard: I realized that there wasn't a large vocabulary of building with curvilinear forms particularly in a city that's made up of right angles. The only curvature building I can think of of any node in the city at that time was Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. I wanted to build something that would inform my experience. If you walk around the curve you don't know how it's going to round. It seems continuous and never ending. The concave side, like a cave, reveals itself in its entirety. You know what the form is. Voiceover: You'll see that difference immediately when you reach the opening and step into Torqued Ellipse IV. Richard: As you step inside, the piece seems to have a great elasticity as it moves around and it either leans over your head or leans away from you depending on where you are. You can see that the ellipse on the floor is exactly the same as the ellipse in the sky. As the piece gets higher it rotates in relation to itself, but it's the same all the way up. Initially, the way this piece was conceived was through a kind of misinterpretation. I happened to be in Rome and walked into a church that was built in the 15th century and I looked at the floor and I looked at the ceiling and I thought that the simple ellipse on the floor was turned in relationship to the one overhead. When I walked to the center of the floor I realized that it was just a regular ellipse that rose like an elliptical cylinder straight up. What interested me was my misinterpretation. Voiceover: Serra became determined to create the form he had imagined. He went to an arrow space engineer and asked him if it was possible to make such a twisted or a torqued form. Richard: He said he didn't think so. The solution to that problem doesn't occur in nature and it doesn't occur in architecture. It's a formal invention. The first model took 3 years to be built because we couldn't find a computer program or a steel mill that knew how to build these things. The first one we tried to build we broke a 40 foot plate, 2 inches thick right in half. It sounded like lightning and I thought I'd bought the farm. I turned completely white. The technology has been developed to allow one to bend metal under heavy compression and we used very large machines, first used to build battleships in the 2nd World War. People really hadn't really explored the potential for what steel could be in terms of it's variabilities and elasticity. It's only recently been explored by a few people.