Le Baiser, 1907/08 (The Kiss, 1907/08)
When Brancusi created the first version of Le baiser in 1907-08, it represented a complete break with his previous approach. The sculptor himself would later describe it as his “Damascus experience.” The Kiss reflects the new role played by direct chiselling in stone (“taille directe”), in contrast to the traditional method of basing a final sculpture on modelled preliminary stages. The geometrization of the volumes, the irregular treatment of the surface to bring out the character of the material, and the submission of the figure to the laws that govern stone – all these are found in The Kiss. The patinated plaster version of The Kiss shows a naturalistic treatment of the motif, which is reminiscent of the naivety of medieval figurative ornamentation.
La muse endormie [I], 1910 (Spleeping Muse [I], 1910)
The various versions of Muse endormie, or Sleeping Muse, in which the traditional bust was replaced by the fragment of a disembodied head, were smooth faces in which the features were gradually reduced to the point of disappearance. There are minimal differences between Sleeping Muse [I] in white marble and the bronze castings based on it, due to the fact that Brancusi reworked each intermediate piece in plaster or metal. Hence the bronzes can have a more or less patinated or polished surface. In this example, only the wavy hair is patinated, creating a strong contrast to the highly polished face. As if emerging from the homogeneous surface, closed eyes and a half-open mouth are detectable. The only truly relief element on the oval is the bridge of the nose.
La colonne sans fin, 1918 (Endless Column, 1918)
The idea of the column as sculpture was one of Brancusi’s most radical inventions, which would later lastingly influence a younger generation of sculptors, including Serra. The first surviving Colonne sans fin, of 1918, is an exemplar of Brancusi’s visionary conceptions of monumental projects. He recommended to its first owner, John Quinn, that the piece be exhibited in large spaces on a cubic base, and this was how it was presented in the first public exhibition. On the one hand, the repetition of the module-like rhomboids evoke a sense of infinity, and on the other, it is precisely the abrupt break in the topmost element that simulates an endless upward movement.
Adam et Eve, 1921 (Adam and Eva, 1921)
In the wood sculpture Adam and Eve, two originally separate figures merge into a new unity. The figure of Adam, connecting pedestal with sculpture, carries Eve on his head. This configuration is reduced to a phallic form, a bust whose “face” very clearly reflects the influence of African art on the sculptor. This archaic representation of the first biblical couple not only conveys Brancusi’s fascination with the “primeval” but stands for a merger of male and female as the utopian ideal of a lost wholeness.
Belts, 1966 / 67
To make Belts, Serra cut vulcanized rubber into long strips and hung them on hooks in the wall. Rather than the artist determining the final form of the piece, it is largely the material itself in combination with a law of physics to which we are all subject: the force of gravity. Serra once described the emergence of Belts in retrospect as follows: “In 1966 I happened to find tons of rubber. I began to work with this material on the wall. Gravity and drawing defined the work. The drawing was predicated on the joints and where lines crossed. I made a work with eleven units which was consciously influenced by Pollock’s Iowa State Mural. At that point I was dealing with color, plane, line in high relief, i.e., elements of an extended space. It left me feeling a little vacant because I have always thought that relief is nothing more than a hybrid, its volume being undercut by the plane of the wall and its perception being reduced to frontality and obliqueness.“
Serra’s early works in rubber finally led to the insight that, as he put it, open works had greater potentials for development when they were not tied to the wall. To this extent, they paved the way for his later walk-in and veritably architectural sculptures in steel.
House of Cards, 1969
One piece in the series of Lead Props was House of Cards, an early major work of Serra’s. The piece consists of four lead slabs leaning against each other at a slight angle. The stability of the work, in other words, is ensured by an apparent contradiction – it is the very tendency of the four slabs to fall that holds them upright. House of Cards maintains a precarious equilibrium that conveys itself to us in a veritably physical way.
Fernando Pessoa, 2007 / 08
While the title Fernando Pessoa cannot simply be taken as a key to an interpretation of this over forty-ton steel slab, it does represent an homage to the important Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Serra was reading his major work, The Book of Disquiet, during the emergence of this monumental sculpture, in which the theme of disquiet certainly plays an essential role.
This piece differs considerably from Serra’s earlier steel sculptures. While in Strike: To Roberta and Rudy or Olson the stability of the steel slabs was ensured by setting them in the corner of a room or through their curved shape, it is solely thickness and weight that hold Fernando Pessoa in equilibrium. Despite its “resting” quality, however, the sublime force of the piece has an all the more disquieting effect on us as viewers. Standing immediately in front of the soaring slab, we sense the physical threat it emanates and feel ovewhelmed.
Constantin Brancusi - La négresse blanche [I], 1923 and Richard Serra - Delineator, 1974/75
The White Negress, fashioned of finely veined marble, is the quintessence of perfection and flawlessness. The vertically positioned, milky white oval head seems veritably to shine from inside. The cross-shaped base of crystalline marble both emphasizes the hierarchical presence of the figure and invites us to move around it and view it from all sides. Serra’s unique installation Delineator – two equal-sized steel plates arranged crosswise on floor and ceiling – likewise invites us to walk around and through it. The plates virtually charge the intermediate space with energy, which is especially strongly felt when we step on to the floor plate. Yet unlike the dipole force field of Serra’s Delineator, The White Negress possesses a presence that, like a node of energy, irresistibly draws the entire surrounding space and our perception towards it.
Richard Serra – Strike: To Roberta and Rudy and Constntin Brancusi - Torse de jeune fille [I]
Strike: To Roberta and Rudy was one of Serra’s first steel sculptures and a pathfinding work in contemporary sculpture. Here, a plate stabilized by the corner of the room divides it into two halves, and as we walk around it the plate alternately appears as a plane, a line, and a plane again. In Strike, Serra managed to find a reduced structure that enables the viewer to walk directly into the space physically occupied by the sculpture. The given spatial context is sculpturally structured and thus redefined, such that sculpture and space enter a new, open unity. Also much apparent in Strike is the principle of line and cut so central to Serra’s art. This links the piece with Brancusi’s female torsos in the exhibition. Yet while in Brancusi the cut is applied to the sculptural volume, in Strike it is related to the space and hence immediately experienced by the viewer. “If anybody made a perfect contour shape that is balanced, and a form and body in relation to my body, and a sign and symbol, that’s it. You can take nothing away from Brancusi. Absolutely nothing.” Perhaps this comment reflects the quintessence of the artistic relationship between Brancusi and Serra, which is determined by their common exploration of contour, form and balance in their primal state.