16mm film transferred to DVD
3:02 min., b&w, silent
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2010 Richard Serra/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
San Francisco-born artist Richard Serra is known to many for towering site-specific sculptures that are made by rigging, balancing, and bending enormous weathered steel plates. His recent sculptures are walked around and into, and continue the artist’s longstanding engagement with manipulating raw materials to “draw” negative spaces and to create physically and psychologically charged experiences for viewers.
Serra’s interest in process, industrial materials, and the importance of the viewer arose after the artist—who worked in steel mills and studied English (University of California, Berkeley and Santa Barbara) and painting (Yale University, BFA, MFA)—went to Europe in the mid-1960s. In Spain he was struck by how Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) activated a mysterious relationship with the viewer; in Italy he became intrigued by artists who were resourcefully using nontraditional materials. By the time that Serra settled in New York City in 1967 he had abandoned painting. Working with a list of transitive verbs (to roll, to fold, to splash) and structural nouns (of tension, of gravity, of entropy), he began making sculptural works. He soon gained the attention of the art world and was recognized as a key member of a generation of post–Abstract Expressionist artists who were redefining art. For them it was roughly constructed, concerned with process and labor, and even confrontational.
By the late 1960s Serra was making performative sculptures by throwing molten metal at walls and floors (Casting, 1969) and precariously balancing pieces of lead into open “boxes” that viewers could cautiously approach (One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969). He was also making films, some of which directly address social issues but most of which can be read as filmic analogues to Serra’s sculptures and process. Hand Catching Lead is one of the best-known examples of these. In the three-minute, single-shot work the artist’s soiled hand tries to catch and release small sheets of lead that are continuously dropped from somewhere off-camera. The hand misses more often than it manages to catch. Like Serra’s sculptures, the film is straightforward and austere, yet insistent. It conveys a sense both of what it takes to handle industrial material and of the difficulties of making artistic intentions and materials harmoniously converge.