It’s Not What It Is, It’s Where It Is: Welcoming a New Richard Serra Installation to Campus

By Claire Zulkey

Richard Serra’s 1991 work Seattle Right Angles Propped is the newest piece of public art installed at the University of Chicago—steel forged in two parts that meet at a right angle, two L’s that support each other with the force of counterweight and gravity. 

Seattle Right Angles Propped  (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

Seattle Right Angles Propped (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

In its previous location—backyard beachfront property in north suburban Glencoe, IL—the sculpture provided a frame around where the rolling landscape met Lake Michigan. Now, in its new home thirty miles south in the Vera and A. D. Elden Sculpture Garden, it echoes both in form and meaning the portico that connects UChicago’s Department of Art History and the Smart Museum of Art. 

Dorie Sternberg (LAB’43) donated the piece to the Smart, where it was installed in May 2019 and formally unveiled in June. Over the years Sternberg and her late husband, Paul Sternberg cultivated a notable art collection in their home, although Sternberg says, “We were very reluctant to buy any outdoor art,” citing concerns that public passers-by in their backyard bluffs might injure themselves on or vandalize a sculpture. As collectors of artists like Alexander Calder, Cy Twombly, and Jasper Johns though, they couldn’t resist Serra’s work forever. 

Since the 1960s, the artist has revolutionized the genre of massive sculptural work, typically using steel in site-specific urban spaces. His signature pieces are often suited to the outdoors because of their weight and intended relationship with the elements and a changing landscape. The Sternbergs commissioned Seattle Right Angles Propped for their yard and could admire it from their glass-walled kitchen every day. After Paul passed away in 2004, Sternberg decided that she wanted to see some of her art donations placed in her lifetime, including the Serra sculpture. 

Seattle Right Angles Propped  (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

Seattle Right Angles Propped (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

The sculpture seemed destined to travel south. Sternberg, née Feitler, grew up near UChicago on Woodlawn Avenue, and her brother, Robert Feitler (LAB ’45, X ’50), is a former board chair of the Smart Museum. By relocating Seattle Right Angles Propped near where Sternberg grew up, next to the museum that her family has deeply supported over the years, the sculpture is given “pride of place,” says Amy Gold (MA’90), an art dealer who sits on the Smart’s board and who helped arrange the sculpture’s donation. 

Serra’s most well-known public works, like his 32-ton sculpture Reading Cones in Chicago’s Grant Parkare known for their conspicuous use of space. Consisting of two pieces of three-inch thick curved steel, each measuring 17 by 14 feetReading Stones forces viewers to walk around and through it to fully experience the piece. Seattle Right Angles Propped is not quite as prominent: a casual visitor unfamiliar with high profile artists from the Process Art Movement might at first see the piece as a striking but not particularly utilitarian bicycle rack.  

“It’s counter-aggressive,” observes Christine Mehring, chair of UChicago’s art history department. The piece, she says, is canonical, and encompasses two Serra periods in one piece. The first represents Serra’s pioneering work in the field of process art, wherein the focus is not the finished product, but its creation. “The right angles prop each other in what art historian Rosalind Krauss has called an ‘erotics of process,’” referring to the way the art is continuously making itself, “as its physical forces play out perpetually.”

Seattle Right Angles Propped showcases Serra’s second period with COR-Ten weathering steel and use of parallax: the piece shifts and changes, depending on whether you’re approaching it from the Cochrane-Woods Art Center, the Smart, or the street. “From each direction, you get a different slice,” Mehring says. “I’m looking forward to taking hundreds of students out here at all times of year.” 

Christine Mehring, chair of the UChicago’s art history department, at the sculpture’s unveiling. Photo by Sarah Larson.

Christine Mehring, chair of the UChicago’s art history department, at the sculpture’s unveiling. Photo by Sarah Larson.

The merging of metals, angles, and periods in the work is appropriate to mark the place where the Department of Art History and the Smart Museum meet. “It connects us in a material, experiential way,” says Mehring. The sculpture was installed a little over a year after the Smart announced the formation of the Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry, which often engages Art History faculty and students with other students from any number of disciplines, from law and economics to the physical sciences, utilizing the Smart’s collections and exhibitions for learning. Mehring says the sculpture, which fills a gap in the museum’s collection of Minimalist and Post-Minimalist sculpture, represents a significant moment within art history, and the piece will help faculty discuss art’s direct embeddedness in the real world; its new, direct relationship to the viewer’s body; its pioneering use of industrial materials; and large scale. Seattle Right Angles Propped, “allows us to address the most frequently asked question and charge about modern art: why is this art? I can do this, too!” 

“The right angles prop each other in what art historian Rosalind Krauss has called an ‘erotics of process,’” referring to the way the art is continuously making itself, “as its physical forces play out perpetually.”
— Christine Mehring, chair of UChicago’s art history department

Alison Gass, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum, sees the sculpture as a sign of the University’s commitment to bring new public works not just to the Smart Museum, but to the Hyde Park community. “We hired Laura Steward as UChicago’s Curator of Public Art, a position that hadn’t existed before,” Gass says. “Her role brings a dedicated focus to the public art collection, allowing us to think collaboratively across campus about what it means to engage with art objects beyond the walls of the museum. Not only is this position crucial to the long-term care of the University's collection, but also creates opportunity for growth and experimentation through temporary installations and exhibitions.” 

Seattle Right Angles Propped may prove to be just one half of a Richard Serra set on Chicago’s South Side as UChicago looks to grow its public art footprint. Gass says there has been discussion of transplanting Reading Cones–which was only supposed to be in Grant Park temporarily–to Hyde Park. “Moving it down to the campus as a long-term loan would be extraordinary for us. The idea that two Serra sculptures of vastly different scales could potentially live within walking distance of one another is exciting and would offer incredible learning opportunities for students, faculty, and campus visitors.”  

Relocating a Richard Serra is no small feat, and not simply because of weight or size. Tilted Arc, Serra’s 12-foot-tall, 120-foot-long wall of steel that curved across the busy plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan, was removed in 1989 after heated public debate, despite the artist’s protestation that “to remove the work is to destroy the work.” At Serra’s request, Tilted Arc has never and likely will never be erected in any other location. The site-specific nature of Serra’s work is crucial to experiencing the pieces. The artist’s attorneys had to approve the repositioning of Seattle Right Angles Propped to UChicago.

Seattle Right Angles Propped  (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

Seattle Right Angles Propped (Richard Serra, 1991). Photo by Sarah Larson.

The new location of the sculpture was considered carefully, stresses Gass. “We knew, because it was a gift to the Smart Museum and so important to the teaching of art history, that we wanted a location around the museum and art history department in Cochrane-Woods.” But they also had to keep in mind that “part of what is interesting about Serra’s work is that it’s very much meant to get in your way, to force you to confront it and navigate around it.” 

Sternberg and Gass spent a day walking the UChicago campus with Roger Machin, director of field operations and co-founder of Methods and Materials, a company that specializes in installation of large-scale sculptures, artifacts, and objects. Machin created a life-sized maquette of the sculpture to aid them in visualizing the work in a new setting. Gass was initially concerned about whether the sculpture would impede the courtyard’s use as an event space, but when the maquette was placed, it was clear that Seattle Right Angles Propped would actually serve as a striking point of focus. With a Richard Serra, Machin said at the sculpture’s unveiling, “It’s not what it is; it’s where it is.”