To stand on our own
Richard Serra is one of several modern artists who have tried to break sculpture's traditional analogy with the human figure. In the late '60s, Serra produced a series of works that have vertical structure without imitating the uprightness of the human form. Other sculptors, Constantin Brancusi, Carl Andre , Anthony Caro, had already shown how elimination of the pedestal, sculpture's traditional framing device, made horizontal sculpture possible. And Serra's works, resting directly on the floor, have a strong horizontal component. By their dimensions and their precarious structure, they claim a periphery of floor space as their own by rendering it dangerous territory. In the work shown here, it is easy to see that the work's uprightness is a matter of balanced forces, not of internal fastenings. The only fastening involved is the force of gravity that keeps four lead plates tiltingly upright under the weight of lead sheet rolled into a cylinder. This work and the others like it are literally dangerous to the careless spectator. The perceptible possibility of the work's collapse is really its strength as sculpture.
The use of gravity as an available fastening force is the essence of this work's significance as sculpture. If the work collapses, its meaning as sculpture disappears because that meaning is present only when the work's elements are in the relationship shown in this photograph. That is, part of the meaning of this work is an idea of what meaning is in sculpture, or of what it should be. Meaning, in this case, is not a design idea that can be abstracted from this object and applied elsewhere; it is the intelligibility of specific physical circumstances, something that can simply evaporate if the circumstances change. The argument of this work is that the meaning of sculpture does not persist in time differently from the way the sculpture itself does. Meaning is not something ethereal that haunts the object and freely "enters" our minds, it is something we see when we perceive the object articulately.
The verticality of Serra's piece does not imitate the uprightness of the human figure. Yet Serra has produced a structural metaphor in this work for the meaning of the erect human posture. The upright posture signifies awakeness, conscious control, the potential for activity, the integrity of individual human being. The supine posture is associated with states of disarticulation, sleep, sickness, death. The vertical structure of Serra's piece is the intelligibility that will disappear from its material, should the work collapse. The work's intelligibility is a metaphor for the lucidity of conscious attention or purpose that equate with the ability to stand on one's own.