Richard Serra has undeniably consolidated his career in contemporary art through his many controversial works including his now well known installation One Top Prop. Most Richard Serra exhibitions have elicited debates and discussions. In some cases, visitors have even sustained injuries, and there have even been some incidences of death recorded.
This sculpture killed a laborer
For instance, in November 1971, Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop turned deadly suddenly when a rigger known as Raymond Johnson was trapped after one of the plates from the sculptor slipped from its frail support and fell.
Unfortunately, Raymond passed away, but his wife filed a lawsuit1 against the artist and the museum. In the end, Richard Serra was exonerated; it was the fabricators of the steel plates that were found negligent after constructing the plates shoddily.
Another accident occurred in October 1988 during Serra’s two-person exhibition2 alongside Bruce Nauman at the Castelli gallery in New York. The 32-ton heavy steel sculpture Reading Cones (1988) pinned two workers3 for some minutes when it fell from its jacks.
What Richard Serra is famous for
Serra’s pieces have always resembled architectural relics more than they have giant sculptures. Serra is famous for incorporating curved spaces and arcs, as well as many other elements of architecture in his works, such as in his well-known work Tilted Art, 19814.
Like architects, Serra has also always designed his works to be explored by the audience. In One Ton Prop, the audience could enter, walk in and out and interact with the artwork. The capacity to explore pieces this way allowed the audience to gain a unique experience by touching, feeling and in a way communicating with the works.
About One Top Prop
One Ton Prop, although deadly, was the outcome of Serra’s most mature works, managing to combine elements of weight, gravity, counterforce and other properties of architecture in the piece. The work, contrary to popular belief, was not an abstract form but a sculpture.
Serra constructed and designed the strips of lead and steel to lean against one another. As such, Serra did not use bolts or rivets to join the pieces together. He simply wanted to develop a sculpture that depended on its inner stability.
Even though it seemed it might collapse, it was in fact freestanding. You could see through it, look into it, walk around it, and I thought, ‘There’s no getting around it. This is sculpture.
The meaning of the work
The purpose of creating the One Ton Prop was to use gravity to attack the steadiness and permanence of form. Serra established the conditions of gravitational balance where every part of the structure was necessary for the whole to remain propped.
In the end, the piece was a fluid work that existed in a state of tension, which pointed toward the unchanging state of the being. It also helped to point out the emotions that human beings experience internally and externally in relation to their environment.