What made Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ sculpture so controversial?

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

Who is Richard Serra?

Richard Serra is a leading sculptor who is known for creating minimalist artwork. While he began his career after studying fine arts at Yale University, he created the sculpture Tilted Arc in 1981 in New York after celebrating his fortieth birthday. By this time he was already highly recognized and this is one of the reasons so much attention has been given to what became of the Titled Arc, an artwork that was intended to grace the Foley Federal Plaza for a long time and would be relocated in 1989 after it became the subject of a heated debate.

The ‘Tilted Arc’

The Tilted Arc was commissioned by the United States General Services Administration (GSA) and from Serra’s own assessment, he had purposed for it to be placed at the Foley Federal Plaza in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan.

The controversy caused by the sculpture

Built to stand at 3.7m high and spanning 38m long, the unique feature of the tilted arc was its lean to one side. It would have been a permanent addition to this busy part of the city had the administration taken time to prepare the people before its arrival. To the office workers, the artwork appeared to them as ugly and oppressive, an obstacle which had the potential to catch graffiti. Outright protests began to have it pulled down or transferred when two petitions gathered a total of 1,300 signatures. Since the GSA had commissioned the work and thought it was good at the particular area, they stood by their decision arguing that 1,300 signatures against a local population of 10,000 were not enough to influence their decision.

Serra sued the court

This strong position would be later overturned when a new mayor was installed in 1984; over a hearing that lasted 3 days and with the new mayor as the leader of the adjudicating panel. Richard Serra also spoke at the hearing, maintaining his position that the arc was built purposefully for that location and moving it from there would destroy it. 122 speakers were in favor of the arc while slightly over 50 were against it. Even when Serra sued the court, it was passed that the arc would be destroyed on order1 and the remains taken by Serra if he wished.

Removal of the artwork in 1989

The artwork was removed in 19892, the Tilted Arc was dislodged from the ground and cut into 3 pieces. Today, the spot on which the arc stood has been replaced by landscape architectural components to liven up the place.

Photos

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York
Photo: Elizabeth Sasser/ttu-ir.tdl.org

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York
Photo: Elizabeth Sasser/ttu-ir.tdl.org

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, sculpture, steel, New York City
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York
Photo: David Aschkenas/pbs.org

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, New York
Richard SerraTilted Arc, 1981, COR-TEN steel, 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

All images by Richard Serra/gagosian.com unless otherwise noted.

Videos

Richard Serra about Titled Arc

9min 18sec

The trial of Tilted Arc with Richard Serra, 1986

28min 2sec

Former location

Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York

Audio: Interview with Richard Serra, 1985

Other important works

Related readings

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1987/09/01/judge-rules-against-sculptor/912b9b21-cb1e-4399-a8bb-9674b5d2fe91/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/02/arts/art-view-the-messy-saga-of-tilted-arc-is-far-from-over.html
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