On May 6, 2014, The Architectural League awarded the President’s Medal, its highest honor, to artist Richard Serra. The remarks that follow were delivered by curator and early Serra patron Emily Rauh Pulitzer at the dinner held in Serra’s honor. Additional remarks given at the event, by Annabelle Selldorf and Michael Manfredi and Marion Weiss, are published here.
It is daunting to speak before this august group and to honor Richard Serra, the most articulate, most brilliant person I know. It was no less daunting for me the first time we met, in 1969, when I was a curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum. I had asked him to speak there, and he arrived without having slept for several days. He had dreadlocks, and not the neatest ones. Joe Pulitzer, whom I greatly admired, was in the audience. That was really scary!
But I need not have worried. Richard and the ideas he expressed were powerful enough to convince Joe to commission him for his first permanent site-specific work. Early in his career, Richard sometimes was known to be aggressive, but the work that he created for our place, in a pasture where, until then, few ever went, was the essence of sensitivity. The sculpture’s three five-foot-high horizontal weathering steel plates not only measured the 15-foot drop in elevation of the natural fall of the land, but echoed and supported the low, long house nearby, which had been designed by William Bernoudy, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. For more than 40 years I have lived with Richard’s work through all seasons, and it is one of the major reasons why I have placed a conservation easement on the field and adjoining woods. His work there will always be protected.
This work in my field, like other related early ones made more than 40 years ago — Shift in Canada, Spin Out at the Kröller Müller, and Twain in downtown St. Louis — enmesh you in their space and its environs, entwining the artist’s work and the viewer’s perception of it, the land and yourself in relation to it.
Many years later and after many visits to see Richard’s work in Europe, Iceland, and this country, I commissioned him to make a sculpture in relation to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation building designed by Tadao Ando. Richard had been, in fact, the first person to mention Ando’s name to me, years before, when Joe Pulitzer and I had no inkling that we would be building. Working with Richard and Ellsworth Kelly, whom I also commissioned to create a sculpture, made our building special for Tadao Ando. After seeing the model for Richard’s torqued spiral sculpture when we were already under construction, Ando changed the windows facing the sculpture to narrow horizontal ones giving a wonderful view of the top spiral edge. From my office I see the edge shining when the sun hits it, rain drops dancing, snow piling against it, and snowflakes clinging to the sides of the sculpture.
It is the first of three torqued spirals, each named by Richard in tribute to a man who was significant in his professional development: Joe Pulitzer, Dick Bellamy, and David Sylvester. I was and continue to be greatly touched by this dedication and felt the sculpture identified Joe as strong, complex, and handsome. A visitor to the Foundation had another take: “It is amazing to think of his life like this—as a path and a journey, but also as something that reached so high.” This work has affected our visitors powerfully. It has even been the site of at least two marriage proposals!
In a less poetic vein, this, as with most of Richard’s sculpture, isn’t so much about form—though our perception of it changes with each step—but about weight and space, not so much about the space it occupies as the space it animates. And finally, it is even your own mass that you come to feel because of your motion, your sense of equilibrium, or lack thereof, when you move around and through his sculptures.
I cannot close without mentioning Richard’s role in the medium of drawing where, as with sculpture, he has gone where no one else has before. As with his earlier sculpture which defined rooms—their corners, the space between ceiling and floor—his large paint stick drawings on canvas stapled to the walls powerfully make us rethink what a room is and how we feel occupying it.
Unlike architects who need to fulfill many other functions with their work, Richard, as an artist, has the freedom to shape space and our perception of it with purity and intensity. I can think of no one more deserving of this honor from The Architectural League than my friend, Richard Serra.