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Steeling Ourselves

If you’ve visited the contemporary galleries in the Modern Wing, you can’t have missed Richard Serra’s (American, born 1939) Weights and Measures from 1987.  Installed for the first time at the Art Institute for the opening of the new building, it is now being de-installed as part of our permanent collection rotations, which are necessary in order to display as much of the contemporary collection as possible. Weights and Measures, composed of three steel plates resting against one another and the wall, weighs an impressive five tons, and it was the second work installed in the Modern Wing (the first was Charles Ray’s Hinoki, 2007).

But now it’s time to reimagine the gallery without this tremendous sculpture. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will be on view at some point in the future. Just stop by the same location (Gallery 293 in the Modern Wing)—it’s the only place the sculpture can be positioned because the floor had to be reinforced to hold the weight of the steel plates.

If you’re not familiar with Weights and Measures, here’s a little bit of history about the artist and the work.

In the late 1960s, Richard Serra pioneered “anti-form,” an approach to sculpture that challenged the reductive formalism of Minimalism by focusing on the process or act of creation. Capturing the raw, muscular energy of working with lead and steel, the artist utilized these materials to explore fundamental properties of sculptural tension.

In 1968 Serra created his first “prop” pieces, consisting of plates and tubes configured in various ways. Although these works are all carefully balanced and entirely stable, they employ only gravity as their fundamental support. This understanding of the structure imparts a slightly unnerving quality.

All props fall into one of four categories—corner, freestanding, post-and-lintel, or wall—depending on their method of construction and installation. Serra explained, “I started very early simply balancing plates in relation to their compression and their tendency to interlock vertically both against the wall and on the ground.” Of equal importance is the space that surrounds the sculptures, which he sees as a material in and of itself, and therefore a vital component of each piece. In short, props and space reciprocally activate one another.

Weights and Measures is a monumental wall prop created from dense sheets that are not welded or joined in any way. (If you don’t believe, me, take a look at this deinstallation photo from earlier today to see the three separate plates of steel.) While precise calculations guarantee the work’s stability, what results is an imposing, even aggressive sculptural experience. Commenting on these works, Serra has stated, “The perception of the work in its state of suspended animation, arrested motion, does not give one measurable truths but a sense of presence, an isolated time. The apparent potential for disorder, for movement, endows the structure with a quality outside of its physical or relational definition.”


Richard Serra, "Weights and Measures," audio guide recording, 2009. Curatorial files, Department of Contemporary Art.

Richard Serra, "Steel Props," in Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998, ed. Russell Ferguson, Anthony McCall, and Clara Weyergraf-Serra, exh. cat (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/Steidl, 1998), p. 57.

Image credits: Richard Serra, Weights and Measures (1987). Hot-rolled steel. Gift of Camille Oliver-Hoffman. © 2008 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.