In the early 1980s, the sculptor Richard Serra endured an extremely frustrating, public controversy over one of his works.
As part of the Art-in-Architecture program run by the General Services Administration (GSA), the government had approached the sculptor about creating a new work for Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan.
Serra, who was already known for his large-scale, site-specific steel works, spent two years designing and drafting plans for the piece that would become known as Tilted Arc.
But the backlash began almost immediately after the 120-foot-long, 12-foot-tall curved sculpture was unveiled in 1981. The reaction was fierce and it blindsided the artist.
The hearings and lawsuits over the fate of the work of art would last nearly a decade spearheaded by the very government that had commissioned the piece in the first place. In the end, Tilted Arc was unceremoniously disassembled, and entombed in a Brooklyn warehouse where it remains today.
In the late 1970s, Federal Plaza was, by most accounts, a largely disused city park frequented by commuters cutting through the space and past its inoperative fountain to get to work in the surrounding buildings.
Serra put a wrench in this mad dash of rush hour when he bisected the plaza with what was essentially a giant steel wall with the slightest of horizontal bends. Locals were now forced to slow down and go around the monumental sculpture, which was precisely the point.
“The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza,” Serra said of the effect he intended his work to have. “As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.”
Unfortunately, the federal employees who daily trafficked the plaza were not so happy with their newfound awareness of movement. Within two months of the Tilted Arc’s installation, a petition objecting to its existence had received 1,300 signatures.
“Whatever its esthetic merits, it is the wrong work of art in the wrong place,” the petition declared, according to The New York Times. It went on to lob such insults as calling the work “awkward and confusing” and guilty of creating “an ominous and threatening shadow,” in addition to blocking the view, though at the time a fair response to this last charge could have been, “What view?”
At first, the petition failed to receive much traction. While the opposition to the new piece of public art was upsetting, particularly to its creator who said in a recent book of conversations with the art critic Hal Foster that he had no idea how controversial the work was going to be, the GSA initially dismissed the concerns of what was then only a minority of the nearly 10,000 people who worked in the surrounding area.
But that all changed in 1984 when the GSA came under new, Republican-appointed leadership. William Diamond was now in charge of the GSA's regional program, and despite assurances to the contrary, he clearly had it out for oh-so-subtly curved walls.
The number of signatories on petitions asking for the Tilted Arc’s removal grew, as did the ridiculousness of the accusations against it. It was now not only an annoying obstacle on a morning commute, it was also a potential haven for muggers and bombs, an irresistible magnet for graffiti, and most perplexingly the cause of an intensifying rat problem in the area.
“They presented the public as a mob to be watched and Tilted Arc as a wall that hid enemies of the state from government cameras. There was a tenor to the testimony that was paranoid,” Hal Foster said in Conversations About Sculpture.
In 1985, Diamond announced that hearings would be held as to the fate of the Federal Plaza interloper which, it should be remembered, the organization he was now in charge of had commissioned in the first place.
Like most cultural flashpoints, the debate that ensued wasn’t just an argument over a lone sculpture in a previously neglected plaza that was causing a few workers a mild commuting hassle. To fully understand the sudden and surprising controversy around Tilted Arc, it’s important to zoom out from Federal Plaza and observe the cultural wars that were beginning to envelop the country during the Reagan administration.
The ensuing hearing and lawsuit brought up questions of free speech, of the rights of artists, and of the role of the government in both funding and censoring the arts.
The three-day hearing didn’t set out to destroy the sculpture. The question at hand was whether it should be removed from Federal Plaza and relocated elsewhere. But Serra made it clear that the work was inextricably linked to the site it had been specifically created for—to remove it would be to destroy it.
Of the 179 people who testified during the hearing, only 58 advocated for removal. While not everyone in the art world was on Serra’s side, there was a large show of support for Tilted Arc, with fellow artists as well as critics and museum curators speaking in defense of the piece. But despite these objections, the five-person panel, which Serra contended was stacked with members biased towards the opposition, voted 4-1 to remove the sculpture.
Serra wasn’t done yet. He lodged a $30 million lawsuit against the GSA for damages to his reputation and career, but in 1987, that effort was also shot down.
In the decades that have followed, Serra has admitted that he probably didn’t help matters.
Known for his somewhat abrasive personality, the sculptor didn’t soften his style in trying to defend or explain his work—he instead made comments like “I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.” He also failed to understand how to wrangle the media and the constant stream of coverage of the controversy.
But it’s hard to blame him for reacting poorly to being vilified for the commission he had carried out in good faith. In Conversations about Sculpture, Serra says that he received death threats during the highly visible trial and that it was common for people to yell at him as he walked the streets of New York.
“Remember the photograph of the Vietcong being shot in the head by the South Vietnamese police chief?” Serra says. “They took that photograph, wrote ‘Kill Serra’ under it, and plastered it all over downtown. That came from artists.”
It was additionally confusing that while he was being harassed on the streets of Manhattan and in the media, the Museum of Modern Art was undergoing a renovation that included gallery floors specifically bolstered to be able to support exhibitions of his massive steel structures. In 1986, while the lawsuit was ongoing, MoMA put up a well-received exhibition of Serra’s sculpture.
On March 15, 1989, eight years after Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza, it was disassembled with little fanfare in the middle of the night. According to The New York Times, it cost the government nearly $50,000 to take down the sculpture they had originally paid $175,000 to put up.
“This government is savage,” Serra responded. “It is eating its culture.”