One of the few living artists whose work can disappear a viewer inside the middle of a gallery, Richard Serra (best known for his industrial sculptures and metal work) first picked up a 16MM camera only two years after completing his first physical artwork. That first film, Hand Catching Lead (1968), kicked off the complete retrospective of his film and video work at New York’s Anthology Film Archives this October. The screening series was coordinated with Gagosian Gallery, mounting three shows of new and recent Serra work through the top of next year.
Hand Catching Lead shows exactly that: a soot-splattered palm attempting and only sometimes succeeding in catching panels of lead as they are dropped from an unseen up above. Serra’s work is preoccupied with industrial production and building, a show of manufacturing through a display of its products. We should resist the urge to extrapolate an artist’s entire career from an early experiment, but the three-minute film from 1968 makes a decent case for the entire Serra project. When standing inside of Serra’s most famous sculpture, Band (2006) – currently on display at LACMA – there is a distinct inability to grasp the metalwork enveloping you. A sand-red, unbroken wall snakes and bends, creating inlets at the almost-meeting of its curves that are so large they feel like rooms. A single person at the farthest corner of the gallery cannot see the entire piece they’ve just studied up close, and a worked hand is unable to trap a panel of the same material they’ve just spent a day soldering into a massive whole.
That first Serra film work was inspired by dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Ranier’s Hand Film (1966), which he acknowledged in a 1978 interview with MIT Press. After seeing Ranier’s work and Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), Serra warmed to the medium. “Maybe I was a little bit frightened of it,” he says in the interview. “I wouldn’t have picked up a camera.” Serra’s collection of films gather a wider interest and a variation of skill as we move through his career. He credits Anthology Film Archives itself and its predecessor Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, both from founder Jonas Mekas, with forming his film education as he began to experiment with his own projects.
In 1973, he created Television Delivers People with Carlota Fay Schoolman, a single-channel video work of white text on blue background set to “elevator muzak”. The entire content of the piece is declarative statements about pop culture, television and mass media. Warhol’s influence is evident here, with its critique of mass media and winking tone. “You are the product of t.v.,” it says. “POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT IS PROPAGANDA FOR THE STATUS QUO.” The film has a basic cable PSA feel, the text scrolling on by as if it were a three a.m. bulletin, or as if PBS were listing their thanks for the support of viewers like you. Serra bought time on local television to run the piece, disseminating his critique through the very form it was concerned with. As the machinery of commercialized television is always churning, it should be no surprise that the style Serra deploys here has reappeared on commercial TV decades later. The aesthetic influence of Television Delivers People has shown up in bumpers on Adult Swim, in the latest Vimeo ads, in insurance commercials, and again and again in the video art of contemporary artists. If these appearances don’t always point to direct cribbing from Serra, they are evidence of something more significant: it became so ubiquitous that those inspired by it don’t know exactly where their inspiration came from. In 2007, the Whitney Museum’s exhibition on the sub-genre of 1970s and 80s video art which dealt with television’s effect on the public took its title from the Serra film, acknowledging the piece’s foundational role.
“How people move in relation to space,” Serra said in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, “that’s essentially what I’m up to.” He may have been talking specifically about his sculpture work, how he affects the flow of a viewer just by the way he fills a gallery, but the experiment also shows up in his 1974 film, Match Match Their Courage. The screen is split to show two subjects who are sitting in separate rooms, wearing headphones and looking toward screens which are positioned off-camera. The live image of each is being broadcast to the other, while their headphones are filled with a reverberating static. Two people connected by technology continually fail to communicate, beginning sentences but never finishing them, thrown off by the warped audio filling their ears. The distance between them is simultaneously collapsed and increased. Watching it, I thought of the experience of moving around Band with another person. Separated by walls, constantly turning corners to find each other, our voices launched over the tops and bounced around an echoey room.
Serra’s sculpture work is unique in the world of gallery art for the way it can obscure the hand of the artist. In the outside world, despite the existence of certain celebrity architects, the idea of buildings and structures and bridges having creators the same way art does is alien to most people. In his video work, it is easier to see his mark and to understand his project. In another famous piece, Railroad Turnbridge (1976), his interest in the industrial comes up. A camera looks down the barrel of a segmented bridge. One segment breaks from another and we begin turning. Landscape passes by. The 17-minute film continues with detail coverage: gears, sections of truss, a train passing through. But we return at the end to the same angle. Industrial scaffolding turns and turns, connecting us back to the rest of the bridge. The tracks extend in front of us, allowing a path which goes on forever.