In his work of the late 1960s Richard Serra challenged the idea that a sculpture is the realisation of a preformed idea in the artist’s mind. He achieved this by making the work's form a function of a specific physical process, type of material, and architectural context. In the series of works titled Prop, dating from 1968 to 1970, making was reduced to the most rudimentary and fundamental of processes, such as rolling or leaning.
In this way Serra plays down the expert, skilled manoeuvres normally expected from the trained artist―such as carving or modelling―and highlights the inherent properties of the material. Rather than building or placing the work so as to be self-supporting, in Prop Serra employs the force of gravity to which the materials are naturally subject, to keep the object in its place. In so doing he transparently reveals the means by which the sculpture remains upright―equilibrium between the rolled up sheet of lead and the resistance offered by the fixed architectural planes of the floor and wall―but also poses his work in a precarious balance.
Despite the heavy solidity of the material, the lead alloy is quite soft and pliable, as is evident in the creases which form around the plate where it contacts the roll, and the slightly crushed ends of the roll where it touches the floor. Here strength and load-bearing are, unlike in conventional architecture, dependent on softness; without the give in the material the whole house of cards would slip and give way. Moreover, the effect of the work as a whole depends upon creating a sense of ‘soft’ vulnerability in the viewer―we wonder whether our own bodily safety isn’t at risk from the work’s unusual construction?
Dr Anthony White
Lecturer in Art History
The University of Melbourne
Anne Byrd, ‘Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years’, in Brooklyn Rail: Critical perspectives on arts politics, and culture, September 2007, np
 Ken Johnson, ‘Richard Serra, Prop Sculptures: 1969–87’, New York Times, 17 May 2002, p 35
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )