Richard SERRA, Prop Enlarge 1 /2
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Richard SERRA

United States of America born 1939

Prop 1968 Materials & Technique: sculptures, lead Edition: from an edition of 6

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: overall 259.0 h x 152.0 w x 112.0 d cm lead roll 240.0 h x 9.0 w cm ; weight 115.2 kg lead sheet 153.0 h x 152.0 w cm ; weight 48.5 kg
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 75.670.A-B
Subject: Art style: Process art
Image rights: © Richard Serra/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy
  • with Leo Castelli Inc., New York, 1968;
  • to Larry Aldrich;
  • to John Powers, Aspen, Colorado;
  • with Leo Castelli Inc., New York;
  • from whom bought by the Acquisitions Committee of the Australian National Gallery, November 1973

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.[1] 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?[2]

Dr Anthony White
Lecturer in Art History
The University of Melbourne

[1]Anne Byrd, ‘Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years’, in Brooklyn Rail: Critical perspectives on arts politics, and culture, September 2007, np

[2] 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 )

Richard Serra first began working with lead in 1968 by 'tearing' successive narrow strips from the edges of a sheet of lead laid on the floor. He made his first lead 'casting' by splashing molten lead into the junction of a floor and a wall, and his first lead 'rolls' by tightly rolling thin lead sheets into long poles. 'I wrote down a list of transitive verbs', Serra said, 'to split, to splash, to spread, to roll, to heap … and applied the infinitives.1 The first work which he made from a conjunction of these processes was Prop. 'The series of lead rolls was made from lead sheets', Serra recalled. 'I realised that I was making one form, the lead roll, and I wanted to combine it with the other form which was the sheet. It occurred to me that the roll could be used as a pole and the sheets could be propped from and off the wall without utilising a joint.2

The first Prop — the prototype of the work in the Australian National Gallery's collection — was made by Serra for his solo exhibition at the Rolf Ricke Gallery in Cologne in October 1968.3 A few months later, in December 1968, Serra made the Canberra Prop for the exhibition 'Nine at Castelli' at the Castelli Warehouse, New York, adopting slightly larger dimensions for the lead sheet and using lead alloyed with a small percentage of antimony to give the lead greater rigidity.4 Serra continued to reconstruct the work and make multiple variations on the theme of the prop for a number of exhibitions in 1969.5 All these pieces explore the effects of propping massive forms together purely by weight and gravitational pull.

The Prop in the Australian National Gallery was made in an edition of six by Serra for Leo Castelli Inc., New York, in 1968. Others from this edition are in the following collections: the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Tremaine Collection, Hartford, Connecticut; Roger Davidson; and Gordon Locksley, Minneapolis.6

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.380.

  1. Interview with Richard Serra by Bernard Lamarche-Vidal, taped in New York City in May 1980 and reprinted in Richard Serra: Interviews, Etc. 1970-1980, a catalogue published on the occasion of an exhibition of the artist's work at the Hudson River Museum, Trevor Park-on-the Hudson, Yonkers, New York, 1980, p.142.
  2. Richard Serra: Interviews, p. 142.
  3. An Installation photograph of this exhibition is reproduced in Richard Serra Interviews, p.144.
  4. Leo Castelli, correspondence with the Gallery, 23 July 1986.
  5. Serra included five Prop pieces in his exhibition at the Rolf Ricke Gallery in Cologne in March 1969. Nine Prop pieces were included in 'Nine Young Artists, Theodoron Awards' at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969. Serra also included Prop pieces in the exhibition Anti-Illusion:Procedures and Materials' at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in May-July 1969.
  6. Leo Castelli, correspondence with the Gallery, 23 July 1986.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Serra’s primary materials are rubber, steel and lead alloyed with the stiffening agent antinomy. Throughout the 1960s, he used these ‘heavy’ industrial materials in works exploring action: tearing, casting, rolling, heaping, propping. These works sought to draw attention to the physical experience of an artwork, in Serra’s words to ‘make the volume of the space tangible, so that it is understood immediately, physically, by your body’. As well as always remaining ‘active’ as an artwork (it is right now engaging significant gravitational forces), Prop is also in the processes of becoming ‘blacker’, as the lead continues to oxydise.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra