These days, a Richard Serra exhibition is a major public event. Immense steel slabs are installed in one of Gagosian’s expansive Chelsea galleries, and adoring crowds and critics make their way to pay their respects. You can buy a tasteful catalog in the lobby, and get your Instagram activity ratcheted up while you wander in and out of the arcs. It’s the rare art world convergence of mass public appeal and esteemed critical respect.
It was not always thus. In 1981, there was, of course, no Instagram, but no Chelsea gallery scene to speak of, and no Gagosian running the world. The artists himself remained a vital force, and a far more confrontational one. It was then that Serra’s Tilted Arc was installed in Foley Federal Plaza in front of the Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. The piece was a 12’ high, 120’ long piece of steel that, crucially, was set at an angle across the plaza and obstructed the natural flow of the foot traffic. It cost $175,000.
The trial to determine the Titled Arc’s future took place in 1985. It was called a safety hazard that impeded police’s ability to maintain order. It was defended as free expression by artists like Philip Glass and Keith Haring. A jury voted, 4-1, to have the piece removed. Serra appealed, lost, and, finally, in 1989 the Tilted Arc was removed, stacked in three pieces and placed in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Serra refuses to allow the piece to be shown anywhere but it’s original location. It has been sitting in a storage in Maryland since 1999.