Newest public art on campus is ‘meant to get in your way’

Installation of Richard Serra sculpture adds to UChicago’s interdisciplinary discourse

Richard Serra’s 1991 work Seattle Right Angles Propped is the newest piece of public art installed at the University of Chicago—steel forged in two parts that meet at a right angle, two Ls that support each other with the force of counterweight and gravity.

In its previous location in a backyard beachfront of suburban Glencoe, Illinois, the sculpture provided a frame around where the rolling landscape met Lake Michigan. Now, in its new home 30 miles south, it echoes both in form and meaning the portico that connects UChicago’s Department of Art History and the Smart Museum of Art. It also underscores the University’s commitment to bring public art to the Hyde Park community.

“From each direction, you get a different slice,” said Prof. Christine Mehring, an expert in modern and contemporary art who chairs the Department of Art History. “I’m looking forward to taking hundreds of students out here at all times of year.”

Dorie Sternberg, Lab’43, donated the piece to the Smart, where it was installed in May and formally unveiled in June.

Over the years, Sternberg and her late husband Paul cultivated a notable art collection in their home. They couldn’t resist Serra, who since the 1960s has revolutionized the genre of massive sculptural work—typically using steel in site-specific urban spaces. The Sternbergs commissioned Seattle Right Angles Propped for their yard and could admire it from their glass-walled kitchen every day.

After her husband passed away in 2004, Sternberg decided that she wanted to see some of her art donations placed in her lifetime, including the Serra sculpture. The work seemed destined to travel south: Sternberg (née Feitler), grew up near UChicago on Woodlawn Avenue, and her brother, Robert Feitler, Lab’45, X’50, is a former board chair of the Smart Museum.

Serra’s most well-known public works are known for their conspicuous use of space. Take, for example, his 32-ton sculpture Reading Cones in Chicago’s Grant Park, which consists of two steel pieces. Each curved slab measures 17 by 14 feet and three inches thick, forcing viewers to walk around and through it to fully experience the piece.

“Part of what is interesting about Serra’s work is that it’s very much meant to get in your way, to force you to confront it and navigate around it,” said Allison Gass, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum.

Seattle Right Angles Propped is not quite as prominent as some of Serra’s other sculptures. But to Mehring, the piece represents Serra’s pioneering work in the field of process art, wherein the focus is not the finished product, but its creation.

Seattle Right Angles Propped was installed a little over a year after the Smart announced the formation of the Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry, which often utilizes collections and exhibitions to engage Art History faculty and students with other students from any number of disciplines—from law and economics to the physical sciences.

The sculpture represents a significant moment within art history, and fills a gap in the museum’s collection of Minimalist and Post-Minimalist sculpture. The piece, Mehring said, will help faculty discuss art’s direct embeddedness in the real world: its new, direct relationship to the viewer’s body; its pioneering use of industrial materials; and its large scale.

Seattle Right Angles Propped, Mehring added, “allows us to address the most frequently asked question and charge about modern art: ‘Why is this art? I can do this, too!’”

It also may prove to be just one half of a Richard Serra set on Chicago’s South Side. Gass said there has been discussion of transplanting Reading Cones to Hyde Park.

“Moving it down to the campus as a long-term loan would be extraordinary for us,” Gass said. “The idea that two Serra sculptures of vastly different scales could potentially live within walking distance of one another is exciting and would offer incredible learning opportunities for students, faculty and campus visitors.”

—This story was adapted from the UChicago Arts blog.