For Richard Serra, art has always been about the means and not the ends. "I was always interested in process before completion, always interested in the how," he says. So it's unsurprising that Richard Serra: Thinking On Your Feet – a documentary about "The Matter of Time," his $20 million installation commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – is not a biopic, but a conversation about how the artist creates his art.
Serra's most recognizable works are his monumental steel sculptures: great expanses of rust-colored metal which often span courtyards, curve in on themselves, or alternate in patterns of "spheres" and "tauruses," all in accordance to the way in which Serra envisions the space they occupy. The film, however, is as intimate as the works are vast. The bulk of Thinking On Your Feet features Serra talking directly to the camera, dissecting art, space, action, and material with the help of a sketchpad and a marker pen. How does one manage a curving piece of steel? What are the geometric properties of this particular piece? Is the work "consequential" enough to be art?
Director Maria Ana Tappeiner traces the evolution of his career, from his early "Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself" (1967-68), to his prop pieces, to "The Matter of Time." What has motivated Serra throughout his diverse artistic endeavors becomes clear, as the twin through-lines of process and space help to structure the documentary. (The interviews with his assistants are also enlightening: "We have our pride as artisans," says one. "And it was a beautiful piece indeed.") Serra is articulate and endlessly curious, and it's fascinating to hear about the ways in which he has worked and reworked his pieces.
It is a curious choice, however, to skip over "Tilted Arc," the controversial 120-foot long steel panel that went up at New York's Federal Plaza in 1981 and was removed eight years later. This isn't the only omission. There is little in the way of biography, save a quick trip to Serra's hometown San Francisco, where he explains his love of the ocean. There are also too few voices in Thinking On Your Feet; only a handful of Serra's helpers (including Philip Glass, who once worked as his assistant) participate in the discussion.
Also curious is the total lack of music. Not even during the closing credits. Instead, the audio is comprised of ambient noise: the shuffle of footsteps in galleries, the murmur of conversations, the clanking of machinery. The visuals are similarly understated, composed mostly of lengthy close-ups of Serra's pieces in museums and warehouses, on street corners and flat bed trucks. It's almost as if Tappeiner is attempting to recreate a gallery onscreen, but the result is a poor substitute for seeing the works in real life. And given the immensity of Serra's designs – not to mention the idiosyncrasies of their surfaces – isn't there a better way to capture them on film?
These shortcomings are especially obvious during the scene in a steel mill – a place Serra calls a "marvelous fantasy" – in which the camera follows the molding of a slab of steel. Although in other shots we have some sense of the magnitude of Serra's Bilbao project, none of them provoke the same sense of awe as this one: the slab trundling along a vast assembly line, as hooks and levers hoist it along, with water pummeling its glowing face. The colors are all dark reds and oranges, the metal yellow in its heat. The elemental chunk, subject to the whims of Richard Serra in his fleece cap, is destined to become "sculpture." This, too, is part of the process.
Unfortunately, little else in Thinking On Your Feet has the same visual punch. Rather, the film as a whole has the feel of something that could show in front of a college Art History seminar or at an exhibition of Serra's work. That's not to say that there isn't a wealth of information here or that the reflections of this important artist are not worth your time. It's just that showing off a finished product – forgetting its intellectual merits and focusing on pure aesthetics for a moment – should also be a part of the process. At least when it comes to film.