To Flop Next To The Pool

The Emily Tremaine Papers are digitized at the Archives of American Art, and for an art history nerd on lockdown, it is a welcome diversion.

There’s so much in there, but here is one forgotten disaster–which I actually found last year, in the Leo Castelli archive, while researching Castelli’s first Johns show. It was the Summer of ’69. June. Stonewall Rebellion. Ted Cruz’s father on a murderspree. The Apollo 11 moon landing. Charles Manson & co. on a murderspree.

Meanwhile, in early August, at the Tremaine’s house in Connecticut:

Dear Leo,

We’re glad you are back–we are having problems!

Problem No. 1. The Serra does not seem to be the right proportion for the wall. I am enclosing some snapshots, compare these with the picture on page 40 of the February 1969 ART FORUM. Ours seems to start too high and come down too low. Something seems wrong; but worse that the proportion, it keeps flopping over (see on one of the enclosed photos). It won’t stay straight for more than a few hours. Unless this can be corrected, it is impossible.

[Problem No. 2 left out here, but it was the encaustic on Jasper Johns’ Tango constantly lifting off the canvas.]

Maybe you and Toni could drive up one day for lunch and a swim and we can get your advice on the Serra.

Burton and Emily Tremaine

Richard Serra’s Prop, 1968, as seen on p. 40 of Artforum, Feb. 1969

The Tremaines had barely taken delivery on their Serra, Prop, 1968, which was an edition of 6, $1,200, less 10% discount, paid on June 20th. It was installed, not indoors as in the Robert Morris-curated “9 in a Warehouse” show Max Kozloff reviewed in that Artforum, but outdoors. Against a dry-stone retaining wall, and on the slate terrace of the pool. The Castelli archive has the snapshots, and it sure did flop over. The reference image I snapped last year, though, has a huge reflection from the overhead light, so it’s useless here. [update: I am not alone in admiring the Tremaine’s flopped Serra; thanks to an intrepid reader who dug this out.]

a 1969 snapshot from the pool deck of the Tremaines, where their new Richard Serra sculpture will not stop flopping over
To Flop, To Be Impossible, photo: Mr. or Mrs. Burton Tremaine

It may be a little different from the prototype Serra made in Germany, but it is also clearly the same proportions as the edition from the Warehouse show [above]: a 60×60-inch lead antimony sheet held up by an 8′ lead roll. But the precarity is definitely part of the piece. Here’s Serra talking about it at MoMA:

At one point In the 60s, I had written down a series of verbs, and was just enacting these verbs. And one of the verbs was “to roll.” And I found myself rolling either a single roll or a double roll or a triple roll. And then we had pieces of lead that were remnants we had cut off a sheet.

And I thought, ‘what if I took a flat sheet of lead, and tried to hold it against the wall by the force of a rolled pole. Would it hold? I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

So we hoisted the flat plate up, and then we lowered the pole against the plate, and low and behold, it held. And that piece enabled me to think about the possibility of doing other pieces against the wall.

Richard Serra, Verblist, 1967-68, gift of the artist to MoMA in honor of Wynn Kramarsky (who made the ask)

I just checked, and not only is to flop not on Verblist, 1967-68, 24 things on the list aren’t even verbs. Also, I never noticed that though they’re not technically all transitive verbs, they really are actions for the sculptor, not the sculpture. Which seems very on brand. [few minutes later update: duh, in 1980 Serra told Bernard Lamarche-Vadel that his list was all transitive verbs.]

And who even knew? If I hadn’t taken a wonky bootleg picture, I would have just posted, “LOL Floppy Serra,” and called it a day.