Tilted Arc, 1981; destroyed 1989, 26 Federal Plaza*

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Richard Serra’s Titled Arc (1981) was one of the most polarizing public artworks in history. The enormous, site-specific sculpture sloped across Federal Plaza throughout the 1980s, measuring 12 feet high x 112 feet long x 2 ½ inches wide. Serra produced the work from Cor-Ten steel, one of his favorite materials, which rusts from external conditions and provided Tilted Arc with an aesthetic patina. The sculpture’s slight lean, angled towards viewers emerging from the plaza, evoked an ever-so-subtle sensation of toppling over. Immediately upon its installation in the Federal Plaza, there was an outraged outpouring of complaints from those who lived and worked in proximity to Titled Arc that it divided the vast plaza in half, obstructing a linear route through the previously open space. Catalyzing debates around the nature and purpose of public art as well as artistic freedom of speech, the work was eventually removed in 1989.

An advisory panel of art professionals designated by the National Endowment for the Arts selected Serra to create the site-specific work for Federal Plaza. In 1979, the General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency whose Art In Architecture program stipulates that one-half of one percent of federal building costs are allocated towards artistic projects, commissioned Titled Arc. After a thorough review process by the GSA, Serra’s Titled Arc was approved and installed in July of 1981. Yet overwhelming backlash ensued, with descriptions of the work as an “obstacle” and “eyesore” repeated throughout the press. Many referred to the sculpture simply as a wall. Within months of the installation, a petition with over 1,000 signatures from federal employees working in the plaza’s surrounding area was submitted to the GSA requesting Titled Arc’s removal.

In 1985, GSA Regional Services Administrator William Diamond initiated a public hearing to decide whether or not to remove the imposing sculpture. Though 122 people, including Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and Holly Solomon, testified in favor of keeping the sculpture and only 58 testified in favor of removing it, the jury of the public hearing–all of whom were appointed by Diamond–voted for removal. Serra sued the GSA on the grounds that the removal of Tilted Arc violated his freedom of expression and due process rights. The ensuing multi-year legal battle centered on questions of the government’s responsibility to the public and artists in the process of commissioning and creating public artworks. A heated debate divided between public convenience of circulation and artistic aspirations for site-specific intervention became part of the narrative of the legal proceedings.

Over the course of the process, Serra adamantly testified in support of the site-specific sculpture. In regards to Titled Arc, he wrote “Site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it is urban, landscape or architectural enclosure. My works become part of and are built into the structure of the site, and often restructure, both conceptually and perceptually, the organization of the site… I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.”** For Serra, removing Titled Arc from its Federal Plaza site would be equivalent to destroying it. When ultimately Serra’s appeal lost in court, the work was removed–thus destroyed–on March 15, 1989.

– Alex Fialho

*previous site
**Richard Serra, “Selected Statements Arguing in Support of Titled Arc,” in Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc,” ed. Clara Weyergraf-Serra and Martha Buskirk (Eindhoven, 1988), pp. 64–65.

Image Credit:
Tilted Arc, 1981
Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images
© 2015 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York