Balanced in an apparently precarious arrangement, Trip Hammer 1988 by the American artist Richard Serra consists of a pair of large thin steel plates of equal dimensions assembled in a T-shaped formation. Made from a rust-coloured weathering steel, which is particularly resistant to corrosion, each plate is over two and a half metres in length, almost a metre and a half in width, and only five centimetres thick. One plate stands vertically on the floor in a corner of the gallery, positioned diagonally so that one of its edges points towards the centre of the room, while balanced on its top edge is the second plate, lying flat with its corners just touching the walls. The plates’ surfaces bear marks and patches of orange and brown, which are interspersed with the base tones of black and grey. The edges are a rusty orange colour, and one side of the vertically oriented plate features a serial number. Originally produced in the United States in 1988, Trip Hammer was remade in London in 1997 using new plates of steel, which were bought pre-cut. In order for the plates to develop a patina, they were left outside for a time before being exhibited.
Based in New York since 1966, the American artist Richard Serra began to make his ‘prop’ sculptures in 1968 (see, for example, Shovel Plate Prop 1969, Tate T01728) – works in which large pieces of lead or steel lean against each other in freestanding arrangements or touch the gallery walls, often in seemingly precarious or unstable formations. The components of these works are not welded together, but rely upon their weight and gravity to remain in position. Trip Hammer is part of a group of ‘prop’ sculptures that Serra completed in 1987–8, including Stand Point 1987, Square Level 1987 and Anvil 1988.
The title Trip Hammer refers to a type of large weighted hammer that pivots to exert a heavy force on a small area. This tool is often used in the fabrication of steel and other metals, and its inclusion in the title of this work highlights Serra’s interest in industrial processes and materials. The use of steel in Trip Hammer and many of Serra’s other sculptures can also be connected with engineering and construction. In 1985 Serra claimed, ‘The history of welded steel sculpture in this century – Gonzalez, Picasso, David Smith – has had little or no influence on my work … The models I have looked to have been those who explored the potential of steel as a building material: Eiffel, Roebling, Maillart, Mies van der Rohe’ (quoted in Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1999, p.23). Art historian Hal Foster has argued that Serra’s commitment to industrial structures can be seen as a resistance ‘not only to the pervasive decay of the tectonic in sculpture and architecture but also to its putative outmoding in a postindustrial order of digital design’ (Hal Foster, ‘The Un/making of Sculpture’, in McShine and Cooke 2007, p.25).
Serra’s work, which has also encompassed monumental public sculptures, installations, drawings, prints and films, has often been considered post-minimalist, a term developed in the early 1970s to describe artists (including Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis and Barry Le Va) who placed greater emphasis on material properties and processes than on geometric order, which had been a main focus for minimalist artists in the 1960s.
Trip Hammer was first displayed in the exhibition Group Sculpture at the Pace Gallery, New York, in June 1988. Before it was acquired by Tate in 1997, it was part of the collection of the Douglas S. Cramer Foundation in Santa Barbara County. As this part of California has a high risk of earthquakes, Serra made an additional temporary support (which was not visible to the viewer) to hold the steel plates in position while the sculpture was displayed at the foundation.
Richard Serra: Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 1989, reproduced p.49.
Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Los Angeles 1999, reproduced p.57.
Kynaston McShine and Lynne Cooke, Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2007, reproduced p.245.
Supported by Christie’s.