Still from “A Shift in the Landscape,” a documentary film by Simone Estrin.

Visiting Richard Serra’s Shift

One of the most important sculptures of the twentieth century is hidden from public view. Here’s part of why it’s so great.

by Tyler Green

Re-published from a 2013 essay on Modern Art Notes.

The trailer for documentary filmmaker Simone Estrin’s “A Shift in the Landscape.” The film is on view at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto through December 4, 2016. It will be screened at at the Louvre in January, 2017.

While walking through a boggy stand of trees one chilly Ontario spring morning, I groaned as with each step my shoes sunk deeper into muddy mire. My destination was Richard Serra’s Shift (1970–72), and despite having printed out several overhead views of the earthwork and the landscape around it, I took more wrong, wet turns than I want to admit. When the cold muck reached my ankles, it occurred to me that the much-discussed romance of the journey to land art is considerably overrated. Still the journey, which was substantially the product of my mistakes, built suspense and made me all the more eager to find the artwork. So as my sneakers filled with water, I reminded myself not to fall into the classic land art trap: equating the excitement of discovery with a determination of significance.

Shortly after making what I hoped was a last, finally correct turn, I heard the piercing beeeep! beeeep! beeeep! of trucks in reverse, the flat, crashing sound of plywood and two-by-fours being dropped to the ground, and the whining buzz of mechanical saws. That told me I was close to a subdivision that was being built by Great Gulf Homes, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Hickory Hill Investments, which today owns the land in which Shift is sited. A few moments later I walked out of a copse and into a muddy field filled with decaying corn stalks. I saw a low concrete form about 30 feet in front of me: I’d found it.

Over the next half-hour I walked up and down Shift, getting to know it. Then I picked about ten spots near and around the sculpture and stood still, letting my eyes run over the concrete and the landscape. I looked at Shift from the northwest, where I could see $1 million McMansions in Great Gulf’s “King Oaks” subdivision (now open!) rising in the near distance. (A few hours later I learned that the backs of the houses I saw were situated around “Richard Serra Court.” More on that in a minute.) I looked at Shift from what I came to think of as the ‘bottom’ of the sculpture, the view that looks slightly uphill toward what still seems to be farmland. By the end of the morning I was convinced: Shift is not just a critical, pivotal work in Serra’s oeuvre, it’s not just an important earthwork, it’s one of the most significant sculptures of the last half-century.

Richard Serra, Shift, 1970–72. Photograph by Tyler Green.

Shift consists of six narrow concrete forms as long as 68 meters and as short as 28 meters, each embedded in the earth. The work runs roughly from the northeast to the southwest across what was most recently a cornfield. (When Serra and his then-girlfriend Joan Jonas first scouted the location, this land owned by a potato farmer. The land was sold to Great Gulf shortly thereafter, but is still planted annually.) The two ‘ends’ of the piece are about 300 meters from each other, a distance roughly equivalent to the length of the Metropolitan Museum of Art along Fifth Avenue. Viewed aerially, the work’s shape might be described as a drunken zig-zag. Viewed from ground level, I don’t believe the entire piece is visible from a single point. (Perhaps someone taller than I am might find otherwise.) I discovered that every time I walked around the field and turned to face Shift, that I thought the artwork’s concrete rose up out of the ground at an angle. That was an optical illusion: Each of the concrete forms is level, and that illusion is critical to the work: It reveals the ever-so-gentle rise and fall of the land.

Shift is strikingly beautiful, albeit not how a Thomas Hill or a George Inness is beautiful. The classics of American landscape painting offer up predictable dramatic visual pleasures — look, a craggy peak! an idyllic mountain lake! a verdant valley! — often tarted up with extra drama so as to be more striking, more sublime, providential. Shift’s beauty comes from how it provides access to a visual pleasure that I had neither anticipated nor previously considered: Its concrete forms each provided a guide that encouraged me to find and to follow what had been all but invisible, the gentle topography of a barely-rolling landscape. The combination of Serra’s structures and the land became a single whole; the more time I spent in the work, the more I saw and the more I understood how the land and the art worked together. While 19th-century landscape painting surely was not in Serra’s sights, Shift’s embrace of the subtle, the soft and the sloping, is a rejoinder to the tendency of early American painters to amp up every element of their paintings in an effort to shock-and-awe.

For many years — maybe ever since the work was created — Shift has failed to figure prominently in the major earthworks. The most important survey of the land art movement is Suzaan Boettger’s 2004 “Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties.” Shift missed the cut-off by one year, and thus isn’t even mentioned. Other important surveys of the land art such as Jeffrey Kastner’s “Land and Environmental Art” mostly skip it.

Richard Serra, Shift, 1970–72. Photograph by Tyler Green.

Why? Maybe because Shift isn’t in the West, where the most dramatic, most famous and most-publicized earthworks have typically been sited. (However, Shift is far from the only Eastern land art: Carl Andre, Jan Dibbets, Patricia Johanson, Mary Miss, Claes Oldenburg and Dennis Oppenheim all made important, foundational earthworks in New York state.) Then there’s the whole journey-driven narrative: The trip to King City, Ontario, isn’t anywhere near as romantic as the treks to Rozel Point, Utah or Mormon Mesa, Nevada.

Still, the exclusion of Shift from the dominant earthworks narrative is puzzling, especially because no major, extant earthwork is easier to reach: Shift is about an hour from downtown Toronto, and 30 minutes from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. (True: Despite this seeming ease-of-access, in a weird way Shift is nominally less accessible than the more famous earthworks: It is on private property and requires a willingness to trespass to view it.) Serra made Shift roughly concurrently with when Smithson made Spiral Jetty (1968) or when Heizer cut Double Negative (1969–70) into the Nevada desert. Serra and his friends and peers were considering many of the same issues. Take Smithson: On the occasion of a 1968 exhibition at New York’s Dwan Gallery, he told the New York Times’ Grace Glueck that the artists in the show “hope to get away from the formalism of studio art, to give the viewer more of a confrontation with the physicality of things outside. It’s diametrically opposed to the idea of art as decoration and design.” Smithson and Serra were close friends, and it’s a near lock that Serra and Smithson had conversations about this very idea.

Richard Serra, Pulitzer Piece (detail) 1970–71.

Shift and Pulitzer Piece, both of which date to about 18 months after Glueck’s story, are almost entirely about a viewer’s confrontation with “the physicality of things outside,” namely the surrounding folds in the terrain. Serra built on the idea in many other works, including in The Gate in the Gorge (1983–86) at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and Schunnemunk Fork (1990–91) at Storm King in upstate New York. In the decades since making Shift, Serra has become well-known for his interest in determining a process from which forms emerge rather than for imposing merely imagined forms on a material or into a landscape. In 1973, Serra described the process that led to Shift with one of his more acute, even elegant, descriptions of process, one that emphasizes the physicality of his creation of the piece: “[Joan Jonas and I] discovered that two people walking the distance of the field opposite one another, attempting to keep each other in view despite the curvature of the land, would mutually determine a topographical definition of the space. The boundaries of the work became the maximum distance two people could occupy and still keep each other in view.”

Speaking of Smithson, whose fascination with natural history has been well-chronicled, what of the land artists’ interest in the melding of natural history with visual art? Shift fits there too: The gentle topography it reveals is a part of the Oak Ridges Moraine, a southern Ontario landform created by the retreat of glaciers 12,000 years ago.

(To be sure, the two friends were not in total alignment: Smithson was fascinated by what he called “aerosurveying,” the seeing of an artwork from above, most famously enumerated by his 1966–67 proposal for the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport. Shift could be considered a response to that idea: Here direct engagement, from the land itself, is everything.)

Michael Heizer, Rift 1 from Nine Nevada Depressions, 1968.

Or take Michael Heizer: In 1971 Heizer told Esquire magazine’s Bruce Jay Friedman that his “pieces aren’t made to command or dominate the surroundings.” At the time, he meant it: Works such as Nine Nevada Depressions (1968, no longer extant) were essentially invisible from a few dozen yards away. (Coincidentally, when seen from above, Shift seems similar to Heizer’s Rift 1 (1968), the first of the Nine Nevada Depressions.) Land art by Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler and Jonas’ own Wind (1968) engaged even more directly with the idea of the invisible or near-invisible. Because today the biggest works of land art are the most famous — think Spiral Jetty, Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, or still in-progress works by James Turrell (Roden Crater) or Heizer (City) — we tend to forget that for artists working in the land, enormity was by no means the default. (Heizer is well-recalled by Tom Holert in his excellent essay in the “Ends of the Earth” catalogue, an especially valuable contribution as Heizer insisted on being left out of the exhibition.)

This raises a significant, oft-repeated misunderstanding about land art, about even the largest, most labor-intensive land art: That it is inherently hubristic, that the placement of something massive and human-produced in the landscape requires Icarian ego. This is a fundamental misreading of the art objects themselves and of the motivations of many of the artists who sited works in landscape. Spiral Jetty looks enormous in the film Smithson made at Rozel Point, but in actuality it’s a shockingly small ornament in a mammoth amphitheater-of-a-landscape. At a mile-by-a-kilometer, The Lightning Field is hugely larger than, say, an Anne Truitt, but in the context of the basin it inhabits at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains, it’s spatially insignificant.

Still from “A Shift in the Landscape,” a documentary film by Simone Estrin.

Shift, which by King City’s count occupies about 10 acres of a 241-acre parcel of agricultural land, is similarly dwarfed by its landscape. It never rises higher than a human and it occasionally seems to disappear into the earth. Shift makes a glacier’s minute changes in the topography of the landscape evident, even significant, with the result upon the viewer being a feeling of profound humility.

A final measure (at least for the purposes of this essay) of Shift’s greatness lies in how it continues to speak to the present condition of King City. As I’ve noted, Serra’s intent was to reveal a gently rising and falling topography. A hundred yards or so from Shift, a product of the opposite interest has converted open land into subdivision: While Shift celebrates a sloping landscape, Great Gulf Homes found the minute hills on which Shift relies to be an impediment to the maximization of profit. So while Serra revealed the character of the landscape, Great Gulf eradicated it, leveling the land so that it could more quickly and easily build McMansions. Forty-five years after Serra made Shift, it still reveals a conflict inherent in our society: Is it more important to preserve a natural landscape, or is economic growth a greater imperative? (American artists who have looked at the land, from Thomas Cole to Carleton Watkins through Smithson and Serra, have all been interested in this idea.)

Perhaps this is why Great Gulf and its parent company have so resolutely opposed every attempt King City has made to preserve Shift: Its subject, its power even, hits too close to its profit margin. Last week the King City council voted to extend new heritage protections to Shift. This is not the first time King City has tried to save the work — and it probably won’t be the last. King City councillor Cleve Mortelliti, who has worked longer to save Shift than anyone else, told me that the council’s recently passed protections should effectively override the Ontario Conservation Review Board’s finding that Shift has no cultural value.

Great Gulf subdivision adjacent to “Shift.” Photograph by Tyler Green.

For six years the council has also been trying to work with Great Gulf to find ways to provide for public access to the masterpiece in their midst, Mortelliti told me, only to find that Great Gulf isn’t particularly interested in providing such. It recently built a black chain-link fence around it. Mortelliti said that even though King City has yet to find a way to provide or ensure public access to Shift that it will keep trying. Among the ways in which Mortelliti and the council have tried to pointedly raise the profile of the work is in their naming of streets in Great Gulf’s “King Oaks” subdivision: It was the town council, not the developer, who named streets in Great Gulf’s subdivision “Richard Serra Court” and “Sculptor’s Gate.” Mortelliti said that the council’s hope was to effectively tell people about King City’s treasure — and to push Great Gulf to value it.

(It is important to note that were it not for Mortelliti, his colleagues on the town council and the way in which King Citians cherish Shift — walk into the town’s tiny library and ask about Shift as I did, and you’ll marvel at how quickly everyone within earshot will want to talk and talk and talk about it — Shift may have long-since been substantially compromised or even destroyed. Mortelliti and his councilmates deserve every award every art and conservation organization can possibly think to give them. Their dogged, insistent stewardship of Shift in the face of developer and, frankly, art world indifference is one of the great untold stories in art and in preservation.)

As I left Shift I heard something I hadn’t heard before: Honking. I looked up through a thin stand of oak trees at the edge of Shift’s field and saw a dozen geese, maybe more, flying south. They were so loud that for a few moments I couldn’t hear the sounds of subdivision construction that had greeted me when I found Shift. Serra’s intent was to reveal landscape and not migration, but by so doing he gave me another moment during which I basked in the interconnectedness of the land and nature.

Related: I’ve routinely spotlighted Shift on The Modern Art Notes Podcast including:

  • A MAN Podcast segment with Richard Serra;
  • A segment with “Ends of the Earth” curator and UCLA-based art historian Miwon Kwon;
  • A segment with Joan Jonas, with whom Serra was living at the time he made Shift and who was with him in King City as he planned out the piece;
  • A segment with documentary filmmaker Simone Estrin on her recent “A Shift in the Landscape”; and
  • A MAN post considering Shift, Pulitzer Piece and Twain as a key Serra trilogy.

Tyler Green produces and hosts The Modern Art Notes Podcast, the most popular audio program about art. His book about Carleton Watkins and the leading role Watkins played in making the West a part of the United States is forthcoming from University of California Press.