Seattle Right Angles Propped is deeply informed by Serra’s process-based conception of sculpture. Like many of the artist’s works, Seattle Right Angles Propped is crafted from raw, rather than treated or stainless steel, evident in the variation in color and texture on the sculpture’s surface. Serra often cites his early work in the steel industry as a pivotal influence on his sculptural practice and affinity for unworked metals. Born to a working-class family in San Francisco, Serra worked in steel mills as a young teen, "catching red-hot rivets and sticking them between flanges.” The untreated steel of Seattle Right Angles reveals a similar industrial labor behind the work’s making. In fact, Seattle Right Angles Propped takes its name from the Seattle steel mill where the sculpture was forged, the sculpture’s title and material gesturing to its industrial origins.
Beyond speaking to Serra’s engagement with time and process, Seattle Right Angles Propped also joins disparate eras of Serra’s artistic production: the artist’s early prop works with his later, large-scale and site-specific sculptures. Seattle Right Angles Propped, as its name attests, belongs to a class of Serra’s early sculptures, his “prop works.” The prop works, such as One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969) and Prop (1968), generally consist of two or more metal sculptural components that lean and brace against one another. In the absence of welded joints or other supports, the prop works are held together by virtue of counterbalanced weight, tension, and gravity alone. The two right angle L-beams of Seattle Right Angles Propped manifest this tension by pressing against one another in mutual support. Seattle Right Angles Propped is always exerting—and is constituted by—its own internal forces, the L-beams pushing upon each other continuously. Serra’s seemingly static sculpture is never completely at rest.
The courtyard sculpture not only shares clear similarities with the artist’s prop series, but also with Serra’s later, site-specific works dating from the late 70s and 80s. Viewers may notice that the form of Seattle Right Angles Propped appears to shift and change as they walk around the sculpture. This visual effect is characteristic of Serra’s large-scale, site-specific works made of COR-Ten steel. As he gained increasing international renown, Serra’s work grew larger and graced increasingly diverse public spaces. These later sculptures eschewed a model of public art that sought to compliment its site, beautifying or ornamenting urban plazas and green spaces. Instead, works such as Tilted Arc, installed in Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza in 1981 only to be dismantled following intense public controversy, transgressed their surroundings. Bisecting the plaza, the tall walls of Tilted Arc impeded commuter foot traffic. Indeed, Serra often stated that sculpture’s function was to work en contra to the spaces and sites in which it is installed. He once noted, “I think that sculpture, if it has any potential at all, has the potential to create its own space, and to work in contradiction to the places and spaces where it is created.”
As they disrupt physical space, Serra’s later works also disrupt a viewer’s unified perspective. For instance, given its size, an observer cannot view Tilted Arc from above or in its totality. Similarly, the form of Seattle Right Angles Propped is not immediately intelligible to a passerby. Upon entering the courtyard, the work appears as an open bridge shape. Yet when viewed from the side, Seattle Right Angles Propped forms a dense rectangular block. The sculpture offers a different perspective at every angle, appearing as both a closed and open structure. Here again, we find that Seattle Right Angles Propped is a changeable, dynamic form. Tilted Arc and Seattle Right Angles Propped are static sculptures yet their forms oscillate when viewed from different perspectives. Like both Serra’s later works and his early prop series, Seattle Right Angles Propped—with its lack of a singular vantage point—is a sculpture that must be encountered through experience, in motion, in time. Coupling the artist’s early prop works with his later, large-scale sculptures, Seattle Right Angles Propped demonstrates that the sculpture of Serra’s evolving practice is never at rest; rather, it perpetually occurs. The courtyard sculpture exists not just as a physical object, but as a set of ever-shifting relations between form, viewer, and site.