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Carnegie Museum of Art

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Lidji, Serra, Carnegie, International

Artwork Type

Sculpture, Temporary

Carnegie, 1985

Richard Serra


Commissioning Entity Carnegie Museum of Art

When the Carnegie Museum of Art installed Richard Serra’s “Carnegie” outside its Forbes Avenue entrance in July 1985, Serra was the most notorious sculptor in the country. His large freestanding sculpture “Tilted Arc” had redirected pedestrian patterns outside a federal courthouse in New York City, setting off a court battle to remove it and a national debate about the purpose of fine art installed in public places. By contrast, Serra’s experience in Pittsburgh was smooth. “Carnegie” tied for first prize at the 1985 Carnegie International and has become an enduring contribution to public art in the city. It is the first work of art most people see when they visit the Carnegie Museum of Art.

“Carnegie” is a 40-foot tower with unexpected complexities to its design. It is made from four panels of COR-TEN steel that lean against one another to make the sculpture self-supporting. Given its sharp edges and corners, the sculpture contains surprisingly few right angles. The panels flare outward, making the top wider than the bottom and making the negative space inside the sculpture taper upward to a narrow aperture. Seen from below, the edges and angles slice into the surroundings. Seen from above, the sculpture culminates in a tight and elegant spiral, like a closed moon lily.

The title of the sculpture neatly conveys the industrial legacy of art in Pittsburgh by recalling both the museum and its patron, Andrew Carnegie. The design does something similar. Carngie’s U.S. Steel Corp. invented COR-TEN. The material is known for its weathered patina, which results from age and protects the integrity of the material without the need for a surface coating such as paint. A substance that strengthened with abuse was a resonant symbol for Pittsburgh as its steel industry was going into decline. By 1985, the Lukens Steel Co. in Coatsville, Pa. was the only mill in the country capable of rolling plates sufficiently large enough for the project. The Pittsburgh-Des Moines Corp. provided fabrication expertise at its plant on Neville Island. 

Even with all these close associations, the most interesting qualities of “Carnegie” are sculptural, not symbolic. Seen from Forbes Avenue, the weathered angles perfectly matches the rough and minimal façade of the Scaife gallery. At close range, the sculpture appears to overtake the upward thrust of the Cathedral of Learning. Its exterior can be severe from certain perspective, yet its interior is so intimate it practically begs college students to sneak inside for trysts. The flaring panels make “Carnegie” one of Serra’s few diagonally oriented sculptures. As he explained to curator and art critic Vicky Clark in November 1985, “I’ve usually avoided that because a diagonal, a vertical diagonal, usually leads to a gesture that’s always been too fast for me. It’s something that occurred in a lot of mannerist art, a lot of baroque art, so I’ve really pretty much limited what I do to the horizontal and the vertical. This is one of the few pieces I’ve made where the plates tilt on their axes to the degree that they spread outward in diagonal lines. That gives it a reading that my other pieces don’t have, and that’s what makes it a little more uplifting.” 

Eric Lidji, writer