Sculptor in Conversation

The other day, we had the world's greatest sculptor, Richard Serra, visit the UCSF campus where I work, in Mission Bay, a former industrial area south of downtown San Francisco, which was a dead zone that the local council was in the process of converting into a biotechnology park.

A solemn man, Richard Serra's face is permanently set into a metaphysical scowl, yet he dressed in casual gear – jeans, comfortable dark-blue shirt, and sneakers. He had been commissioned by UCSF to build a sculpture, and thereby, was obliged to come to UCSF and talk about his piece. The piece, "Ballast", consists of two huge flat metal plates, 50 feet high and 14 feet wide, that lent in slightly off-horizontal off-vertical directions. If you stand at the base and look up, you will see a disorientating curve in the metal.

The meeting was held in an auditorium in our new community center, a striking building designed by Mexican architects Ricardo and Victor Legorreta, which was bathed in a bold earthy red, which balanced the lego-like austerity of the form. The community center building stood out from the surrounding beige-ness of the other buildings.

I was keen to see how they would set up the talk. In the auditorium, two comfortable sofa chairs were set up on the stage with a black curtain backdrop. The talk was going to be conducted as an interview in a PBS special. I didn't know who the interviewer was, but a friend later informed that the interviewer was a local construction magnate. I had always known about the symbiotic relationship between obscene wealth and high-end art, but I had never seen it in the flesh like here in the auditorium, where a very rich man doubled as the probing interviewer of an artist of very expensive modern art.

The entanglements of moneyed interests and art was more intricate in this case, as the piece was commissioned by UCSF, which was investing in a very large construction project at the Mission Bay campus, which necessarily involved complex construction and real estate interests. So it made sense that a construction magnate would interview the artist, who was patronized by a scientific institute that was rapidly expanding its building infrastructure.

Serra was a brilliant interviewee, crisp, articulate, and was an inexhaustible source of anecdotes, which involved the suitable name-dropping of everyone from Phillip Glass to Jasper Johns to Charlie Mingus. Because Serra was born and raised in San Francisco, he recounted many childhood reminiscences – baseball games in the local park a couple of blocks from the campus, climbing through old warehouses – typical experiences of a nascent internationally acclaimed sculptor.

Later, he moved on to more familiar territory – a standard narrative of how he became the sculptor that he is today – from English lit major, to embryonic painter/drawer, to studying art history at Yale with abunch of soon-to-be-very-famous artists, and then onto a fellowship in Italy, and finally to New York as struggling artist. It was an absorbing story, which illustrated how the contingent factors of his biography inevitably coalesced into the choice of large-scale fabricated steel as his media of choice, and "weight" as the leit-motif of his artistic vision. This was as deft a piece of self-invention if I ever heard one.

The sculpture was described as the "centerpiece" of the new UCSF campus at Mission Bay by the UCSF chancellor, Michael Bishop, the 1989 winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine. Such was the occasion that Michael Bishop himself gave the opening address to the interview, thus completing the on-stage triumvirate of the interaction of science (Bishop), art (Serra) and money (construction magnate/interviewer).

Still, what surprised me was how the interaction between the work of art and the science at UCSF was virtually non-existent. Michael Bishop did not interact with Serra at all, on-stage, but more to the point, the purpose of UCSF – medical research – played no part in the design of the sculpture. Serra described his process: when during a visit to the site, he realized that the campus was an immensely flat landscape. Wouldn't it be interesting to put up something completely vertical? Serra had already done a vertical metal plate piece in Germany(?), so he decided that for this piece, he would explore the interaction of two such vertical standing pieces.

Science played no part in the design of the piece. And as I looked around the auditorium, which was very well attended, I realized that there were very few grad-students or faculty from the medical research facility next door. Instead, the audience was made up of architects, art patrons (including the former owner of the Bank of America), and students from the nearby College of Creative Arts. Though fetching that female art-students often are, as an art-loving scientist, I felt very lonely indeed.