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It’s art history hidden in a field

Art lovers want to protect a pivotal but largely unknown work by a 'titan of sculpture’

JORDAN TIMM October 1 2007
THE BACK PAGES

It’s art history hidden in a field

Art lovers want to protect a pivotal but largely unknown work by a 'titan of sculpture’

JORDAN TIMM October 1 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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It’s art history hidden in a field

art

Art lovers want to protect a pivotal but largely unknown work by a 'titan of sculpture’

JORDAN TIMM

“This is it,” says Mark Baechler, pulling his pickup truck off the road. He parks at the entrance to a nondescript farmer’s field in King Township, about an hour north of Toronto. Grabbing his camera, Baechler hops out and starts hiking across the recently ploughed earth. An intern architect at a Toronto firm, Baechler is part of a stream of art lovers who come to this part of rural Ontario, knocking on doors and wandering through fields in search of a largely unknown work by one of the world’s greatest living artists.

Half a kilometre in from the road, Baechler enters a second field and climbs a crest in the land. A series of six weathered concrete walls comes into view, zigzagging over 13 acres across a small valley in the middle of the field. Though the land has been tilled, the tractor has kept a small distance from the walls, which are overgrown with thistles, burrs, goldenrod and wild raspberry brambles.

The artwork is called Shift. It’s an early piece by the renowned American sculptor Richard Serra, but if you stumbled upon it by chance you might think you’d simply come across the foundations of an abandoned building. Two sets of three walls, each five feet high and eight inches thick, map the contours of the land on either side of the field’s lowest point. Each wall is sunk below the earth, jutting out of the land as it slopes away. On this, his second visit to the site, Baechler will spend over an hour walking on and around the sculpture, taking photos and exploring the way the piece plays off the rolling farmland. “It’s striking, I think, because it’s so foreign,” he says. “It’s almost like the walls just came up out of the earth.” Though the site feels alien, it’s hardly

removed from the real world. On the north edge of the field, two padlocked blue metal casings are sunk into the ground. They house test wells, installed as part of a groundwater testing effort. As Toronto sprawls out of control, and new housing projects erupt in a steady march north of the city, King Township is building a new water tower to accommodate the inevitable growth. This explosion in develop-

ment worries some King residents and heritage groups. For some citizens, one of the crucial questions is: what’s going to happen to Shift?

Its creator’s already considerable stature has been augmented this summer by a 40-year retrospective of his work mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The New York Times hailed the show as “a landmark, by a titan of sculpture, one of the last great modernists in an age of minor talents.” Visitors, sometimes more than 15,000 in a single day, have swarmed MoMA’s halls, drawn by the massive constructions of twisted steel that have forged Serra’s reputation—they’re found in buildings, museums and public spaces around the world, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport among them. The only permanent exhibit at the famed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is Serra’s The Matter of Time. The huge second-floor gallery at the new MoMA building was designed with Serra’s work in mind, and features specially reinforced floors to accommodate the weight of his sculptures. Two of the pieces on display at MoMA sold for US$12 million, and another for $10 million.

Serra hasn’t always commanded such dizzying prices. In 1970, when he began work on Shift, he was just beginning to make his mark on the art world. The son of a Spanish immigrant who toiled as a pipefitter in San Francisco, Serra worked in Bay Area steel mills to help pay for his undergraduate education, then studied fine arts as a master’s student at Yale. In the late ’60s, he began turning heads with sculptures made of scrap rubber and metal, and with a series of works in which he splashed molten lead into the corners of galleries and studios. As Serra began to explore the way his sculptures related to the space around them, however, he started seeking outdoor sites for his work.

Roger Davidson, a Toronto art collector whose family was in land development, was one of Serra’s early patrons. “He was kind of a young, wealthy, bizarre fellow,” says Serra. “He was rather difficult, actually. He had a hard time making a decision.” Serra had to convince Davidson to let him build a piece on a tract of farmland the collector owned in King Township, sweetening the deal by offering Davidson two steel sculptures in exchange. The land was being used to grow potatoes at the time, and Serra agreed that the field would continue to be farmed.

“I went there with a woman named Joan Jonas, who’s a video performing artist, and we both walked the field for two or three days,” Serra says. Though he hasn’t been to King Township in about 20 years, he recalls the site vividly. “We decided that we would find the boundary [for the sculpture] by seeing when each of us were no longer in each other’s sight. When our heads disappeared over the horizon, that’s when we defined the edge of the piece, and that’s where we started.”

Serra commissioned a professional survey of the land, and designed and built Shift over the next two years, simultaneously working on another, much smaller site at the residence of the wealthy Pulitzer family in suburban St. Louis. They were the first artworks in which Serra used his sculpture to map a site spatially, rather than producing sculptures that were just objects. “The rest of the pieces I’ve done that have found inclusion in the landscape really start with Shift and the Pulitzer piece,” Serra says. “And if it wasn’t for Shift I wouldn’t have even completed the Pulitzer piece, and vice versa. Those two pieces really set the kind of subtext for all the work that came after.” Serra points out that despite its low profile in his body of work, the King Township sculpture has been included in every major catalogue of his art. “For me, it’s one of those breakthrough pieces.”

It’s exactly that importance that has made some King Township residents so eager to preserve the sculpture, and salvage it from the obscurity into which it’s lapsed. In the ’70s, when Serra was still relatively unknown, the Davidson family sold the property on which Shift was built to a developer. The land registry made no mention of the artwork’s existence, and the odd structure in the farmer’s field became simply a quirk in the township’s landscape. “At the time, nobody thought anything of it,” says Haydn Matthews, the executive vice-president for land development at Great Gulf Homes, the Toronto-based developer that purchased the property. “When I saw it, 15,20 years ago, I thought it was just a leftover foundation.” Which begs the question, how did Shift survive? Why wouldn’t a bunch of concrete walls sitting in the middle of prime agricultural land have been demolished? “It’s not cheap,” Matthews says. “To take it out means you’ve got to take trucks and bulldozers and jackhammers and blast the thing out of there. So it was left.”

The developers didn’t realize the value of the structure they had inadvertently acquired. Though it’s notoriously difficult to place a value on in situ landscape works like Shift, Serra’s studio estimates for Macleans that were the artist to build a project of its style

and scale today, the commission would be valued between US$7 and $8 million.

Cleve Mortelliti happened upon Shift as a nine-year-old kid, shortly after his family moved to King Township in the early ’70s. He played hockey on a nearby pond in the winters, and used to romp with his friends in the fields and bushes around the sculpture. Years later, when he was sitting in on a class his mother was taking for a Ph.D. in philosophy, a professor showed a slide of the sculpture during a discussion about minimalist art. Mortelliti was stunned to recognize his childhood playground.

He started reading about Serra, and starting spending hours at the sculpture with his camera and tripod. After some years living out of the area, Mortelliti moved back to King Township in 2003 and decided to write an article about Serra and Shift for the local newspaper. “I was cautious,” he says. “If I made it more widely known, would it have a detrimental effect? Would it get knocked over in the night, or would something happen to it? But ultimately, I made a decision that people have to know about this thing.”

Mortelliti wasn’t the only King resident who knew the provenance of the concrete walls, but his article was the catalyst for a group of residents to take action. Members of both the King Township Historical Society

When he saw the prof's slide, he was stunned to recognize his childhood playground

and of Heritage King, the committee that advises municipal council on heritage issues, got organized. Despite protection under the provincial Oak Ridges Moraine Protection act and assurances from Great Gulf—“That particular land is not under development consideration and probably never will be, because it’s Oak Ridges Moraine,” says Matthews—they are concerned the pressures of urban sprawl may someday become overwhelming, and are working to have Shift and the land it occupies designated a cultural heritage site. “Once it’s designated, then no one can disturb it,” says Elaine Robertson, the chairperson of Heritage King. “We want to keep it as it is, and also have it available to the public long into the future.”

The question of public access to Shift won’t be simple to resolve, however. “It is on private property,” Matthews says. “We’re not permitting people to just go on it willynilly, [because of] insurance, liabilities, the farming and damage to the crops.”

But the heritage groups and Mortelliti are optimistic they can reach an agreement with Great Gulf for more than just the one annual day of public access to the site that the developers recently offered at a municipal council meeting. And they have an ally in Serra. The artist has a residence on Cape Breton Island, in Robertson’s hometown. She connected with him a few summers ago, and he is now keeping a close eye on the fate of his sculpture, and on the question of access—since Shift’s sister piece is sitting in the backyard of a home in St. Louis, Serra hopes the Ontario piece will be more available to the public.

In the meantime, however, the field it sits in won’t be marked by any sign or plaque; the details of the sculpture’s exact location will continue to travel via word of mouth among Serra buffs like Mark Baechler, who arranged permission from the property’s owner for his visit. “It’s a strange way to experience art,” Baechler says. “There’s no guided tour, and no headset. And it makes you question, is this supposed to be art? What exactly is this?” With that, he lies down in the ploughed earth and starts snapping photos of one of Shift’s battered concrete walls. M