Reading Cones, 1988 (installed 1990)
Butler Field, south of East Monroe Drive
Reading Cones takes its name from Reading, Pennsylvania, the town where the pieces were fabricated. Richard Serra, born in 1939, is a renowned sculptor (and video artist) known for works in metal that investigate the interaction between art object, the environment and the viewer. Serra spent years working in steel mills and shipyards before receiving his M.F.A. from Yale University and he has continued to employ the skills and techniques he learned in those venues. Associated with the anti-illusionistic tendencies of Minimalism, Serra’s work focuses upon the tangible qualities of his materials, the processes involved in manipulating them, and the bodily experiences produced by his large-scale sculptures.
Serra’s approach to public art has not been immune to controversy. There is the famous case of Tilted Arc, a 120-foot long, 12-foot high Cor-Ten steel arc that was commissioned by the General Services Administration and placed in the Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan. As a monumental work that effectively blocked direct passage across the plaza, Tilted Arc could be understood as a piece that heightened perceptual awareness and creates a “behavioral space,” or as an inconvenient and confusing barrier to the entrance of the building. Serra argued that the piece was site-specific and could not be sensibly moved to another site so it was placed in storage.
Reading Cones is two pieces of three-inch thick curved Cor-Ten steel, each measuring 17 by 14 feet and weighing approximately 32,000 pounds. Cor-Ten steel has a surface that looks rusty but is effective in resisting corrosion and does not need paint. The freestanding pieces are positioned with just enough room for a person to pass through or stand within the space. The Leo Burnett Company, a creative advertising agency, officially donated the work to the city of Chicago in 1990 and it was placed temporarily in Grant Park. Although its final destination was to be the entrance to the State Street Mall, the sculpture was never moved.