NEW YORK, AUG. 31 -- A federal judge ruled today that the government may remove a controversial 73-ton sculpture from a public plaza despite the artist's objection that the action would violate his constitutional rights.
Richard Serra, creator of "Tilted Arc," a 120-foot-long wall of rusty steel that bisects Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, contended that moving the artwork "negates, and therefore destroys, its artistic expression."
In a $30 million damage suit against the U.S. General Services Administration, which commissioned the work for $175,000 in 1979, Serra said he designed the sculpture to be "site specific" to Federal Plaza and claimed relocation would violate his constitutional rights of free speech and due process.
But U.S. District Judge Milton Pollack dismissed the suit, saying "there is no evidence in the record that GSA's decision to relocate the sculpture was based on the content of its message." In a 40-page opinion, Pollack said Serra's sculpture was the subject of "a considerable number of complaints" beginning almost immediately after its unveiling in July 1981.
Among the aggrieved, said Pollack, was Chief Judge Edward D. Re of the U.S. Court of International Trade, which faces the plaza. In November 1984, Re wrote the GSA and asked for the removal of "Tilted Arc" because "we who work here are left with a once beautiful plaza rendered useless by an ugly rusted steel wall."
After three days of public hearings and 4,500 complaints from federal employes and local residents, the GSA decided in 1985 to move "Tilted Arc" to an as-yet unselected site. Serra filed suit to block the action last December.
"This is not a case where a decision to remove or relocate art was based on its political or other content," Pollack said. Rather, he said, the 1,000 pages of affidavits, legal briefs and transcripts in the case showed GSA did not intend to destroy the work, but only move it "for functional purposes -- in order to regain the openness of the plaza."
GSA is empowered by law to maintain and manage government buildings and their grounds, Pollack said, and the agency "was within its authority when it found the sheer size of the sculpture, apart from its message, rendered the plaza physically impractical for use as a site for major events and public gatherings."
The judge also dismissed Serra's claims of copyright and trademark violation and said he lacked jurisdiction to hear Serra's claim of breach of contract.
The work will remain in the plaza pending approval of a new site.