The Hedgehog and the Fox – Ryan Golant ’20

Richard Serra, The Hedgehog and the Fox, 2000
Cor-Ten steel Princeton University, gift of Peter T. Joseph, Class of 1972 and Graduate School Class of 1973, in honor of his children, Danielle and Nicholas

Just outside Peyton Hall stand three vast, towering walls of rusted steel: Richard Serra’s The Hedgehog and the Fox. The sheets tilt slightly, bending precariously as they snake back and forth–where one slab protrudes outwards, another curves inwards, forming a sinuous alcove between the barriers. Reddened and worn, blemished from age and exposure, the corroded metal is unmissable. This piece is not conventionally “beautiful”; indeed, one might go so far as to call it ugly. It’s an eyesore. An obstruction. What makes The Hedgehog and the Fox such a great work of art?

Serra’s piece is not some painting hanging on a wall or some artifact nestled in a glass display case that you can casually stroll by: you are forced to interact with the work. Only up close does the immensity of the piece come into perspective, and thus only up close can one fully appreciate the art. As you stand beside the sculpture, the rusty metal looms over you, dominating your field of view; next to the steel slabs, you feel truly small. As you move along the wall, you can see the discolorations and imperfections in the steel, the non-uniformity and uniqueness of every square inch of metal. In some areas, people have etched in their names or signatures or short phrases or crude doodles. You can run your hands across the rough surface, physically feeling its age and weathering. When you’ve made your way around the exterior of the structure, you can pass between the slabs and explore the dark, reverberant pathway carved out by the sculpture’s negative space. Even during the day, the overlapping shadows of the walls lend the interior an eerie, bleak color. Whether you walk through the middle of the sculpture or around the exterior of the walls, interaction with the piece is inevitable. 

The Hedgehog and the Fox is not just an object: it’s an experience. The nature of the art–its size, its structure, its location, its display–invites you to explore the work with multiple senses and in myriad ways. No two viewers–or, rather, participants–will experience the piece in the same manner. This is further reinforced by the fact that the work’s material itself evolves with time and with the environment–as is evident in the metal’s rusty facade–physically altering the sculpture and ensuring that it will never be in the same state at present and in the future. Therefore, the time of day, the time of year, and the viewer’s state of mind and attention to detail all contribute to an experience which is wholly unique to the individual viewer. While obstructive, The Hedgehog and the Fox is also transformative. The way in which the sculpture activates the otherwise flat and featureless surrounding ground and requires passersby to choose whether to go through the configuration or around it almost resembles a type of choreography; the exact dance, however, is determined by the participant. It is not the “beauty” of the steel or the aesthetic quality of the sculpted curves, but rather the transfer of interpretive agency to the viewer and the resultant uniqueness of the viewing experience that elevates The Hedgehog and the Fox to the status of art. 

Serra’s title alludes to a quote from Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one great thing.” In the context of these three walls of worn steel, to what do the “hedgehog” and the “fox” refer? Is the hedgehog the work of art itself, knowing only how to stand in place, occupying the same space day in and day out, and the foxes us, the observers, knowing an infinite number of ways to interact with the work? Or maybe it’s the other way around: we are the hedgehogs, knowing only our own unique experiences, while the sculpture, having seen millions of viewers–active and passive–over the years of its existence, is the fox. The ambiguity of the name only adds to the richness of the work in its multitude of interpretations. While I may not know many things about the history and background of The Hedgehog and the Fox or about Richard Serra’s artistic intent, I do know one great thing: The Hedgehog and the Fox is a breathtaking piece of art.