Beginning in the late 1960s, Richard Serra created works that offer an intense encounter with the properties of weight, mass, gravity, and balance. Largely produced in lead and steel—materials familiar to him from early jobs in industrial mills—Serra's art departs from the history of sculpture as a carved, modeled, cast, or constructed object sitting on a pedestal. Since 1971 he has produced works that occupy large indoor and outdoor sites, requiring the visitor to walk around and through them in order to grasp their full presence.
Serra's primary concerns first emerged in the "props" that he created in 1968–1969, in which lead and steel elements leaned against a wall, seemingly precarious. These were followed by seven larger plate-and-pole works from 1970–1971, a group to which Five Plates, Two Poles belongs. The plate-and-pole pieces elaborate the props' emphasis on gravity and tension with more complex configurations, using unsupported two-inch-thick, eight-foot-square steel plates and twelve-foot-long, seven-inch-diameter slotted poles that rest on the ground. Walking around Five Plates, Two Poles, one grasps a sequence of shifting planar and spatial relationships heightened by scale and weight.
The Gallery's Five Plates, Two Poles was originally conceived and fabricated for the exhibition Art and Technology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971. Weighing nearly 15 tons, it is the largest and most complex of the group. Unlike the other plate-and-pole works, made with Corten steel, this piece is executed in hot-rolled steel and is therefore suitable only for indoor display.