how Richard Serra’s gigantic steel sculptures bent time and space

<span>Are you inside or outside?  …A work by Serra in Seattle in 2007.</span><span>Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 0cf164b28de” data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 4b28th”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Are you inside or outside? …A work by Serra in Seattle in 2007.Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images

What seems more out of step or more timeless than the work of Richard Serra – with its persistent metal blocks and curved steel walls that can feel as threatening as the side of a ship curling above you as you struggle beneath it? Serra’s sculptures are about as precarious as Stonehenge: they could last centuries or even millennia – or fall and crush you to death in an instant. It is as if they are unaware of the human size and the length of a human life. But without us, they are just ruins, remnants of an overarching ambition. Most of them would survive our end, but there would be no one to witness it. There is the paradox. Serra’s mighty works are nothing without us.

Le Corbusier’s architecture and early Morandi still lifes, Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of vacant city squares and Giacometti’s stationary and walking figures; The conte chalk gradations of Georges Seurat and the elegant atomized shapes whose edges seem to dissolve – they are all somewhere in Serra’s formation, created in a career that has lasted more than 60 years. In many ways he was a very European-American artist. Serra, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, was an intimidating, fascinating artist. He made me think differently about space and sculpture – and about seeing. Serra can make us feel physically and psychologically vulnerable, even though the intention was never to scare us. All analysis and criticism aside, Serra’s sculpture is fair over therelike a rock or a cathedral.

When a nearby rubber company closed its doors, he collected its remains and used them as material

When I spoke with Serra, who was born in San Francisco, the silences that fell were like ticking time bombs. I feared an explosion. When I first met him in 1992, at the time of his simultaneous exhibitions in London – one in the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain, the other at the Serpentine – I was extremely nervous. Like his art, Serra exuded seriousness. Both had gravity and gravity. However idiosyncratic and physically imposing, his art has a great subtlety and complexity that only emerges when you spend time with it. It has the ability to slow us down, engaging us physically but also psychologically. It is always in the here and now, but evokes the idea of ​​timelessness. It is direct, but invites misreading.

The two apparently similar blocks of steel that occupied the Duveen Galleries at the Tate (now Tate Britain) in 1992 were actually of unequal size, one larger than the other, and they seemed to swell and contract as you passed between them moved. Is it me, I thought, or them? They seemed to do something with the boundaries of my own body. They refused clear recognition and even seemed to expand and contract the space around them depending on one’s constantly changing point of view. Speaking about his drawings, he said that “all illusionistic strategies should be avoided.” It is we, the viewers, who discover illusions.

I cannot forget Serra’s joy, in Paris, when he led me down a basement corridor into the blaring light streaming through the Beaux Art glass roof of the Grand Palais to see his Promenade in 2008, with its five vertical plates of Cor – Ten steels stepped in and out of alignment along the building’s longest axis, like pedestrians anticipating each other’s movements on a busy sidewalk. They were also never completely vertical and leaned back and forth. The more time I spent there, as the afternoon turned into evening and it got dark, the more absorbed I became, the more complex the experience became.

Serra loved the sudden surprise of the first meeting – with work that looked as if it was motionless and had always been there. That sudden sight of something precarious, inevitable and permanent is a recurring shock. I think Serra enjoyed witnessing the effect his art had on others, the ways we interacted with his sculpture; he enjoyed the way we animated the space with our appearances and disappearances from view, our arrivals and departures. I also enjoy the encounters of other people, which for me are as much part of the experience of his works as a solitary journey between them. I enjoy watching children run between its towering walls, discovering what could happen around the next bend.

Sometimes these curves go on and on and double back. Sometimes we are not sure whether we are inside or outside. Things swell and move away from us in several directions at once. I enjoy watching people walk between its steel ramparts, their heads hovering above its parapets, or being visually cut off by a plane or an angle, as if edited and edited in a silent, sped-up film. Serra’s own early films, made in the 1970s, had a structural simplicity. His hand, full frame, clenches and relaxes as he tries to catch bits of lead falling in a blur from above. Both he and the camera try to capture their fall.

In Serra’s early sculpture there is leaning and balancing and rolling and propping, splashing and scattering and pouring. Photos show the artist in a heavy protective apron and gloves, throwing molten lead from a ladle into the corner between the wall and the floor. Living on almost no money in a downtown New York loft in the late 1960s, Serra poured the contents of a nearby rubber company that had closed, dragging away all the sheets and scraps and using it as his material.

By cutting the rubber, tying it, letting the rubber hang and flop, and by taking thicker sheets of the material and making them stand upright, to find their own, correct topological shapes, these pieces of rubber eventually led to the use of curved steel shapes, the production of which only became possible decades later with the help of computer maps. But much of Serra’s work was often more the result of pacing and placement by eye, often in collaboration with his wife Clara Weyergraf, to whom he was married for more than forty years. Technical difficulties and achievements were only the means.

Serra’s sculptures are not monuments. They are not symbolic. Nor are they picturesque follies or made-up ruins in the park. They are not theatrical. As we stand next to its alignment of rolled steel plates, its forged windows and stubby cylinders, we feel their density – or we like to think we can. Maybe this is just magical thinking, a little bit of which goes a long way. Serra had the ability to make you feel the weight of things and the spaces between them. His art makes you aware of your own presence and that of the shapes with which you share the space. He makes us the subject of the work. His art makes me feel both embodied and weightless. But Serra’s objects are not the point. It was a double game, played with materiality and space, his intentions and our spectatorship. It goes on.

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