Richard Serra obituary

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<p><figcaption class=Richard Serra with The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim, Bilbao, in 2005.Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Serra, who has died aged 85, was a remarkable cultural figure: a sculptor who belonged to the generation of American minimalists, associated with process art and made experimental films, yet evoked something of an earlier, more heroic era. The critic Robert Hughes described him as “the last abstract expressionist”.

While this statement broadens the scope of the matter, Serra’s interest in the processes of sculpture led him to a number of extravagant gestures that belie the seriousness of his major public commissions. Made in the early 1990s for what is now Tate Britain, Weight and Measure exemplified his austere side, with its massive steel forms designed to counter the building’s prevailing classicism. However, some of his other works, such as the winding, ‘twisted’ structures installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2005, are downright baroque.

Curled around an existing sculpture, Snake, which was commissioned for the museum’s opening in 1997, these steel works, dominated by ellipses and spirals, articulate spaces in which the gallery visitor can wander. They are monumental enough to emulate the grandiose architecture of Frank Gehry, but also have an intimate, sensual quality with their patinated surfaces and curved shapes. Above all, Serra’s sculptures create a remarkable interaction with the audience and a strong experience of gradual discovery – hence the installation’s title, The Matter of Time.

His works have proven popular with curators, but are not limited to museums. They have appeared in settings as diverse as Paris’ Tuileries Garden, New York’s Federal Plaza and the Qatari desert, where they have provoked reactions ranging from intense admiration to public scrutiny. One of his sculptures, Fulcrum, was hung in Broadgate, outside Liverpool Street station in London, in 1987. It manages to combine monumentality with fragility, made of weathered steel plates that seem to support each other precariously.

He was born in San Francisco into a family that provided the foundation for his later career as a metal sculptor. His father, Tony, who came from Mallorca, was a pipe fitter in a naval shipyard. His mother, Gladys (née Fineberg), the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, introduced her son as “Richard, the artist” and was later movingly enthusiastic when he began to make his way to New York. Serra himself worked in steel mills during his college years and then made a compelling film, Steelmill/Stahlwerk, in 1979 about German workers in the industry.

Serra began his studies in 1957 at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating from the institution’s Santa Barbara campus with a degree in English literature. He followed this in 1961 with a three-year painting course at Yale University, New Haven – a period during which he also worked as a teaching assistant and as a proofreader for Joseph Albers’ book Interaction of Color (1963). At Yale he met such luminaries as Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, before winning a scholarship that took him to Europe in 1964.

In Paris, Serra was deeply impressed by Constantin Brâncuși’s sculpture, but the following year he continued to paint in Florence, producing colored grids under timed conditions controlled by a stopwatch. It was only with his first exhibition, at the Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966, that he finally gave up painting and filled cages with live and stuffed animals.

After moving to New York the same year, Serra initially survived by setting up shop as a furniture mover with his friends, composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Serra’s artistic development was rapid during this time, moving from experiments with rubber, fiberglass and neon tubes to the metal sculpture for which he became known. He soon began his long-term collaboration with the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, in the Warehouse annex where he was photographed in 1969 throwing molten lead at the wall with a ladle.

The same year, Serra refined this procedure by splashing the metal against a small steel plate in the corner of Jasper Johns’ studio. The “castings” that emerged as the lead cooled were rough, expressive forms, but this project also inspired Serra to create more impersonal pieces, in which metal plates were wedged into the corners of rooms, leaned against each other, or pinned to the wall by lead blowjobs. His emphasis on objective phenomena – mass, gravity and other physical forces – is also reflected in his remarkable experimental films.

In Hand Catching Lead (1968), the hand is in fact the artist’s, but is shown disembodied, attempting to grasp rather than pouring pieces of falling lead, which he drops or misses altogether. The repetition of this fundamentally meaningless act gives the film a serial quality, comparable to the celluloid process itself.

Serra’s involvement with the cutting edge also led him to collaborate with landscape artists Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt. In 1970, he assisted them with Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah and, after Smithson’s death in 1973, Serra helped complete Amarillo Ramp in a man-made lake in Texas. His own site-specific sculptures include Spin Out: For Bob Smithson (1972-73), in the park-like setting of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands. Here the three converging steel plates interacted with each other and their surroundings, illustrating Serra’s goal that “the entire space becomes a manifestation of sculpture.”

The 1970s were a difficult decade in Serra’s life. In 1971, a worker was killed in an accident during the installation of one of Serra’s sculptures outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His five-year marriage to the artist Nancy Graves ended in 1970, and his mother’s suicide in 1977 was followed two years later by his father’s death. However, in that decade he also met his future wife, the art historian Clara Weyergraf, with whom he collaborated on Steelmill/Stahlwerk. Clara would also play a crucial role in shaping his sculpture, giving her name to Clara-Clara, a powerful, curvilinear work installed in the Tuileries Garden in 1983. The history of this piece is an example of Serra’s difficulties in creating the site. -specific art, as it was originally intended for an exhibition at the Center Pompidou, but was considered too heavy at a late stage.

Clara-Clara’s travails were minor compared to the controversies surrounding Tilted Arc, a 120-foot (36-meter) sculpture erected on Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1981. Condemned for being intrusive, a magnet for graffiti artists and even a safety hazard. ultimately removed in 1989, four years after a public hearing in which a majority of witnesses argued in favor of its retention.

Despite this setback, Serra’s career continued to flourish. He had two retrospective exhibitions, in 1986 and 2007, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also had a permanent room dedicated to his monumental work Equal (2015), as well as major exhibitions at home and abroad. He has exhibited regularly with his gallery Gagosian in London, New York and Paris, most recently in 2021.

In 2001 he received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale, in 2015 the Légion d’honneur in France and three years later the J Paul Getty Medal.

During his final years, Serra became deeply involved in public projects in Qatar, especially the four steel slabs, which were erected west of Doha in 2014 and stood more than 14 meters high and spanned more than a kilometer. Known as East-West/West-East, the work blends spectacularly with its surroundings, the gypsum plateaus of the Brouq Nature Reserve in the Dukhan Desert. Serra himself described it as “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”

He is survived by Clara.

• Richard Serra, artist, born November 2, 1938; died March 26, 2024

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