Richard Serra, sculptor who created monumental works in steel that transformed public spaces – obituary

Richard Serra with one of his pieces in the Moma Sculpture Garden in New York in 2007 – David Corio/Redferns

Richard Serra, the American sculptor who has died aged 85, was best known for transforming enormous slabs of steel, twisting them into awe-inspiring twisted ellipses, spirals, curves and other shapes, creating huge, dense pieces of metal improbable flexible and pliable. sternly beautiful.

Serra was extremely highly regarded by fellow artists and critics and his work was intended to provide visitors with both a physical and visual experience. He wanted the audience to walk around and between his sleek rust-colored metal sculptures, changing the appearance of the pieces in relation to each other and the space. The effect can be disorienting and disturbing, the enormous metal shapes looming over the visitor and then moving closer or receding – but no one could be indifferent to the feeling.

Entering a Serra exhibition was a bit like getting lost in a working shipyard, and that was no coincidence. As a boy, Richard was taken by his father, a shipyard mechanic, to see the launch of a new liner. Serra remembered the big steel bow sliding down the parachute and knew that “all the raw material I needed was in that memory.”

Serra's controversial piece Tilted Arc, at Federal Plaza in New York in 1985: after much vitriol it was dismantled and put into storageSerra's controversial piece Tilted Arc, at Federal Plaza in New York in 1985: after much vitriol it was dismantled and put into storage

Serra’s controversial piece Tilted Arc, at Federal Plaza in New York in 1985: after much vitriol it was dismantled and put into storage – Robert R McElroy/Getty Images

Richard Antony Serra was born on November 2, 1938 in San Francisco, the second of three sons of a Spanish father and a Russian mother. After high school, he studied English literature at the University of California, first in Berkeley and then in Santa Barbara, where Aldous Huxley was one of his teachers. To finance his studies, Serra worked in a rivet gang at a steel mill, and throughout his life he returned to the factory to learn new techniques.

As a part-time job at Santa Barbara, Serra began painting under Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw in the art department. After graduating in 1961, he sent his portfolio to Yale, where he won a scholarship to study painting, mentored by the abstract expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, whose contacts within the New York School allowed him to draw on figures such as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston as guest lecturers.

Serra graduated in 1964 with a BA in art history, a Master of Fine Arts degree, a traveling fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship that took him to Paris. There he studied the work of Brancusi and Giacometti and became friends with the avant-garde composer Philip Glass. In 1966 he lived for a while in Rome, where he was influenced by composer John Cage’s theories on chance in art, a concept extensively explored by Jackson Pollock, whose work impressed Serra when he saw a show by the artist in the Galleria La Salita. .

Wake, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, SeattleWake, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

Wake, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle – UrbanImages/Alamy

However, during a trip to Madrid in 1966, Serra visited the Prado Museum and saw Velázquez’s Las Meninas and decided that he could never match the artist’s skills. stuffed animals – in the Galleria La Salita.

Returning to the US towards the end of the year, he moved to New York at a time when Minimalism was taking over from Abstract Expressionism. His early pieces, consisting of strips of metal, rubber and pipes arranged in random patterns, failed to impress. But after being taken in by the Leo Castelli Gallery, Serra began to attract attention.

In Scatter Piece (1967) he threw rubber and latex across the gallery floor in a gesture analogous to Pollock’s ‘action painting’. He also published a ‘verb list’ of 84 transitive verbs (cast, roll, tear, wad, etc.) that identified sculptural possibilities, and 24 expressions such as ‘of tension, of gravity, of entropy’ that defined external forces that would shape a form can form. work. He then explored these through series such as Tearing Lead (1968) and Splashed Lead (1969), art designed to encourage the viewer to reflect on the process of creation.

Serra’s Skullcracker Series (1969), taking its name from the California steel yard that supplied the raw material, established the themes that would establish his reputation. Steel was often used in sculpture, but was used pictorially. Serra wanted to “bring it back home.”

Serra in Matthew Barney's film Cremaster 3 (2002)Serra in Matthew Barney's film Cremaster 3 (2002)

Serra in Matthew Barney’s film Cremaster 3 (2002) – Photo 12/Alamy

Using a magnetic crane, he stacked six-metre-high towers weighing 200 tonnes of irregularly shaped sheets of ‘crop’ – waste steel from the hot-rolled mill – on top of each other so that they leaned dangerously forward but did not fall over. Standing in front of Stacked Steel Slabs (1969), the viewer was uncomfortably aware of their weight and the looming possibility of collapse, but Serra’s triumph lay in their extraordinary poise, their unfulfilled threat. One-Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969) consisted of four rectangular plates of lead leaning against each other to create a similar effect.

Gradually, Serra began to attract public commissions. Although his natural habitat was industrial, one of his first commissions was a landscape. Untitled (1971), a series of concrete walls in a rolling field, taught him the importance of context and how sculpture can complement or confront it. Preparing a piece Serra could spend up to three years walking a site, another year defining the space he wanted to use, and another two years deciding what to put in it.

Encouraged by his success outdoors, he began creating public works for urban spaces. Terminal (1977), a 40-foot-long steel four-plate on a traffic island in Bochum, West Germany, was denounced as “an ugly waste of money,” but TWU (1980), a 37-foot-long three-plate on a traffic island in SoHo, New York and St John’s Rotary Arc (1980), a 60 meter long and 3.5 meter high curved steel wall at the exit of the Holland Tunnel, New York, was warmly received.

East-West / West-East (2014), in QatarEast-West / West-East (2014), in Qatar

East-West/West-East (2014), in Qatar – Sally Crane/Alamy

Not all of his work went down so well in New York. When, repeating the wall idea, he laid a steel wall 100 feet long and 11 feet high – Tilted Arc (1981) – across the grim plaza of the Jacob K Javits Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, 1,300 office workers signed a petition in which they asked for the wall. removal and even the Village Voice joined the protests, describing the work as “so wrong, so wrong, so bad.”

Serra insisted that the statue had “a truly lyrical throughline” and argued that moving it would be tantamount to destroying it as it was “site specific.” But the critics prevailed and after much vitriol the work was dismantled and put into storage. The concept would form the basis for Maya Lin’s hugely successful Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

It wasn’t Serra’s first brush with controversy. In 1971, when a 34-year-old worker was crushed by a two-ton steel plate while dismantling a Serra structure, the sculptor was attacked, ridiculed and advised by friends to stop working for years.”

When asked in 1978 to provide a monumental sculpture for a plaza adjacent to the Treasury in Washington, he clashed with architect Robert Venturi, who wanted to place the Stars and Stripes on two pylons to frame the building, and took resigned from the project because he protested that his work was not ideological and concerned “sculpture and nothing else”.

Visitors walk through Serra's piece The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum in BilbaoVisitors walk through Serra's piece The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Visitors walk through Serra’s piece The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty

Serra continued to produce works on paper, mainly monochrome images of geometric shapes, which were not always appreciated. An exhibition of abstract black oils at the Serpentine Gallery in 1992 was described by one critic as “the most unpleasant exhibition in London”.

But attitudes to modern art – even minimalist sculpture – changed enormously during Serra’s career and when Weight and Measure, steel blocks weighing 35 and 39 tonnes, were exhibited in the Tate’s two central sculpture halls in 1992, it was seen as a triumph considered.

But it was his Torqued Ellipse series, begun in 1996 and consisting of assemblages of solid rust-colored Cor-Ten steel plates turned into open-topped circular sculptures, that converted even the most skeptical critics. Serra attributed the inspiration for the series to an early 1990s visit to the Baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, where he became fascinated and disoriented by the relationship between Francesco Borromini’s elliptical nave and dome. His sculptural take on this architectural oddity proved to be a major breakthrough for Serra, as his sculptures now created enclosed spaces for people to walk in and explore.

Serra's piece in front of Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1, in TorontoSerra's piece in front of Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1, in Toronto

Serra’s piece for Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1, in Toronto – Shankar Adiseshan/Alamy

In 2000, Serra exhibited Torqued Ellipses at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, his largest exhibition since 1986. In 2005, The Matter of Time, consisting of eight enormous steel sculptures – both torsed ellipses and spirals, was the largest sculptural installation in the world. – opened at the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, to near-universal critical acclaim. Along the way, the pieces, which remain on permanent display, helped solve a problem by filling a room far too large for any other work.

One of his last works was East-West/West-East (2014), four tall standing steel plates stretching across a kilometer of desert in the Brouq National Reserve in Qatar.

Serra was alert to alternative media and made two films to explore his ideas about industrialization. Railway Turning (1976) placed a camera on a swing bridge as it turned, while Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979) enjoyed the environment he knew best.

In 1964, Richard Serra married the sculptor Nancy Graves. The marriage soon dissolved and in 1981 he married German-born art historian Clara Weyergraf, with whom he had collaborated on Steelmill/Stahlwerk. She survives him.

Richard Serra, born November 2, 1938, died March 26, 2024

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