Richard Serra, Minimalist Sculptor Whose Steel Creations Awed Viewers, Dies at 85

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Richard Serra, the sculptor whose grand steel works defined the Minimalist art movement, has died at 85. The New York Times reported that Serra died on Tuesday at in his home in Orient, New York; the artist’s lawyer said that Serra had been battling pneumonia.

Serra’s sculptures defined a generation of art-making. Working on an unusually large scale, Serra crafted gigantic artworks that enlisted spirals, cubes, and cones of steel. These works loom over viewers, threatening to squash them.

But despite their menacing quality, Serra’s sculptures have enraptured viewers across the globe. They have been seen across the world, in venues ranging from Dia:Beacon in Upstate New York to the deserts of Qatar.

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His works, however, have not been without controversy. Tilted Arc (1981), a 120-foot-long bar of Cor-Ten steel that was once set in a plaza in New York’s Financial District, is today remembered as one of the most reviled works of public art in the city’s history. It was ultimately taken away because people hated it so much.

Yet for the most part, critics have spoken hyperbolically of Serra’s work, viewing it as a game-changing oeuvre that succeeded in pushing sculpture into new conceptual realms. He contended with the ways in which an artwork not only exists in space but reorients it, shaping how viewers approach the area around them. Accordingly, his sculptures variously restrict, warp, and block the spaces viewers inhabit, forcing them to move through galleries in ways they may not normally.

“I think that sculpture, if it has any potential at all, has the potential to create its own place and space, and to work in contradiction to the spaces and places where it is created in this sense,” Serra once said. “I am interested in work where the artist is a maker of ‘anti-environment’ which takes its own place or makes its own situation, or divides or declares its own area.”

Two people standing in a sculpture made of swirling bands of steel.

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time, 1994–2005.

Photo Andre Gillene/AFP via Getty Images

Serra’s work is cold, unforgiving, and austere. Nearly all of it contains no psychological content, no figural imagery. It seems totally opposed to its viewer, who must accept the power differential between a human and a steel block weighing tons, then either surrender to it or fight back by ignoring these pieces altogether—which is hard to do, given their size.

It is the kind of art that has become a shorthand for the masculine bravado of many Minimalists. (Asked if he thought his work was feminine, Serra once said, “It’s not feminine.”) For that reason, it was sometimes targeted by feminist critics during the 1970s. Cindy Nemser once claimed that she had tried to interview Serra, and that he declined her request, telling her to “fuck off.” She published word of that in a 1972 essay called “Egomania and the Male Artist.” The artist David Hammons once spoofed the macho quality of Serra’s art with the performance Pissed Off (1981), for which he urinated on one of Serra’s public steel sculptures in New York.

These critiques did little to tarnish Serra’s reputation. He has proven massively influential to generations of artists. He even appeared in Matthew Barney’s 2002 film Cremaster 3, in which Serra plays The Architect, a God-like figure who can be seen splashing Vaseline against a wall in the Guggenheim Museum.

Curving sculptures formed from steel in a gallery.

Works by Richard Serra at Dia:Beacon.

Photo Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Image

Richard Serra was born on November 2, 1938, in San Francisco. Some Minimalists have discussed their artistic styles as being rooted in experiences formative to their development. In Serra’s case, many have divined a possible connection between his sculptures formed from industrial materials and the ships that he could see from the windows of his family’s home. When Serra was 5, he visited the shipyard where his father worked; that, too, has become crucial to Serra lore.

He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara as an undergraduate, finishing with a degree in English literature, and then attended Yale University’s graduate art program, having already taken art history courses there. At Yale, he played a trick on Robert Rauschenberg in which he gave the artist a box that secretly contained a chicken, which proceeded to make noise and defecate once let loose. Serra was ejected from the program for two weeks. “They told me I wasn’t ‘polite to guests,‘“ Serra recalled. “How can they kick you out of art school?”

Serra had set out to become a painter, then became disillusioned with the medium, which at the time was still associated with Abstract Expressionism and transcendence. Serra, wanting nothing to do with any of that, ended up moving in a less traditional route upon graduation from Yale in 1964, working with composer Philip Glass and staging a show composed solely of animals, only some of which were still alive.

His art of the late ’60s has been aligned with a movement known as Process art, which shifted the focus away from the completed art object, toward the means by which it was created. Verb List (1967–68) is a crucial artwork of that movement: it features, in carefully scrawled cursive, 54 verbs, ending with “to continue.” There were also pieces such as Splashing (1968), for which Serra threw molten lead against a wall of New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1969, Jasper Johns invited Serra to do a “splashing” work in his New York studio, as sure a sign as any that Serra’s star had fully ascended.

Dried rows of molten lead that have been splashed into a corner.

Richard Serra, Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/95.

San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Serra’s art in mediums other than sculpture remains lesser-known but has been hugely important as well. His 1968 film Hand Catching Lead, a nearly-three-minute shot of his hand performing the titular action, has been acclaimed, as has his 1973 video Television Delivers People, made with Carlota Fay Schoolman, which was broadcast on TV. The latter work features a seven-minute scrolling text that attempts to invert the capitalist power dynamic that guides TV. “You are the product of t.v.,” it bitterly claims.

He also produced a range of prints and drawings over the years, and even shot documentation of early performances by Joan Jonas, with whom Serra fell in love, causing his marriage to the artist Nancy Graves to unravel. (Serra was married to Graves from 1965 to 1970; he would go on to wed Clara Weyergraf in 1981, and would remain married to her until his death.) Serra’s documentation of Jonas’s early works appears in her current Museum of Modern Art retrospective.

But for many, Serra’s big artistic breakthrough was his “Prop” sculptures of the late ’60s, for which he delicately placed lead sheets against steel poles. So tenuous were these balancing acts that they threatened to come apart entirely at the slightest disturbance.

These works differed greatly from Abstract Expressionist painting, which its makers believed to be imbued with all sorts of lofty ideas about the state of humanity. By contrast, Serra’s art seemed to be all about surfaces—they were conceptually driven, their content existing in the form of ideas that were appended to these objects. “Where else would content come from if not from the experience of perceiving the work,” Serra once said.

A partially rusted steel sculpture amid trees and cars.

Richard Serra, Terminal, 1977.

ullstein bild via Getty Images

During the ’70s, Serra started to inset his works within landscapes and urban spaces. In 1971, he created his first rolled steel work, and from there would continue to rely on the material for works such as Circuit, staged at the 1977 edition of the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany. When it was installed in the German city of Bochum two years later, locals were not happy.

Their ire would prove no match for what Serra would experience when Tilted Arc was installed in Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza. The work was commissioned by a government body, and its perceived ugliness led 1,300 government workers to sign a petition calling for its removal. Serra said such a massive thing could not be taken away—it was meant to be permanent.

But the public was not persuaded, and the case even made it to court. A judge ruled that the piece would have to go—it made it impossible to fully surveil the government buildings it partially concealed. Serra then sued the United States General Services Office, claiming that his right to free speech had been violated. His claim was denied, and the sculpture was finally hauled away in 1989. The Wall Street Journal’s story about the removal bore the headline “Good Riddance.” Today, the sculpture resides in storage.

A man standing with his arms crossed besides an arcing steel form in a plaza.

Richard Serra standing beside Tilted Arc (1981).

Photo Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Although the Tilted Arc debacle has continued to follow any discussion of Serra’s art, it did not keep him from sculpting increasingly large steel works. Installing these works has not always been a safe endeavor. In 1971, a Serra sculpture weighing more than 5,000 pounds fell on an installer at the Walker Art Center, killing him. And in 1988, two workers were pinned for several minutes beneath a 32-ton Serra sculpture that they had been deinstalling.

Despite the evident danger of installing Serra works, many have not shown any fear of getting up-close to them. A number for epic steel works from the past couple decades have seduced viewers with their wavy, curved surfaces. In some cases, viewers can even walk into corridors created by these steel forms, which do not always offer pleasant experiences for claustrophobics.

Among Serra’s late-career triumphs is Equal (2015), an installation composed for 40-ton box-like forms that are balanced in twos, one atop the other. The work is currently afforded a gallery of its own at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns it.

Serra’s various accolades include the Venice Biennale’s lifetime achievement award, and he has received such major shows as a MoMA survey held in 2007.

Almost all of the sculptures, drawings, prints, paintings, and more that Serra has done are crafted in shades of black. When critic Deborah Solomon asked Serra if he thought of trying another color, he mentioned he had a pink painting that he relegated to his closet. He toyed with green and purple, too. Then, he told Solomon, “For a week, I considered chartreuse seriously.”

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