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Richard Serra, man of steel (1938–2024)

28 March 2024

Sometimes an origin story is just too perfect. In the case of Richard Serra, who died on 26 March at the age of 85, it was a recollection of being taken as a four-year-old by his father to the shipyard in which he worked as a pipe fitter for the launch of a huge tanker. Everything, Serra said on many occasions, was contained in that memory. The way in which this huge mass of material suddenly became buoyant, matter became light and solid steel became a container for a vast quantity of air, fascinated him and haunted him.

Serra grew up in San Francisco, the son of a Russian-Jewish mother from Odessa and a Spanish father from Mallorca. His early memories were of the wartime economy of a city geared up for production and he would later work as a labourer in steel mills to pick up pocket money while taking up drawing, apparently in an effort to gain attention and affection from his mother. He always revelled in the contrasts between blue collar and high culture. Serra initially went to study literature, first at UC Berkeley, then at UC Santa Barbara where he took courses with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and supported his studies with more shifts at steel foundries. After graduating he switched to art school, a portfolio of drawings got him a scholarship to the Yale School of Art and Architecture where his teachers would include Philip Guston and his classmates Chuck Close, Brice Marden, and Nancy Graves, whom he would later marry. He graduated in 1964.

It was a trip to Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship in the mid 1960s that proved formative. Serra wanted to be painter, at first inspired by Cézanne, but often told a story about how after seeing Velázquez’s Las Meninas he realised that the bar had been set too high. The work of Borromini in Rome however – notably the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane – introduced him to the spatial power of the ellipse, something that would stay with him through to his creation of powerful steel torqued pieces later in his career.

However Serra didn’t find his metier easily. He worked in mediums as varied as taxidermy, ink, rubber, neon and molten lead. His first show in Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966 featured caged animals, both stuffed and alive. Returning to New York, he settled into the nascent downtown art scene which included musical minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He also founded a removals company, employing artists as day labourers as a way to help sustain them.

In 1968 his work Splashing made a, well, splash, at Leo Castelli’s Gallery as the artist threw molten lead at a bare brick wall. He began working with steel in various forms, leaning pieces against walls and against each other and then moved to more singular, solid volumes. Around 1970 he became more interested in his surroundings. Having helped his friend Robert Smithson with Spiral Jetty, he began working on site-specific projects based around topography and land.  He and Graves divorced in 1970 and he embarked on a long relationship with Joan Jonas.

His career as a major art world figure only really took off with controversy. His monumental work Tilted Arc was sited at Federal Plaza in New York, a block or so away from his TriBeCa stomping ground in 1981. A huge, 120ft-long, 12 ft-high wall of subtly curving, slightly leaning Corten steel, it became a lightning conductor for public animosity to modern art, condemned as an obstacle in the path of busy New Yorkers. When moves were made to take it down artists including Claes Oldenburg and Keith Haring came to its defence, but in 1989 the city succumbed and Tilted Arc was never seen in public again (as Serra instructed). It still resides in a Brooklyn storage facility, albeit cut down to three sections. Serra was crushed but, ironically, the exposure also made him a mainstream figure and the sculpture introduced the world to his mature style. Fulcrum (1987), installed as part of the Broadgate Development near Liverpool Street Station, a piece consisting of five planes of steel leaning on each other, has enjoyed a happy fate, remaining a striking and popular piece of public sculpture at the scale of architecture.

View of Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc before its removal from Federal Plaza, New York, on 10 May 1985. Photo: Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

Arguably his best work was made for the Guggenheim Bilbao (between 1994–2005) in which Serra’s shifting curves, cones, labyrinths and coils sit inside Frank Gehry’s modern-baroque building. Rather than clashing, the two accommodate each other perfectly. After working with rolled steel in the mills, Serra had a different understanding of the material to other artists, seeing it not as a medium but as a thing in itself. He understood the lengths he would be able to work with, the mass, the height and the sheer presence of the steel. Although often described as a minimalist, Serra was working in a very different way from, say, Donald Judd, with his perfect metal boxes. He appreciated the steel for its own qualities: how it might stand outside a foundry waiting to be used, a pure product of industry and a container of potential. He used its gravity and mass to make it stand up unsupported. There were no unseen tricks or hidden rods. These were forms that were just there.

The way in which his sculpture torques, twists and leans allow the works to change according to the body’s position within or beside them. It is always changing, but you are in control of how those changes work. Up close it might be oppressive or claustrophobic, from further away powerful and almost magnetic. The thickness of the steel is critical. You should feel its mass, perhaps even a frisson of danger if you think too deeply about the sheer weight of these leaning forms. Although he claimed to be uninterested in surface, the rusted texture of the Corten made you want to run a finger along it. His real material he said, however, was not steel but space.

His work can be found in the collections of almost every major museum of modern art and he had two retrospectives at MoMA. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2001, Serra said, ‘I was in analysis and I told my analyst I wanted to be the best sculptor in the world and he said, “Richard, calm down.”’ He needn’t have worried.