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Richard Serra, Who Recast Sculpture on a Massive Scale, Dies at 85

By Roberta Smith / NY Times


His tilted walls of rusting steel, monumental blocks and other immense and inscrutable forms created environments that had to be walked through, or around, to be fully experienced.




Richard Serra, who set out to become a painter but instead became one of his era’s greatest sculptors, inventing a monumental environment of immense tilting corridors, ellipses and spirals of steel that gave the medium both a new abstract grandeur and a new physical intimacy, died on Tuesday at his home in Orient, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. He was 85.  The cause was pneumonia, John Silberman, his lawyer, said.

Mr. Serra’s most celebrated works had some of the scale of ancient temples or sacred sites and the inscrutability of landmarks like Stonehenge. But if these massive forms had a mystical effect, it came not from religious belief but from the distortions of space created by their leaning, curving or circling walls and the frankness of their materials.


This was something new in sculpture; a flowing, circling geometry that had to be moved through and around to be fully experienced. Mr. Serra said his work required a lot of “walking and looking,” or “peripatetic perception.” It was, he said, “viewer centered”: Its meanings were to be arrived at by individual exploration and reflection.



These pieces were assembled from giant plates of cold rolled steel made in mills more accustomed to fabricating the hulls of ships. They were so heavy that they required permits to cross bridges and cranes with elaborate rigging to be set in place.


They almost inevitably imparted a frisson of danger, in part because they stood on their own — as did all of Mr. Serra’s work — without benefit of screws, bolts or welds. His leaning pieces relied on their computer-plotted curves and tilts for stability. The flat, upright, slab like elements of some pieces — suggesting both sturdy walls and gravestones — stood because they were rarely less than six inches thick. And when Mr. Serra’s forms expanded into solid cylinders (which he called “rounds”) or near cubes of solid forged steel, they were unquestionably stable, even when stacked one on the other.


Mr. Serra seemed every inch the sculptor. He had a compact, muscular build, a powerfully shaped head that was covered with unruly curls until he started keeping his hair closely cropped, a combative personality, and an expression that bordered on fierce even when he smiled.


Brilliant, uncompromising and endlessly argumentative, he spoke in a clipped, emphatic manner that could be terse or loquacious. Although he mellowed with age, even then he could sometimes seem slightly coiled, as if ready for a fight.

 

Disagreement could lead to long periods of not speaking to close friends, among them the painter Chuck Close, who told Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker in 2002, “It’s a goddamn good thing he’s a great artist, because a lot of this stuff wouldn’t be tolerated.”


In interviews and conversations, Mr. Serra’s telling, and retelling, of the important events in his life created an aura of singularity and destiny. For example, when he went east from the West Coast for the first time to study painting at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, his first off-campus trip was not to New York to see Jackson Pollock’s work, he said, but to the Barnes Foundation, then outside Philadelphia, for “my first good look at Cézanne.”


After Yale, while visiting Paris on a travel grant, he began to move away from painting with almost daily visits to Brancusi’s reconstructed studio — then housed at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris — to repeatedly draw the simplified forms of that Romanian modernist’s sculpture and bases.


But it wasn’t until he got to Madrid and saw Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” at the Prado Museum there that he realized that he could not be a painter. As he told Mr. Tomkins: “I thought there was no possibility of me getting close to that. Cézanne hadn’t stopped me, de Kooning and Pollock hadn’t stopped me, but Velazquez seemed like a bigger thing to deal with.”



Mr. Serra’s nearly six-decade career began with a meteoric rise in the late 1960s, when new mediums were emerging and old ones were mixing. Although frequently called a Minimalist, he came of age with the slightly younger Post-Minimalist generation and helped define its concerns. These artists scattered art in several directions to escape Minimalism’s long shadow, stretching its precepts into earthworks, performance, video, conceptual or process art. Many of Mr. Serra’s contemporaries viewed portable art objects as something to be avoided — or, in contemporary parlance, “dematerialized.”


But Mr. Serra learned from, sidestepped and even reversed signal aspects of both movements. Claiming to make “sculpture as sculpture,” he rejected the Minimalists’ use of thin, shiny sheets of metal, pristine ready-made objects and color. Above all, he turned away from its closed forms, preferring a decidedly industrial look of raw steel with nothing hidden.


While the size of his pieces took them far beyond portable art objects, he never got closer to dematerialization than in a brief phase in the late 1960s, when he made in-situ works out of molten lead flung into the juncture of wall and floor and then pulled back in lacy, troughlike forms. His main interest lay in shaping space by using materials in ways that took advantage of their inherent capacities and even exalted them.


Mr. Serra enjoyed both great notoriety and great fame over the course of his long career, with notoriety coming first. In 1975, a rigger was crushed to death when one plate of a piece being installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis accidentally came loose. Many people in the art world — artists, curators, critics, museum directors — urged Mr. Serra to stop making sculpture, even though an investigation revealed that the crane operator had not properly followed the rigging instructions.

 

Mr. Serra’s early public pieces sometimes met with opposition, most famously “Tilted Arc,” commissioned by the General Services Administration and completed in 1981. The work — a gently curving, slightly leaning wall of rusting steel 12 feet high and 120 feet long — was installed in a plaza in front of a federal office building in Lower Manhattan. Some people who worked there regarded it as an eyesore and a danger and petitioned to have it removed. A hearing was held to consider arguments pro and con, after which the G.S.A. decided in favor of removal.


Dismayed and infuriated, Mr. Serra sued the government to keep the work in place, vowing that he would leave the country if it were dismantled. He lost his suit, and “Tilted Arc” was taken down in March 1989. But he continued to be based in New York.


And yet as the single curved planes of “Tilted Arc” multiplied in subsequent works to create corridors and then grew into the torqued ellipses, spirals and S-shaped double spirals, Mr. Serra’s art became increasingly popular. People lined up around the block to see his epic New York gallery shows.


Walking through one of his circling labyrinths, viewers would reach the work’s open center, then retrace their steps, awed by its scale and its scarred surfaces (which they could touch) and often comforted by the narrow passages created by its curving, tilting plates of steel. This combination of experiences made for an emotional force that, to Mr. Serra’s discomfort, had some critics calling the work expressionistic. But in many ways his sculpture did share something with the Abstract Expressionists, who felt that their large paintings should be experienced up close.



Shipyard Memories

Richard Serra was born on Nov. 2, 1938, in San Francisco, the second of three sons of Tony and Gladys (Fineberg) Serra. His father, an immigrant from the Spanish island of Majorca, worked as a pipe fitter at a San Francisco shipyard during World War II. One of the artist’s most vivid memories occurred on his fourth birthday, when his father took him to the shipyard to watch the launching of an enormous tanker.


“All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory, which has become a recurring dream,” he later said. Starting when he was 15, Mr. Serra regularly had summer jobs in steel mills in the Bay Area.


His mother, a Russian Jewish immigrant from Odessa, was devoted to reading and to seeing that her sons succeeded.


Mr. Serra drew incessantly from an early age — in part, he admitted, to compete for his parents’ attention with his brilliant, athletic older brother, Tony. Impressed by his drawings, his third-grade teacher told his mother to take him to museums. She began introducing him to people as an artist.


Tony Serra would become a lawyer well known for his left-wing views, for a vow of poverty he took and for defending Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, and members of the radical group the Symbionese Liberation Army. (The two brothers did not speak for 25 years, but Richard Serra eventually helped pay for the college expenses of Tony’s five children.)


After one year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he joined the progressive Students for a Democratic Society, Mr. Serra transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara, which he remembered as small and very competitive, “with a lot of verbal sparring back and forth.” He took courses there with Margaret Mead, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and majored in English literature while studying art with the painters Howard Warshaw and Rico Lebrun.


He was planning to continue his literary studies in graduate school when Mr. Warshaw told him he should think about applying to an art school. Mr. Serra sent a group of drawings to Yale and received a scholarship. His classmates there included Mr. Close, the painters Brice Marden (who died in August) and Rackstraw Downes, and the sculptor Nancy Graves, who became his girlfriend. Among his teachers, he was especially influenced by the painter Philip Guston and the experimental composer Morton Feldman. He later described the large paintings he made at Yale as “knockoff Pollock-de Koonings.”


A Yale travel fellowship followed by a Fulbright grant allowed him to spend two years in Europe with Ms. Graves, who also received a Fulbright. They married in 1964 in Paris, where they became friendly with the composer Philip Glass. In Florence, Italy, after his Velazquez epiphany in Madrid, Mr. Serra began making assemblages that involved stuffed and living animals in cages. His first solo show, titled “Live Animal Habitats,” took place at Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966.


The couple returned to New York the next year, renting a loft in TriBeCa and joining a circle that included Mr. Glass, Mr. Close, the composer Steve Reich, the writer and actor Spalding Gray, the filmmaker Michael Snow and the artist Robert Smithson. Mr. Serra started a moving company called Low Rate Movers, which employed some of these artists on various jobs.


His marriage to Ms. Graves ended in 1970, when he fell in love with the video and performance artist Joan Jonas, who was his partner into the mid-1970s. In 1981, he married Clara Weyergraf, a German-born art historian. She is among his survivors. In addition to Tony, Mr. Serra had another brother, Rudolph Serra, also an artist. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. In addition to Orient, Mr. Serra had a home in Inverness, Nova Scotia.



Sculpting With Lead

Mr. Serra’s sculpture developed at a ferocious rate in the late 1960s — progress that was possibly aided by his having had no formal training in the medium to unlearn — and he emerged at the forefront of Post-Minimalism. In one work after another, he acquainted himself with the basics of sculpture while also testing the capacities of different materials by subjecting them to simple actions or processes.


His approach was especially clear in the 1967 piece “A Lift,” a thick rectangular sheet of vulcanized rubber laid on the floor and lifted from the center of one side until it stood in a configuration resembling a tent or a monk’s robe.


In addition to rubber, he worked in latex, neon tubing and fiberglass, but his most important early works were made of lead, in solid but pliable sheets or molten.


In 1968, in an important early Post-Minimalist group show staged at the warehouse of the Leo Castelli Gallery on West 108th Street in Manhattan, Mr. Serra caused a sensation with “Splashings,” made by throwing molten lead along the juncture of a brick wall and concrete floor. The exhibition also included works by Robert Morris, Alan Saret, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and Keith Sonnier.


Equally well known were Mr. Serra’s “prop pieces,” in which thick sheets and pole-like rolls of lead held one another up or against the wall in various arrangements; one took the form of an open lean-to cube titled “House of Cards.”


In 1970, Mr. Serra helped Mr. Smithson complete his “Spiral Jetty,” an earthwork that curled out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Later that year, he and Ms. Jonas spent six months in Japan, where he was especially impressed with the gardens of the Myoshinji Zen temple of Kyoto and the way they required “walking and looking.”


By then he had begun working with plates of hot-rolled steel, though he had hesitated at first, because he thought “it was the most traditional material you could use.” But then, he said, “I realized that I probably knew more about steel than any artist who had worked with it, and why not use it?” Artists before him, he said, “did not deal with its tectonic potential, its weight, its compression, its mass, its stasis — that wasn’t knowledge that was in the art world.” His first efforts in steel reprised some of his lead “prop pieces” — and looked completely different.

 

In about 1980, he discovered that steel plates could be self-supporting and tilted if curved. His first efforts using this method included “Tilted Arc.” In works like “Clara Clara,” from 1983, he began to explore the possibilities of using two or more plates. These led to his sinuous spiral and double spiral arrangements, which did not so much contain space as set it flowing — along with the viewer — through their curving, leaning corridors. Viewers might feel they were walking beside a sleeping whale, if not inside one.


Starting in the early years of his career, Mr. Serra had scores of exhibitions in galleries and museums in the United States and abroad, some of them devoted to the drawings, prints and films he also made. He had two large retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Richard Serra/Sculptor” in 1986 and “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years” in 2007.


In addition to steel pieces that could be moved, though only with great difficulty, he executed many commissions for permanent works in both urban and nonurban settings, beginning in 1970 with one on the grounds of a country house owned by Emily Rauh and Joseph Pulitzer Jr. outside St. Louis. His work was especially popular in Germany, where there are 9 cities with public sculptures.


One of his last commissions was completed in 2014 in the Qatari desert: “East-West/West-East,” for the Bouq National Reserve, a public park on a peninsula 40 miles from Doha, the capital of Qatar. The work consists of four tall standing steel plates that span a kilometer of desert flanked by low gypsum bluffs. The plates’ tops are all the same height regardless of the level of the ground, which changes to such an extent that the two outer plinths are 55 feet high and the two inside ones are only 48 feet high (all are 13 feet wide).


Some years ago, after having a weeping eye repeatedly misdiagnosed, Mr. Serra learned from his doctors that he had cancer of the tear duct in his left eye. He was told that the remedy was simple — they would have to remove the eye — but that the prognosis was good. Typically undaunted and determined not to compromise his vision or his work as an artist, Mr. Serra declined the surgery.

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