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ICONS: Richard Serra

Richard Serra’s distinctive sculptures of rusted steel, monumental blocks and other massive forms created an environment that we had to walk through to fully experience. At the age of 85, one of the last great icons of American sculpture, who transformed the concept of sculpture on a huge scale during his career, has died.

Serra, who originally set out to become a painter, eventually became one of the greatest sculptors of his time, creating monumental environments of vast corridors, ellipses and spirals of steel, bringing a new abstract grandeur and physical intimacy to the medium. His most famous works evoke the scale of ancient sacred sites and the inscrutability of landmarks such as Stonehenge. He realised that the mystical effect of these massive forms was not the result of religious belief, but rather of the distortions of space created by the leaning, curved or circular walls and the use of materials. It was a novelty in sculpture, a geometry that had to be ‘lived’ and walked around to fully experience. Serra is known today for his large steel sculptures that explore weight, volume and scale and their effect on the viewer. Throughout his career, he has explored these questions, deepening his understanding of the possibilities of sculpture and his ability to articulate form and space. Serra’s works were assembled from huge sheets of cold-rolled steel, mostly assembled in factories used to make hulls. They were so heavy that they required crossing bridges and complex rope cranes to put them in place, and computer-designed curves and inclinations for stability.

Richard Serra was born in San Francisco in 1938 and has lived and worked in New York, North Fork, Long Island and Nova Scotia. When he first went east from the West Coast to study painting at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, his first off-campus trip was not to New York to view the work of Jackson Pollock, but to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia to see Cézanne first and foremost. After Yale, when he visited Paris on a travel grant, he began to drift away from painting, visiting Brancusi’s reconstructed studio – then housed in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris – almost daily to sketch repeatedly the simplistic forms and pedestals of the Romanesque modernist sculptor. His desire to become a painter was finally sealed by a trip to Madrid. When he saw Velazquez’s painting ‘The Court Ladies’ at the Prado Museum, he realised he could not be a painter.

“I thought there was no way I could get anywhere near it. Cézanne didn’t stop me, nor did Kooning or Pollock, but Velazquez seemed like a bigger deal than I could handle”.

As a sculptor, he turned away from closed forms, preferring a raw steel, unconcealed, distinctly industrial look. He had his first major solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Warehouse in New York in 1969, and his first solo museum show was a year later, in 1970, at the Pasadena Art Museum. Serra then quickly rose to the forefront of the international art world and participated in numerous international exhibitions, including Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1972, 1977, 1982, 1987) and the Venice Biennale (1980, 1984, 2001, 2013). His work was particularly popular in Germany, where he has installed public sculptures in nine cities.

One of Serra’s last commissions was completed in the Qatari desert in 2014: his work ‘East-West/West-East’ is located 40 miles from Doha, the capital of Qatar. The work consists of four tall, upright steel plates spanning a mile of desert.