Richard Serra
Biography of American Minimalist Sculptor in Cor-Ten Steel.
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Snake (1994-97)
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
One of the most famous public
examples of postmodernist art.

Richard Serra (b.1939)

Rated by some art critics as one of the greatest 20th century sculptors of the postmodernist era, the American Minimalist artist Richard Serra is best known for his large scale sheet metal works of public art. A pupil of ex-Bauhaus teacher Joseph Albers, Serra began creating abstract sculpture using heavy materials - in a form known as Process Art. During the early 1970s he began to focus on creating monumental, site-specific commissions, made of Cor-Ten steel. Several pieces of his public sculpture have attracted controversy, although his reputation as one of the most innovative abstract sculptors remains intact. Indeed, judging by the response of museum curators, Serra is one of the most highly rated postmodernist artists. His most famous works include Tilted Arc (1981, Federal Plaza, New York); Fulcrum (1987, Liverpool Street Station, London); Berlin Junction (1987, Philharmonic Orchestra Building, Berlin); Snake (1994-97, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao); and an eight-part suite, The Matter of Time (2004, Guggenheim Bilbao).

EVOLUTION OF PLASTIC ART
See: History of Sculpture.

BEST SCULPTURE
For a list of the world's top works
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
For a list of sculptors like
Richard Serra, see:
Modern Artists.

BEST PLASTIC ARTISTS
See: Greatest Sculptors.

CONTEMPORARY SCULPTORS
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991)
Duane Hanson (1925-96)
Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

SCULPTORS CONTINUED...
Mark Di Suvero (b.1933)
Bruce Naumann (b.1941)
John De Andrea (b.1941)
Antony Gormley (b.1950)
Anish Kapoor (b.1954)
Jeff Koons (b.1955)
Damien Hirst (b.1965)

Early Life

Serra was born in 1939 in San Francisco. Between 1957 and 1961 he studied English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara and then Fine Art at Yale (under the great Joseph Albers) between 1961 and 1964. While studying he earned extra money by working in steel mills, where he learned valuable lessons about the properties and dynamics of steel, which became fundamental to his future art. But his first sculptures were constructed from scrap rubber, which he rearranged and twisted into shapes, humorously echoing the names of artists like Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Pablo Picasso.

Early Steel Sculptures

Serra's first metal sculptures were completely abstract in nature. He took molten lead, and hurled it in large splashes again the wall of a studio or exhibition space. Gradually, with the help of specialized weather-resistant Cor-ten steel, he began making large scale works. Often these were site-specific installations, constructed on a scale that dwarfed the viewer.

 

 

Tilted Arc

In 1981 Serra installed his 3.5 metre high sculpture Tilted Arc in the Federal Plaza in New York. The sculpture created an instant controversy when people complained that is restricted access to passages through the plaza. A public hearing four years later voted that the work should be moved. Serra objected that the work was site specific and that to 'remove the work is to destroy it'. Eventually in 1989 the work was dismantled and sold for scrap metal. In 2002 a similar Serra installation called Vectors was commissioned for the California Institute of Technology, to span one of the few green spaces on the campus. This work, too, met severe resistance and was never installed.

Understand Serra

Although Serra was vilified for many years - the public felt his works were "art-world arrogance" - he has become better understood over the years. This is often how avant-garde art operates. Some say his work is democratic in that it requires no previous expertise or knowledge of art history to grasp. There are no coy allusions or metaphors. There is none of what Serra himself disdainfully called 'Post-Pop Art Surrealism' - contemporary art which leans on Marcel Duchamp's theory of explanation. Although Serra was influenced by Baroque architecture, and the works of other artists like Barnett Newman (1905-70), Eva Hesse (1936-70), Robert Smithson (1938-73) and Donald Judd (1928-94), his art uses only the basic ingredients of sculpture - mass, weight, volume and material. It takes into account viewers' reactions as they approach and move through the structures.

Famous Works

In 2000 Serra installed Charlie Brown, a 60-feet tall sculpture of the cartoon character which was placed in the new Gap Inc. headquarters in San Francisco. To speed up the process of oxidation and colour pigmentation, sprinklers were directed towards the steel slabs that form the work. In 2005 Serra's mammoth sculpture of a Snake, which forms a curving path was unveiled at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Snake consists of 3 enormous serpentine sheets of hot-rolled steel which are permanently installed in the museum’s Fish Gallery. The passages created by the sheets capture a sense of motion and instability. The sculpture weighs around 180 tonnes and is meant to be experienced just as much by its negative space as form. Snake is meant to almost defy gravity, making solid metal appear as malleable as wool. Shifting in unexpected ways as the viewers walk, the sculpture creates a surprising experience of space and the sensation of steel in motion. To celebrate its installation, the museum held a grand exhibition of Serra's sculptures in the same year.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate postmodernist abstract sculptors like Richard Serra, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Exhibitions

Hailed as one of the great American sculptors of the postmodernism age by the time he was 45, Serra's plastic art was the subject of major retrospectives in 1983 and 1986 at the French National Museum of Modern Art (Pompidou Centre) in Paris. In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held a retrospective of his work - Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years. The sculptures Intersection II (1992) and Torqued Ellipse IV (1998) were included in this show along with three new works. Serra himself commented: "A retrospective might give the impression of a seamless linearity of development, but my work does not evolve that way. It evolves in fits and starts." The Kunsthaus Bregenz held a retrospective of his drawings 'Work comes out of Work' in 2008. The same year Serra showed his Promenade installation at the Grand Palais, Paris. This steel sculpture - an example of Serra's minimalism - was a huge success. Except for Anselm Kiefer, Serra was the only artist invited to exhibit here. In June, 2008, Serra received an Honorary Art Degree from Williams College. His large scale, site-specific sculptural installation art, designed for urban landscapes, can be found in cities around the world, from America to Iceland and New Zealand.

Collections

Sculptures by Serra can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world, including: Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; MoMA, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Yale University Art Gallery; De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art, Netherlands; Kroller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

• For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Homepage.
• For more about contemporary sculpture, see: Contemporary Art.


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