Richard Serra, born in 1939 in San Francisco, California, began his life as a gifted child. He was the second born son of the three boys of Tony and Gladys Serra. He was fortunate to have parents who found it worthwhile to nurture the budding talent of Richard and they often took him to art museums and made his drawings and paintings the topics of family conversations. Gladys Serra, also an avid painter, introduced her son to studies in the history of art. With his mother's instructions in the latter topic, Serra became fluent in the language of art as well as the identification of many works.
Despite his evident interest in art, Serra began his college studies as an English major at the University of California at Berkeley. He soon transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he made art a strong point in his studies, but graduated with a degree in English in 1961. While it was not in his original plans, Serra applied to Yale University's School of Art and Architecture and was accepted.
At Yale he began to study art, mainly painting. He also worked with the acclaimed painter, Josef Albers on his book, "The Interaction of Color," which was published in 1963. Serra also had the opportunity to work with several very influential artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Guston and Frank Stella during his studies at Yale.
1964 brought about a-year-long study in Paris, France when Serra won a traveling fellowship after obtaining his master's degree from Yale. He was married to the artist Nancy Graves during this time and shared a studio with her. Also while in Paris, he met Philip Glass, a talented musician working in the field of minimal music with whom Serra would remain friends.
Many occurrences in Paris would help to mold the thinking of Richard Serra, including the meeting Giacometti and becoming aware of the work of Brancusi. This latter artist played an integral function in Serra's transition from painting to sculpture. It was the treatment of line and volume within Brancusi's sculptures that so intrigued Serra.
After another period of study in Spain and North Africa, Serra returned to the U.S. and became a client of the art dealing giant, Leo Castelli. Some of Serra's early exhibitions utilized rubber, but he was soon moving into the metal works he is so well-known for today. By 1968, he had begun to employ the technique of working with molten metal and pouring or throwing it in its liquid state.
This interest in heavy metals was to become a theme throughout his career. Although working from a minimalist sensibility, these temporary works indicate an interest more in process than in the end product, and for a period of time Serra was associated with a movement called process art.
The installations, "Splashing" (1968) and "Casting" (1969), consist of lead poured or thrown into arrangements nestled in the corners of rooms. Serra's work in the mid to late 1960's was categorized, by some, as being almost painfully minimalistic. Other works consistent with this style included "Thirty-five Feet of Lead Rolled Up" (1968), which was simply a rolled 24 inch cylinder of lead sheeting lying on its side on the floor.
Steel had become the preferred media of the artist by 1970 and still remains so today. Serra's interest in steel comes as no surprise considering he spent several summers in his youth and college years employed at various steel factories. He was originally inclined to steer away from steel because he felt he knew it too well, but at the same time he began to feel the need to use the material to its full potential, something he believed other artists of the time did not do.
The best known of these works, made from steel and sometimes lead or steel and lead, are what he called "prop" pieces, in which very heavy pieces of metal are precariously balanced so that they are held together only by the force of gravity. These indoor sculptures, displayed in museums and galleries, give the impression of enormous weight and a clear sense of danger. These impressions are absolutely correct, and give the work a power that is unequaled in contemporary sculpture.
The size of Serra's works began to grow immensely. By 1977, he was creating outdoor installations such as "Terminal," consisting of four trapezoidal steel plates arranged near the central railroad station in Bochum, West Germany. "Terminal" created waves among the residents of Bochum that resulted in passionate letters to the press declaring the sculpture's unattractiveness and the frivolity of the town to waste so much money on such a thing. So infuriated were some residents that they threatened the controlling Social Democratic Party that they would never again see reelection. Quickly making a stab at the wounded political party, the opposing Christian Democratic Union pounced and distributed posters claiming that another aesthetic tragedy such as the "Terminal" would never happen again upon their election.
Bochum was not the only time Serra would ruffle some feathers. In 1978, the artist was slated to collaborate with architect, Robert Venturi, to create a plaza between the White House and the U.S. Treasury Building. Unfortunately, a bitter disagreement evolved concerning the design of the plaza. It was strongly recommended that Serra adjust his thinking to that of the architect, and so Serra, furious, submitted his resignation from the project.
Controversy was a strong thread in the work of Serra and disputes over his installations rose in cities such as Paris and New York. 1981 saw the creation of "Tilted Arc," a steel wall stretched across the Federal Plaza in New York that caused so much public uproar it was eventually removed. Many of his works have been called everything from ugly to frightening and he has been called arrogant, among other things, but still he creates.
Given the rocky, at best, reception of many of Serra's works, it comes with some surprise that he obtained a showing in 1998 of his "Torqued Ellipses" collection in the Geffen Contemporary Building in Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art. This collection is comprised of several sculptures produced from giant sheets of steel that are about 13 feet in height. The sheets have been bent into somewhat elliptical cylinders that are not completely closed and can be entered by the viewer. One might be reminded of the almost surreal construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain by Frank Gehry, another artist and architects who work with large, curved sections of metal. These sculptures, which have also been exhibited at the Dia Center in New York City, have met with almost universal critical acclaim.
Serra invites the viewer to try and read his seemingly evident sculpture, much of which has been greatly misunderstood over the years. Despite his tendency to incite controversy, Serra is an important artist who has been honored with a Guggenheim Grant in 1970, the Showhegan Sculpture award in 1976 and the Carnegie Prize in 1985, just to name a few. He is still currently working with steel today.
Page author: N.G.