Richard Serra

About the Artist

Richard Serra, Siegen 2005, © Oliver Mark / CC BY-SA 4.0

Richard Serra is one of the most influential artists in modern history. He is best known for his enormous steel sculptures, drawings and films, focusing on spatial relationships between the viewer, the site, and the work.

Early Life and Education

Richard Serra was born in San Francisco, California in 1938, the middle of three sons. The family lived in a new development near the shipyard where Serra’s father worked. The community was so new, that the streets were unpaved, and there were sand dunes instead of front lawns.

Serra said that walking along the dunes when he was a child, turning around to walk home, and seeing his footprints reversed as he walked home, startled him and peaked his interest in spatial differences.

He often drew pictures after dinner to get his parents’ approval. When he was about seven, his teacher invited his mother to school to see his drawings, which were displayed prominently in the classroom. Serra said that his mother, a housewife, would introduce him as, “the artist” and take him to museums and galleries.

Serra’s father was born in Peru and worked as a pipe fitter. He took Serra to watch the launching of a ship that he had worked on, which Serra credits with being a seminal event in his life.  As the ship was placed in the water and began to float and people began to cheer, Serra saw the transformation of the large structure that had the capacity to float. He sensed that living that moment somehow connected him to the work he does.

Serra attended the University of California at Berkley, where he studied English literature, then transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he received his BA in 1961. During his time at the university, he worked in steel mills to earn money.

He was accepted at Yale, where he studied painting, and earned both a BA in Art History and an MFA in 1964. He went straight to Paris after graduation, after being awarded a one-year traveling fellowship from Yale and then on to Italy on a Fulbright Grant.

Career and Personal Life

Serra moved to New York City in 1966. One day he passed a warehouse throwing out tons of rubber. He called the head of the company for permission to take the rubber. He moved it into his loft and began making sculptures. He formed the rubber into free-standing sculptures that looked is if they were defying gravity.

Richard Serra
To Lift, 1967

Jasper Johns asked Serra to build a ‘splash piece’ for his loft. Serra heated up some lead and wedged a foot high and four foot long piece of lead in the corner of the wall.When he wedged it, he realized it would stand on its own. He thought that if he took an eight by 24 foot plate it, too, would stand on its own. That project was the beginning of Serra’s creation of the enormous, free-standing works for which he is best known.

Richard Serra
Chunk, 1967

Serra credits gallery owner Leo Castelli for being one of his earliest mentors, by supplying him with costly steel, riggings and cranes needed to produce and show his work. In 1968, Serra’s sculptures were included in the group exhibition “Nine at Castelli” at the Castelli Warehouse in New York.

He also created short films of himself performing a single act, like: Hand Catching Lead.

Richard Serra
Tilted Arc, 1981

One of his most notable, and notorious, works was Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high solid, unfinished plate of rust-covered COR-TEN steel. The work was commissioned by the government to grace the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. The work was placed in front of the building in 1981.

The controversy came when people who worked in the area complained that it ‘disrupted their daily routine’ and signed a petition to have the piece removed. A public hearing was held on in March 1985, with 122 people testifying in favor of keeping the piece and 58 in favor of removing it. Among those in favor were Philip Glass, Keith Haring, Claes Oldenburg and other notables. The government removed Tilted Arc in 1989…the first time in history that the government took down a piece of art it had commissioned.

Serra has gone on to create many more monumental pieces that define the space that the viewer sees and is encouraged to interact with.

Richard Serra
A Drawing in Five Parts, 2005
Metropolitan Museum of Art

He also continues to draw and keeps a sketch book and pen with him at all times. He began experimenting with prints, lithographs and etchings in 1972.

Serra is married to art historian Clara Weyergraf. In addition to their home and  studio in Manhattan, the couple  also has homes on the North Fork of Long Island and in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Richard Serra’s works are included in public collections all over the world. The Guggenheim Bilboa, designed by Frank Gehry, a friend of Serra’s, houses eight of Serra’s enormous sculptures.

2022-10-21T08:05:31-04:00 September 21st, 2022|

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