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Richard Serra: Master of Monumental Minimalism Dies Aged 85

Wiki Commons Oliver Mark – Richard Serra, Siegen 2005.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

The 85-year-old Richard Serra, a legendary figure in contemporary art, passed away. Serra was born in San Francisco, California, on November 2, 1938. He showed an early interest in sculpture and art, hinting at a successful career to come.

After studying at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at Yale University, Serra honed his craft under the mentorship of renowned abstract expressionist painters such as Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning. During this formative period, Serra developed his distinctive artistic voice, characterised by a bold exploration of space, form, and materiality.

“Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a rigorous, incontrovertible foundation and, in fact, to some degree, repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Repetition is a way to jumpstart the indecision of beginning. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work. To work, you must already be working.” —Richard Serra

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Serra emerged as a leading figure in the minimalist art movement alongside contemporaries such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. His early works, characterised by their stark simplicity and geometric precision, signalled a departure from traditional notions of sculpture, challenging viewers to engage with art in new and unconventional ways.

One of Serra’s most iconic works from this period is “Tilted Arc” (1981), a massive, curved steel sculpture commissioned for Federal Plaza in New York City. Controversial from its inception, “Tilted Arc” sparked intense debate and ultimately led to its removal in 1989—a testament to the power of Serra’s art to provoke dialogue and challenge the status quo.

Throughout his career, Serra continued to push the boundaries of sculpture, experimenting with scale, material, and site-specificity. His monumental installations, often composed of weathered steel plates arranged in imposing configurations, inviting viewers to navigate and interact with space in profound and visceral ways.

Serra’s influence extended beyond the confines of the art world. He has shaped our understanding of architecture, urban space, and the relationship between art and the environment. His works in museums, galleries, and public spaces worldwide serve as enduring monuments to the power of artistic vision and innovation.

In addition to his monumental sculptures, Serra is celebrated for his drawings, prints, and experimental film works, further showcasing his mastery of form and composition. He received numerous accolades and honours throughout his illustrious career, including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

As Richard Serra continued to create and innovate into his later years, his legacy as a pioneer of minimalist sculpture remained strong. With each new work, he challenged us to reconsider our perceptions of space, materiality, and the boundaries of artistic expression.

In her New York Times Obituary, Roberta Smith stated, “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: flowing, circling geometry that had to be moved through and around to be fully experienced. Mr. Serra said his work required much “walking and looking” or “peripatetic perception.” It was, he said, “viewer-centred”: Its meanings were to be arrived at by individual exploration and reflection.

Serra died on Tuesday at his home in Orient, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. The cause was pneumonia, John Silberman, his lawyer, said.

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