Visit our Community Pages Please support our work

The Art Story.org - Your Guide to Modern Art

Movements Artists Timelines Ideas Blog
Artists Richard Serra

Richard Serra

American Sculptor and Video Artist

Movements: Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Video Art

Born: November 2, 1939 - San Francisco, California

Quotes

"I consider space to be a material. The articulation of space has come to take precedence over other concerns. I attempt to use sculptural form to make space distinct."
Richard Serra
"We are all restrained and condemned by the weight of gravity. However, Sisyphus pushing the weight of his boulder endlessly up the mountain does not catch me up as much as Vulcan's tireless labor at the bottom of the smoking crater, hammering out raw material. The constructive process, the daily concentration and effort appeal to me more than the light fantastic, more than the quest for the ethereal. Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight."
Richard Serra
"I never begin to construct with a specific intention. I don't work from a priori ideas and theoretical propositions. The structures are the result of experimentation and invention. In every search there is always a degree of unforeseeability, a sort of troubling feeling, a wonder after the work is complete, after the conclusion. The part of the work that surprises me invariably leads to new works. Call it a glimpse; often this glimpse occurs because of an obscurity which arises from a precise resolution."
Richard Serra
"I am interested in sculpture which is non-utilitarian, non-functional. Any use is a misuse. There is a trend now to demean abstract art as not being socially relevant. I have never felt and don't feel now that art needs any justification outside of itself. One can only be suspicious of those artists and architects "who gotta serve somebody" (Bob Dylan's Jesus Christ capitalist theology)."
Richard Serra

"Time and movement became really crucial to how I deal with what I deal with, not only sight and boundary but how one walks through a piece and what one feels and registers in terms of one's own body in relation to another body."

Synopsis

Richard Serra is one of the preeminent American artists and sculptors of the post-Abstract Expressionist period. Beginning in the late 1960s to the present, his work has played a major role in advancing the tradition of modern abstract sculpture in the aftermath of Minimalism. His work draws new, widespread attention to sculpture's potential for experience by viewers in both physical and visual terms, no less often within a site-specific, if not highly public setting.

Key Ideas

Coming of age in the shadow of greats such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and Julio González, Serra both inherited and advanced the tradition of abstract sculpture, adapting the medium of welded steel (originally a concern of early twentieth century Cubism) to new, holistic values of the 1960s and 1970s. More recent Minimalist sculptors, among them Donald Judd and Carl Andre, had demonstrated how sculpture and its materials could stand for themselves, or not be forced to serve as vehicles for articulating an artist's emotional and intellectual life. Serra took up that contemporary heritage, one suggesting that the human body itself no longer had a place in painting or sculpture, and returned to it something of the human body's stature. He explored how an art work might relate intimately to a specific setting; how it might take up a physical as well as a visual relationship to a viewer; and how it might create spaces (or environments) in which a viewer can experience universal qualities of weight, gravity, agility, and even a kind of meditative repose.
Serra's adaptive sensibility in working collaboratively with, or learning from, contemporary musicians, dancers, and videographers, was part of an era in American art in which artists increasingly explored various disciplines for their overlapping and shared concerns with a new kind of art that might push the viewer's experience beyond the purely visual or optical act towards a fully physical, or "somatic" participation. Serra's work is at once a painting, a sculpture, a piece of architecture, and an epic fragment of modern industry.
Serra's concern with the implicit relationship between his sculpture's conception and its intended site has led directly to a new international discourse (often a heated one) regarding the role and governance of art in public spaces such as municipal parks, corporate plazas, and memorial sites - where the work of art might virtually interrupt viewers' daily routines in ways that are not necessarily universally welcomed among a given community. Serra's sculpture indeed suggests that art should be something "participatory" in modern society, that is, a gesture, or physical insertion into everyday life, not something confined to a cloistered museum space.
Serra's materials and methods, i.e. large-scale steel panels and welding, has been interpreted by some feminist historians as a "last gasp" of Abstract Expressionism's so-called masculine themes and artistic processes. His work has thus unwittingly inspired a host of counter-responses by subsequent generations, who, decidedly in rejection of his histrionic example, turned in the late 1970s and 1980s toward more ephemeral, everyday materials to suggest that art could be monumental without relying on massive, "in your face" substances and formats.

Most Important Art

Tilted Arc (1981)
According to its critics, Tilted Arc forced people to walk around, rather than directly across its chosen site of Federal Plaza, in a downtown New York City business district (where indeed global powerbrokers are accustomed to walking in very straight, or goal-oriented trajectories). There can be no doubt, then, that Tilted Arc is Serra's most successful (if ultimately publicly vilified) expression of his underlying desire to incorporate direct viewer participation into the sculptural experience, or his work as an unavoidably material and visual "phenomenon." When asked what he thought people found so problematic in this work, Serra laughed and replied, with typical impatience for too much interpretation over the art work's own "meaning," that it was the curve to which the general public was negatively responding: "They hadn't seen that before. Modernism was at a right angle; the whole twentieth century was a right angle." He might as well been referring to the city itself (no less to a large part of twentieth-century architectural history), as New York is virtually a methodical grid upon which Serra had, without doubt, boldly trespassed. Tilted Arc indeed traffics in an entire spectrum of "interruptive" experiences, such as a train passing, a ship pulling into harbor, a road sign speaking "DETOUR," or a herculean water dam holding back extremely powerful, natural forces. Indeed, deep beneath Lower Manhattan's own geographies there are industrial walls brutally inserted into the found landscape, so as to reclaim entire portions of the Hudson River for human expansion. It is hardly a wonder, therefore, that Tilted Arc aroused such antipathy in an era unaccustomed to such bold displays of artistic, site-specific intervention.
Weatherproof steel
More Art Works


By submitting above you agree to the ArtStory privacy policy.
Like The Art Story on Facebook

Biography

Childhood

Richard Serra was the second of three sons born to a Russian Jewish mother and a Spanish father. As a young boy, he lived with his family amidst the sand dunes of San Francisco. Staying mostly within the boundaries of his home life, he knew little of the outside world, let alone the fine arts. His earliest sparks of creativity came from spending time at the shipyards, where his father worked as a pipefitter.

According to Serra, the foundations of his art took shape on his fourth birthday, during the launch of an oil tanker at the Marine Shipyard in San Francisco: "All the raw material I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory." In particular, he recalled later in life the powerful horizontal curve made by the ship's hull, and the contradictory lightness and speed that impressed him when the vessel took off through the water. It was around this same time that Serra began to draw, an activity that he believes aided the growth of his imagination and sense of invention, as well as provided him with the necessary confidence to recognize his artistic potential.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Early Training

Serra earned a Bachelor's degree in English literature in 1961 from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He had supported himself during his studies by working at a steel mill, an occupation that would come to inform his later work as an artist. Serra continued with his Master's studies at Yale University in 1961, where he was trained in painting with contemporaries Brice Marden, Chuck Close, and others, most of whom he remembers considering, at that time, "more advanced" students. In 1964-65, Serra studied in Paris, where he spent a great deal of time drawing near a reconstruction of Brancusi's studio. Although he later claimed to have known little of the modernist master or the recent history of sculpture at the time, Serra nonetheless acknowledged Brancusi's "authoritative" example.

Serra traveled to Italy the following year, where he began painting a series of grids in random colors. He later learned, by way of a recent issue of Art News, that Ellsworth Kelly was painting in a similar style, so Serra abandoned the technique. During a side trip to Spain, Serra's viewing of Velásquez's Las Meninas made him realize he was dissatisfied with the two-dimensional limitations of painting. The event virtually changed the course of Serra's artistic career; soon searching for an alternative direction, he began creating works using live and, in other instances, stuffed animals in cages. After incorporating live animals in his first solo show at Galleria La Salita, Rome in 1966, the public uproar was so great that the venue was promptly shut down by the local police.

Mature Period

On his return to the United States in 1966, Serra settled in New York, where he began making his first sculptures out of rubber-said to have been inspired by the horizontal progression in Jackson Pollock's painting, Mural (1943). Between 1968 and 1970, Serra worked on his Splash series, which were semi-sculptural works derived from the artist's splashing molten lead onto the spatial junction, or gutter, where the vertical studio wall conjoined with the horizontal floor plane. Serra's "gutter" works, as well as others by contemporaries whose work similarly highlighted a confluence in their work of action, environment, and medium, soon came to be classed by critics and art historians as Process Art.

Richard Serra Biography

The following Prop series, which Serra began in 1969, may be considered the immediate precursor of the enormous metal works for which the artist is today best known. Explorations of balance, weight, and gravity, the Props are perhaps also the beginnings of Serra's recall of his childhood memories of the oil tanker skimming the surface of the ocean.

In 1970, Serra assisted friend and artist Robert Smithson in the latter's execution of the Environmental work, Spiral Jetty. Serra's exposure to Environmental art in this instance reinforced the idea of site-specificity, or the phenomenon of a work of art being conceived and executed as an integral part of its surroundings (this had been implied, if subtly, in the Splash series). Increasingly working in larger formats, Serra developed a growing interest in the spaces created (or otherwise highlighted) by the art work itself, as well as the work's physical, as well as visual relationship to the viewer. This can be seen in Serra's Spirals and Ellipses, works that invite the viewer to participate in their environment by walking around the work and experiencing it through bodily (i.e. somatic) as well as through visual perception.

Such themes, along with others, continue to run through Serra's work to this day. Most of his current large-scale works are welded in Cor-Ten steel, although Serra notably distances himself from the "heroic" status of Pablo Picasso, Julio González, and David Smith, who were modernist pioneers in the mastery of welded sculpture.

Serra also experimented with video art as early as the late 1960s, producing his first of many video art films, Hand Catching Lead, in 1968. Hand features the artist repeatedly trying to catch pieces of lead falling from the top of the frame. Serra describes his films as providing a supplementary understanding of his sculpture, and he has since made several others that showcase metal, and in particular his favorite medium of steel.

Richard Serra Photo

During his early years in New York, Serra similarly became involved with music and dance. Recognizing that the factors of space and balance so characteristic of works in music and dance were similar to his own in sculpture, Serra collaborated in performances and installations with Yvonne Rainer, Stephen Reich, and Joan Jonas. Perhaps in tribute to his musical roots, Serra has been mentioned in Vampire Weekend's song, White Sky, and his art has been featured on the cover of the Monoliths & Dimensions album by Sunn O))).

In 1981, a civic controversy attending the public installation of Serra's Tilted Arc, in lower Manhattan's Federal Plaza (in front of the Javits Building), assumed the status of a notorious footnote in Serra's career. The installation of the commissioned work provoked vociferous, negative outcry from area office workers, who regarded Tilted Arc as little more than an ugly monstrosity, no less one attracting graffiti and litter. The escalating protests against Tilted Arc drew so much international attention that the municipal government was compelled to hold a series of public hearings on the matter, during which Serra testified-in recall of his belief in his art work's site specificity - that "to remove the work is to destroy it." The incident set off a wider, international debate about contemporary art in public spaces and the role-indeed power-of public opinion. In fact, the hearings resulted in a court decision to have Titled Arc permanently removed from its site. Serra appealed the decision, to little immediate effect: the sculpture was ultimately dismantled and carted off from Federal Plaza in 1989.

Legacy

Serra is widely considered one of the most influential sculptors of the late 20th century. A modern Renaissance man with a forceful personality, Serra's interest in painting, sculpture, music, dance, film, performance, and installation art has affected legions of artists during his long career. Architects and urban planners today often cite Serra's influence, which the artist scorns in keeping with his belief that true art is never utilitarian. As evidenced forcefully by Tilted Arc, Serra's work is, at any rate, difficult to ignore and has been important in moving the discourse about public art to the critical forefront. His work has inspired the founding of a public art program at the University of California (in his hometown of San Francisco), and Serra has himself supported the development of sculpture parks across the United States.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Richard Serra
Interactive chart with Richard Serra's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Artists

Carl Andre
Constantin Brancusi
Alberto Giacometti
Jackson Pollock
Robert Smithson

Friends

Eva Hesse
Rosalind Krauss

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Environmental Art
Minimalism
Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Years Worked: 1920 - 1966

Artists

Maya Lin
Vito Acconci

Friends

Frank Gehry
Kirk Varnedoe
Matthew Barney

Movements

Process Art
Post-Minimalism

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
[Accesed ]

Useful Resources on Richard Serra

Special Features
Books
Videos
Websites
Articles
More
artist features
Defining Modern Art

Take a look at the big picture of modern art, and Serra's role in it.

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
essays, interviews and writings
Writings/Interviews

Richard Serra (October Files)

The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents (October Books)

2007 Serra retrospective at MoMA

Interactive Walkthrough of exhibition that includes images and video clips

transcripts
Sept 1999 - Coagula

2008 - New York

If Not Now, When?

Commencement Address by Richard Serra
Spring 2008, Williams College

Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
ArtStory: Constantin Brancusi
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez was a Catalan-Spanish sculptor and painter. His best known early works were Synthetic Cubist paintings, and later in life turned to bronze and iron welding, creating many famous abstract sculptures. In 1927 he introduced Picasso to oxy-fuel welding and cutting techniques, and became one of the artist's closest confidantes.
Julio Gonzalez
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
ArtStory: Donald Judd
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
ArtStory: Carl Andre
Brice Marden
Brice Marden
Brice Marden
Brice Marden is an American Minimalist artist. In 1966, he worked as Robert Rauschenberg's assistant at the suggestion of Dorothea Rockburne. His work is characterized by a preoccupation with rectangular formats, and the repeated use of a muted, extremely individualized palette.
Brice Marden
Chuck Close
Chuck Close
Chuck Close
Chuck Close is an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist through his large-scale portraits. Though a catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, he has continued to paint and produce work that remains sought after by museums and collectors.
ArtStory: Chuck Close
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly is an American Color Field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
ArtStory: Ellsworth Kelly
Process Art
Process Art
Process Art
When Harold Rosenberg coined the term "Action Painting," he was emphasizing the importance of not the artwork itself - the objet d'art - but the process by which the work was made. Thus, Process Art refers to the actions or, in some cases, the performance of creating a work of art. The actual term was popularized by Robert Morris for a 1968 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.
Process Art
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson was an American artist best known for his innovations in Land and Earth Art. Smithson's large-scale projects employed earth and other natural resources to construct works that both manipulated and preserved the natural landscape. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty in Utah, constructed entirely from basalt, earth and salt.
ArtStory: Robert Smithson
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
ArtStory: David Smith
Yvonne Rainer
Yvonne Rainer
Yvonne Rainer
Yvonne Rainer is an American dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker. Rainer was one of the organizers of the Judson Dance Theater, a focal point for vanguard activity in the dance world throughout the 1960s. Her film work has received several awards, and in 1990 she was a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
Yvonne Rainer
Stephen Reich
Stephen Reich
Stephen Reich
Stephen Reich is an American composer who who pioneered the sytle of minimalist music. His innovations include using tape loops to create phasing patterns, and the use of simple, audible processes to explore musical concepts. These compositions have significantly influenced contemporary music, especially in the US.
Stephen Reich
Joan Jonas
Joan Jonas
Joan Jonas
Joan Jonas is a pioneer of video and performance art and one of the most important female artists to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jonas' works were first performed in the 1960s and '70s for some of the most influential artists of her generation, including Richard Serra and Robert Smithson. Jonas is a professor of visual arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Joan Jonas
Post-Minimalism
Post-Minimalism
Post-Minimalism
Post-Minimalism refers to a range of art practices that emerged in the wake of Minimalism in the late 1960s, such as Body art, Performance, Process art, Site-Specific art, and aspects of Conceptual art. Some artists created art objects that do not have the representational function of traditional sculpture, objects that often have a strong material presence; others reacted against Minimalism's impersonality, and reintroduced emotionally expressive qualities.
ArtStory: Post-Minimalism
Video Art
Video Art
Video Art
Video Art is a medium that employs videographic images and moving pictures, but often contains no narrative, characters or discernible storyline. Not to be confused with, for example, the experimental Surrealist films of Man Ray or Luis Bunuel, Video Art first came about in the 1960s and has led to the medium known as Video Installation.
Video Art
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
ArtStory: Alberto Giacometti
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was a major New York artist whose sculpture, assemblage, and installation brought issues of feminism and the body into Minimalism's formal vocabulary. She is heralded as one of the quintessential Post-Minimalist artists.
ArtStory: Eva Hesse
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic and philosopher. Originally a disciple of formalist critic Clement Greenberg, Krauss later founded the radicalist journal October, and became an important proponent of postmodern art theory.
ArtStory: Rosalind Krauss
Environmental Art
Environmental Art
Environmental Art
Environmental art refers to art dealing with ecological issues and/or the natural, such as the formal, the political, the historical, or the social context. In its early phases it was most associated with sculpture. The expanding term of environmental art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape.
Environmental Art
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin is a Chinese-American sculptor, landscape artist and installation artist. Lin will likely be remembered most for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., a commission she won at the age of 21 and while still an undergraduate student.
Maya Lin
Vito Acconci
Vito Acconci
Vito Acconci
Vito Acconci is an American performance/installation artist who began performing in the late 1960s. More recently, he has shifted his focus to architecture and landscape design, particularly works that merge indoor and outdoor space.
Vito Acconci
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry is an American architect. He is best known for his asymmetrical, quasi-organic constructions, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He is still considered among the more avant-garde, postmodern architects working today.
Frank Gehry
Kirk Varnedoe
Kirk Varnedoe
Kirk Varnedoe
Kirk Varnedoe was an American art historian, writer, Professor of the History of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and noted curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He co-curated "Primitivism: Affinity Between The Tribal and The Modern" at the MoMA in 1984, the same year he won a MacArthur Fellowship.
Kirk Varnedoe
Matthew Barney
Matthew Barney
Matthew Barney
Matthew Barney creates artworks based in film, photography, performance and drawing, most notably his on-going Drawing Restraint series and the five films entitled Cremaster Cycle.
Matthew Barney