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Sculptor Richard Serra dies at 85

Sabine Oelze
March 27, 2024

The US sculptor was renowned for his monumental works made from steel plates — many of which were produced in Germany.

Black and white protrait of the late US sculptor, Richard Serra.
Serra counted amongst the world's most important and successful modern-day sculptorsImage: Bertrand Guay/AFP/dpa/picture alliance

Throughout his life, Richard Serra created works that interacted with their surroundings, becoming complete only through the viewer's presence. One has to walk on or around one of Serra's gigantic sculptures to fully understand the extent of these works. His sculptures seem to rise into the sky. They are extremely heavy and either block people's paths or merge with nature.

Picture of gigantic steel sculptures in a desert with people walking between them.
In Qatar, Serra created sculptures in the desert ahead of the 2022 World CupImage: MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP

Richard Serra: half-sculptor, half-master builder

Serra, who died on March 26, 2024, saw himself not as a sculptor, but as a master builder — creating numerous sculptures for public display on traffic islands, in front of museums and in public parks.

He started working wtih his main material — steel — in the 1970s. The particular treatment it required meant that Serra did not work reclusively in a studio, but with engineers, urban planners, transport workers and mechanics. To produce his monumental steel works, he had to work in industrial halls. His most significant steel sculptures were manufactured in German steelworks, such as Krupp or Thyssen (which merged into ThyssenKrupp in 1999). That's why Serra once referred to the Ruhr industrial area as his "true studio."

Serra also worked in the Saarland region, where he made use of a type of stainless steel that required particularly elaborate treatment, but had the advantage of not corroding. During the procedure, a unique brownish-violet color or "patina" developed, which appealed to Serra.

A man in a dark suit stands in front of a brown sculpture.
Richard Serra in front of his sculpture 'Olson' from 1986Image: Andreas Frossard/dpa/picture alliance

Son of an immigrant family

Richard Serra was born on November 2, 1939, in San Francisco. His mother was of Jewish-Russian descent, and his father of Spanish heritage. He was the first member of his family to be born in the USA — a fact that, as he once said, enabled him to take "a critical look at his home country." After studying English literature at Berkeley, he went on to study art at Yale, where he became an assistant to the exiled German artist Josef Albers. He took on side jobs in steelworks to support himself.

Even in his early stages as an artist, he began working with rubber and lead, trying to develop his own artistic style while ignoring the strictly defined rules of minimal art. He produced rubber bands hanging from a wall; he poured liquid lead into the corners of a room. Then his steel sculptures made of steel plates were designed to build a correlation with their surroundings.

Picture of a steel plate rising towards the sky.
In Germany's Ruhr region, Serra created the 'Bramme' on a former slag heapImage: Jochen Tack/dpa/picture alliance / Jochen Tack

Discovered during the Documenta in Kassel

In 1977, Richard Serra was invited for the second time to attend the Documenta, the international art show held every five years in the city of Kassel in central Germany. He erected his huge sculpture "Terminal" in front of the Fridericianum, the main exhibition hall, for the entire 100 days of the show.

"Terminal" consisted of three gigantic steel plates leaning on each other as though they were about to collapse. At the end of the exhibition, the work of art was sold for then 300,000 German marks (about €150,000) to the city of Bochum, where it came to "embellish" a traffic island close to its train station. The purchase of the sculpture stirred a lot of protest in this mining town, with many inhabitants decrying what they saw as a waste of money on "junk." In 2005, Serra created a walk-in installation of seven monumental steel sculptures for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. At €20 million and weighing a good 1000 tons, it was, at that time, the most expensive and probably also the heaviest commissioned work ever developed for a museum space.

Spiral sculpture by Richard Serra with children sitting in the middle
In Bilbao, Spain, he created one of the heaviest sculptures ever to be seen in a museumImage: Afredo Aldai/dpa/picture alliance

Site-specific art

Particular locations played a highly important role in Richard Serra's art, adding a new meaning to the term "site-specific." He intentionally planned his steel works in relation to the peculiarities of their specific locations. Some of his works were meant to adapt themselves to their surroundings or were to merge with nature. Others, such as in Bochum, deliberately intended to provoke viewers, by blocking their path or forcing them to change direction.

What all his works have in common is their overwhelming physical presence. During an interview in 1980, Serra spoke of the contextual aspects of his sculptures: "I believe that if sculptures have any potential at all, then it consists of their capability to create their own locations and spaces while positioning themselves in stark contrast to the existing locations and spaces for which they were made."

The sculpture 'Terminal' by Richard Serra stands in front of the train station in the German city of Bochum.
The sculpture 'Terminal' by Serra still stands in in the German city of Bochum todayImage: S. Ziese/blickwinke/picture alliance

The sculptures of Richard Serra will continue to force us to change direction — or to look at those locations through different eyes.

This article was originally written in German.