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Richard Serra, whose vast steel sculptures envelop viewers, dies at 85

The Jewish artist’s “monumental works reshaped our perceptions of space and form,” according to the Guggenheim Museum.

Richard Serra's weatherproof steel sculpture "Sylvester" (2001) at Glenstone in Potomac, Md. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
Richard Serra's weatherproof steel sculpture "Sylvester" (2001) at Glenstone in Potomac, Md. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Rabbinic commentators have written about mikvah, or ritual bath, as a rare Jewish commandment that fully surrounds the body. The same can be said of the enormous steel sculptures of Jewish artist Richard Serra which make viewers feel small and nestled.

The artist died on Tuesday at the age of 85. The cause was pneumonia, The New York Times reported, citing Serra’s lawyer John Silberman.

Serra is known for his “torqued ellipses,” massive spiral- or es-shaped corten weathering steel sculptures, into which viewers walk, which evoke a kind of metal womb. When they are displayed outside—as they are at Glenstone in Potomac, Md., or at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis—dramatic light pours into the sculptures from above, lending the steel an otherworldly character.

The late artist’s “monumental works reshaped our perceptions of space and form,” the Guggenheim Museum stated, mourning his death.

“Serra hoped to redefine the relationship between art and the viewer by creating space that is ‘discerned physically rather than optically,’” according to the National Gallery of Art in Washington which owns 147 Serra works, most of them drawings and paintings on paper. Serra’s sculpture “Five Plates, Two Poles” (1971), which weighs more than 14.5 tons, is on view in the gallery’s East Building atrium.

“In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, many of Serra’s large-scale sculpture commissions caused great controversy and public upheaval owing in part to their stark and unsettling presence,” per the National Gallery. “Serra is considered among the best artists of his generation.”

Richard Serra was born on Nov. 2, 1938, in San Francisco, the second of three sons of immigrant parents. His father, Tony Serra, was a shipyard pipe fitter from Majorca, Spain, and his mother Gladys (née Fineberg), was of Russian Jewish descent from Odessa. The latter “was devoted to reading and to seeing that her sons succeeded,” per the Times.

“Richard Serra grew up visiting the marine shipyards where his father worked as a pipe fitter. He has written about the formative experience of watching the launching of the huge steel tankers, in which balance and buoyancy were dramatically tested,” according to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which owns 54 Serra works, mostly drawings.

Richard Serra
Richard Serra’s weatherproof steel sculpture “Joe” (1999) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Mo.. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Serra drew “incessantly” as a child, “in part, he admitted, to compete for his parents’ attention with his brilliant, athletic older brother, Tony,” the Times reported.

He attended University of California, Santa Barbara and went to graduate school at Yale University, where he met his future first wife, the sculptor Nancy Graves. (The two married in 1964 and divorced some five years later.)

In 1981, he married the art historian Clara Weyergraf, who is among his survivors. “Complete information on survivors was not immediately available,” per the Times.

Serra’s reputation as an artist increased at a time when artists were “re-examining” the “static formal” aspect of the Minimalism movement and gravitating toward a “more analytical approach to process and materials,” per the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum credits Serra with making the properties of “weight, balance, pressure and gravity” into “visible and visceral” things.

Later in his career, Serra focused on the ellipse forms, “whose steel surface is intended to change color and texture when exposed to the weather,” per the museum. “These site-specific works manifest the same intense physicality as his earlier output, but at an astoundingly massive scale.”

Richard Serra
Richard Serra’s weatherproof steel sculpture “Joe” (1999) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Best known for his larger-than-life sculptures, Serra also worked extensively on paper, both drawings and prints, and created film and video works.

Serra exhibited “The Drowned and the Saved,” which looks like a heavy, rectangular console table, at the Stommeln Synagogue in Pulheim, Germany, in 1992.

“When I was 5-years-old, I would say to my mother: ‘What are we? Who are we? Where are we from?’” Serra wrote in the catalog, per The Washington Post. “One day she answered me: ‘If I tell you, you must promise never to tell anyone, never. We are Jewish. Jewish people are being burned alive for being Jewish.’”

“I was raised in fear, in deceit, in embarrassment, in denial,” Serra wrote. “I was told not to admit who I was, not to admit what I was.”

Serra’s sculpture “Gravity” is installed on a staircase in the southwest corner of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Hall of Witness in Washington, D.C.

“A 12-foot-square slab of steel weighing nearly 30 tons, Richard Serra’s monolithic sculpture ‘Gravity’ is wedged near the black granite wall at the bottom of the stairs,” per the museum. “The sculpture impales the staircase, destabilizing the space and forcing a rift in the flow of visitors as they descend—a forced separation.”

Richard Serra
Richard Serra’s weatherproof steel sculpture “Sylvester” (2001) at Glenstone in Potomac, Md. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
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