Richard Serra

gigatos | January 15, 2022


Richard Serra (* November 2, 1939 in San Francisco) is one of the most important living US sculptors. In the mid-1960s, Richard Serra and other American artists experimented with industrial materials such as lead and rubber. The materials were worked with simple interventions and placed in relation to space. Over the years, Serra expanded his spatial approach, working with weatherproof steel to this day. In addition, his oeuvre includes a variety of paintings and prints.

Study time

Serra studied English literature at the University of California, Berkeley from 1957 to 1961 and then at Santa Barbara. He earned his bachelor”s degree in English literature. To earn a living, he worked in a steel mill, where he gained his first experience of working with the versatile material steel, which would shape his later career.

From 1961 to 1964 he studied art at Yale University in New Haven. There he became an assistant to the German émigré, painter and art theorist Josef Albers. This was followed by a collaboration with Albers on his book The Interaction of Color. He achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree.

When minimalism emerged in this period, there was still a pure form of minimalism; artists worked mainly with high-quality industrial products, materials and fabrics such as plastic or even stainless steel. In part, the emphasis was on refining the material. This was followed by a generation of artists including Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse. For Serra, these artists had less of a claim that art had to be commodity; it was a “ruthless extension of minimalism.” Materials became simpler, like rubber or lead. Instead of representing a formal language that already existed in art, these artists were more interested in the fact that the form of the material could be manipulated by changing it.

Early work

At the beginning of the 1960s, Serra had already become involved with the media of film and video, which were new to art. In 1964, during a one-year travel fellowship at Yale University in Paris, he expanded his knowledge in this field. In the summer of 1965 he married his fellow student, the artist Nancy Graves. He met the U.S. musician and composer Philip Glass in Paris. At the end of the 1960s, Serra discovered metal as a material for his artistic work. In 1968, in an unconventional way, he poured molten lead into the corners of the Whitney Museum in New York, and then exhibited the resulting forms in the same building.

This was followed, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, by a year in Florence. In May 1966 he had his first solo exhibition Animal Habitats at the Galeria La Salita in Rome. This was followed by trips to Spain and North Africa.

Serra moved to New York and worked with Robert Fiore, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but also as a furniture mover to earn a living. During this time he made the acquaintance of other artists such as Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson and Carl Andre. He created a series of works made of rubber and neon tubes, as well as so-called Scatter Pieces.

Since the early seventies, Richard Serra has been intensively exploring the possibilities of printmaking; along with sculptures, they are an essential part of his work.

In 1968 he created his Hands series, later collaborating with Nancy Holt in Boomerang (1974) and with his partner of the time, Joan Jonas, on Paul Revere (1971), in whose performances he frequently participated. In 1968 Serra had a solo exhibition at the Rolf Ricke Gallery in Cologne. At the end of the 1960s he tried to perfect himself with the artistic forms of film. He sought an analogy between the cuts in his sculptures and the cuts in film. It was also during this period that he began collaborating with Leo Castelli.

He frequently visited the Anthology Film Archives in New York and intensively studied the artistic forms of historical as well as contemporary film. He was also enthusiastic about Andy Warhol”s Chelsea Girls, among others, which helped him on his way to becoming a filmmaker, and Bruce Connor”s, Ron Rice”s and Jack Smith”s films of an unpretentious nature.

In his early work, Richard Serra worked predominantly with materials such as lead and rubber. Significant is his group of works called Splashings or Castings, in which he created forms by hurling liquid lead into an angle between the wall and the floor.

After a stay in Japan in 1970, he intensively studied the geometry of the squares and the site as a whole. In Tokyo he created the work To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, followed in 1972 by Spoleto Circles, a lying steel circle object and a circular plan embedded in the ground.

Late work

Serra”s first walk-in large-scale sculptures in public spaces, in which the perception of art is accompanied by immediate physical experiences, were created in the early 1970s. These include, for example, the installation Circuit, which was on view at documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972 and is now (2012) in the art collection of the Ruhr University in Bochum.

With Clara Weyergraf, whom he married in 1981, Serra made the film Steelmill

In 1977, for documenta 6 in Kassel, he designed the work Terminal, four trapezoidal plates made of weatherproof steel (COR-TEN steel). During this exhibition, the work was placed in front of the Fridericianum, the central exhibition building, and thus became the “landmark” of this documenta.

After long negotiations and accompanied by fierce protests, Terminal was acquired by the city of Bochum in 1979 and finally installed at the location favored by Richard Serra, a traffic island at Bochum”s main train station. The CDU campaigned against the installation in Bochum during the state election campaign. The candidate at the time, Kurt Biedenkopf, gave a speech directly in front of the sculpture in which he announced its demolition.

That same year, Serra was commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration”s Art in Architecture Program to create a site-specific sculpture in New York”s Federal Plaza. The work Tilted Arc, a 37-meter-long and 3-meter-high, somewhat inclined steel wall that partially blocks or prevents both the view and the crossing of the plaza, so that people walking by have to deal with it formally and visually, was completed in 1981. Controversial discussions and even protests were triggered, especially by the local population, which led to the large steel sculpture having to be removed again in 1989.

In 1993 Serra participated in the annually changing design of the former synagogue with an object in the Stommeln synagogue.

In 2005, he created the expansive walk-in installation The Matter of Time, consisting of eight gigantic steel sculptures weighing several tons for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, made up of walk-in spirals, ellipses and serpentine forms. The work is one of the largest sculptural commissions and arguably one of the most expensive to date developed for a concrete space in the history of modernism.

With his latest work to date, Blade Runners, Serra enters a new chapter in his oeuvre. “Whereas his panels were previously convex or concave in shape, they now bend into opposite curves.”

Serra”s first works were inspired by abstract expressionism. The artist became known for constructions made of large steel cylinders and steel blocks. Resting in themselves, they emphasize the weight and the peculiarity of steel as a material, whose surface is exposed to corrosion untreated.

The monumental large sculptures, often tailored to their locations, rest in themselves and emphasize the weight, combine heaviness and lightness at the same time. The perception of the sculptures is dependent on the viewer”s point of view and changes with every step due to cut-ins and cut-outs. Serra chooses the sites for his works according to the dialectical principle of “obstructing and opening at the same time,” a necessary precondition for introducing the viewer to “new ways of seeing.”

In addition to playing with changing perspectives and their perception, Serra varies the themes of gravity and balance as physical problems of bodies and space. He explores the question of how bodies relate as bodies to the space that surrounds them and is formed by them. Concepts such as inside and outside, filled or empty space are questioned. Serra rejects aspects of content, attributions of meaning to the material. Among many other more or less meaningful attributions, he is also considered a representative of processual art. However, his work cannot really be grasped with art-historical category terms.

Richard Serra was a participant in Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972 in the Individual Mythologies section and was also an artist at Documenta 6 (1977), Documenta 7 (1982) and Documenta 8 in 1987. In 1977, 1987 and 1997 he was a participant of Skulptur Projekte Münster.

Terminal in Bochum

Serra”s sculpture was a landmark of the documenta in Kassel and was purchased by the city of Bochum for 350,000 DM in 1977 and installed at an intersection in front of Bochum”s main train station in 1979. As part of the RuhrKunstMuseen”s “New Unveilings” series, it was restored in April 2014 and rededicated on April 26, 2014.

Viewpoint in Dillingen

Since 1986, Serra has been using mainly heavy plate from AG der Dillinger Hüttenwerke for his steel sculptures, some of which is also formed into sculptures in Dillingen. So it was obvious to install a sculpture by Serra in Dillingen as well. The location chosen was the traffic traffic circle at the gatehouse of the Dillingen ironworks in the direction of Saarlouis, symbolizing the bond between the town and the ironworks. Viewpoint, a steel sculpture 13 meters wide, 9 meters high and weighing 104 tons, was inaugurated on March 25, 2006. It consists of six curved steel plates, three of which are joined together. Viewed from above, the steel plates form two circular arcs facing each other at a slight distance, similar to an opening and closing bracket with an accessible interior. On the night of May 1, 2006, unknown persons placed a porcelain toilet inside the sculpture. Although the location – a traffic traffic circle – was cleaned several times a year by the public utility company, this toilet was not removed for over half a year; apparently it was considered part of the art arrangement.

Axis in Bielefeld

The sculpture was installed in 1989 in front of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld. It is located there as part of the public sculpture exhibition southwest of the main entrance.

Slab for the Ruhr area in Essen

In 1998, Serra created another well-known work, Bramme für das Ruhrgebiet (Slab for the Ruhr Area), on the Schurenbach slag heap in Essen. The slab is visible from afar as a landmark on the top of a tailings pile. It consists of a 14.5-meter-high, 67-ton steel plate, which is intended to commemorate both the tradition of steel production in the Ruhr region and the forced laborers who piled up the Schurenbach slag heap during the Third Reich. The slab for the Ruhr enjoys great popularity as an excursion destination and is counted among the landmarks of the Ruhr region.

Torque in Saarbrücken

The sculpture Torque was erected in 1992 on the campus of Saarland University in Saarbrücken.

Sculpture Exchange on the Kirchberg in Luxembourg

The sculpture was placed at the end of the banking district in the traffic circle on Kirchberg.

Promenade in Paris

From May 7 to June 15, 2008, Richard Serra showed his installation Promenade at the Grand Palais in Paris as part of the Monumenta 2008: “A radical sculptural landscape of steel, minimalist and yet full of movement. “Serra is the second artist after Anselm Kiefer to be invited to fill the 13,500 m² space of the Grand Palais with a group of new works.

Sculptures 7 and East-West

For the park of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Serra created the sculpture 7, which was inaugurated in 2011. The sculpture consists of seven steel plates that converge in a conical shape and reach a height of almost 25 meters. This first sculpture by Serra to be created in the Middle East alludes to the special symbolic significance of the number 7 in Islamic culture.

In the desert of Qatar, namely in the nature reserve Brouq (about an hour”s drive from the capital Doha), Serra realized in 2014 the work East-West

Examples and reception





Further information

Gallery with works by Richard Serra


  1. Richard Serra
  2. Richard Serra
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