January 8, 2016
For over 50 years, Richard Serra has pushed boundaries with his dramatic sculptures and drawings that explore gravity, space and time. This month, Gagosian Paris will present new Ramble Drawings by Serra, following the debut of the series at Gagosian New York in September 2015. Kelly Crow writes about WSJ. Magazine's 2015 Art Innovator in this piece for WSJ. Magazine.
In the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, an hour’s drive west of the capital of Doha, amid miles of hazy hot sand, the artist Richard Serra last year planted a row of four thin, steel plates. Each one of these rectangular planks shoots straight up nearly five stories tall, and collectively they span a distance of roughly half a mile. From afar, these slats project an alien beauty, as though a mysterious shrine has been staked into a blanched expanse. Serra’s truer intention becomes clear only close-up.
Like a surveyor, Serra aligned his plates so that their tops sit level with a horizon line created by a pair of nearby gypsum mesas. These ancient plateaus are covered with crushed fossil shells, because they once served as the floor of a sea that has long since disappeared, and the land around them has eroded. Yet stand near a plank—or better yet, walk by them all—and suddenly Serra’s reconstructed skyline makes it easy to imagine waves surging over the topography once more.
The legendary artist Richard Serra has earned countless accolades
and international renown for a 50-year career creating monumental
steel sculptures and abstract drawings. A film by MediaStorm
Who else could make people in a desert feel as though they are, for one miraculous moment, underwater?
“Utterly riveting,” Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said of the experience when he visited shortly before the piece, East-West/West-East, debuted in April 2014. “It’s so simple yet deeply moving.”
Serra, who for decades has lived in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and Orient, New York, on the northern tip of Long Island, says he may have been seeking the familiar in this unfamiliar land. “Until now, I’ve never worked in a desert,” he says. “I live by the sea.”
Over the past half-century, Serra has earned an international reputation creating steel sculptures that swoop, splice, zigzag and bulge like ship’s hulls, often taking on forms and tonnage no one in art history ever attempted before. Many associate him with his mid-career series of Torqued works, including those on view at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York. Each coiling steel piece there stands 13 feet tall and weighs at least 25 tons. With narrow openings into the curving works, it is possible to meander through, like a hiker in an undulating, sandstone canyon. The effect can be disorienting, but it’s also a rush.
The artist’s own story feels similarly outsized. The son of a San Francisco candy factory foreman, Serra, now 76, grew up to be brawny and intellectually curious, a surfer and steelworker who chose a life in art. He applied to Yale, one of the country’s most rigorous art schools, and was accepted on the basis of a dozen drawings. At the time, postwar painters like Jackson Pollock—who dripped or slathered their emotions on canvas—reigned over the art world. But when Serra moved to New York in the 1960s, he fell in with a freewheeling group of artists, dancers, playwrights and musicians whose experiments helped redefine what art could be. Serra and his artistic peers, like Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, put down their paintbrushes and started making radical pieces using materials like dirt, rubber and wax. Serra chose lead and steel.
Composer Philip Glass, who befriended Serra in 1964 and later worked as his assistant, says they often hung out in downtown Manhattan coffeehouses, where they would endlessly debate ways to invent something, anything, new. “We were the outsiders of art—and we liked it,” Glass says.
Serra says he determined early on to make sculptures that didn’t look like recognizable objects; he didn’t want to decorate a spot on a pedestal or a coffee table. Instead, he wanted to see if he could make sculptures hefty enough to carve up the physical voids around them, compelling people to see and experience a room or a field differently. For Strike: To Roberta and Rudy (1969–71), he wedged a plate of steel that was 24 feet long and 8 feet high into a corner, essentially bisecting the entire room. A few years later, in Los Angeles, he laid a huge steel plate on a floor and hung a matching plate flush against the ceiling, drawing eyes up. Crowds packed Ace Gallery to see the piece, Delineator (1974–75), transfixed by Serra’s wizardry.
“You’re not actually there to see the metal,” says art historian Richard Shiff, the director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas, of those early works. “You’re there to feel the space with the help of Serra’s sculpture.”
Even so, Serra’s best-known pieces are gravity-defying feats of engineering. At the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, visitors can thread through Snake, a 104-foot-long row of three freestanding steel strips that tilt, yet never topple. The 1996 work later became part of a larger 2005 group for the Bilbao called The Matter of Time. This series of soaring steel shapes has paths that curl inward to reveal hidden chambers or spiral outward to the gallery beyond.
By embracing the ambition and scale of an architect rather than a studio artist, Serra has helped salvage sculpture from being treated like an art-historical lightweight compared to painting. The Renaissance masters had treated these mediums equally, but they were supported by patrons who had the space and budgets for massive commissions. Fast-forward a few centuries, and private collectors preferred more manageable pieces to adorn their homes, essentially reducing sculpture to tabletop décor until titans like Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti took up the cause again. But Serra’s works also summon questions about structure, gravity, balance, time—and the human body, since he’s interested in how people interact with his structures. Serra says he’s wandered into his own work over the years to discover people taking naps inside or doing yoga or exchanging marriage vows.
“A lot of people wanted to reduce sculpture to object making,” says art critic and historian Hal Foster, “but he reclaimed sculpture for space making.”
Sometimes that space can feel precarious. Artist Matthew Barney says he remembers the first time he saw Serra’s arc pieces in the 1980s, large steel plates Serra rolled into wave shapes and half-moon shapes and arranged, without anchors or buttressing, in the compressed space of Leo Castelli’s Greene Street gallery in New York. “I loved the impossibility of it standing and the possibility of it falling,” Barney says. “Those pieces were about what could potentially happen. ”
Weight is a genuine concern. “Welcome to Richard’s world,” says Larry Gagosian, with whom he’s worked since 1983. While installing his first Serra show in Los Angeles that same year, Gagosian learned the hard way that Serra’s pieces don’t fit or sit neatly into spaces with typical weight-bearing loads when a forklift was used to carry in a pair of steel plates for a piece called Plunge. The work’s title proved prophetic: “As soon as the forklift hit the threshold, it collapsed and so did the floor,” Gagosian says. Luckily, the floor was repaired, and the show wowed critics and fans alike. “He’s extraordinary.”
Serra is likewise unpredictable—friends say he can be stormy. Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator, says the artist reminds her of his abstract expressionist forebears, because Serra is “clearly in love with art, a romantic” who is passionate about debating his positions on art—or anything, for that matter. California collector Steve Oliver, a construction mogul, says he once watched in awe as Serra, along with the artist’s wife, Clara Weyergraf, an art historian he married in 1981, and critic Robert Hughes, debated for more than an hour about whether a hand that was painted on a figure in a 16th-century portrait had been depicted palm up or down. “I just sat there with my jaw open,” Oliver says.
“Richard is very direct and honest and hard to deal with—we fought for years until we really became friends,” says one of Serra’s first dealers, Alexander von Berswordt. Von Berswordt, who runs a gallery in Bochum, Germany, says he persuaded Serra to join the gallery in the mid-’70s after mailing the artist a transatlantic plane ticket, and he works with him to this day.
Serra can also be endearing. His gray eyes light up beneath his white, bushy eyebrows whenever he hits upon a fresh insight or wants to chew over the memory of another artist’s work. Ask him about one of his long-gone friends like Smithson or Walter De Maria and his voice will soften, turn reverential. Barney, who cast Serra as a father-figure architect in his CREMASTER Cycle film series (released between 1994 and 2002), thinks Serra’s intensity isn’t a flaw—it’s his plumb line. “Richard is pure,” Barney says. “He’s very much like his work in that way.”
Lately, Serra has ventured into new visual terrain. His most recent pieces, like East-West/West-East in Qatar, feel more primordial than the candy-ribboned curls he was erecting a decade ago.
Next spring he is planning for a show of new sculptures at Gagosian’s gallery. “I don’t participate in the great social life,” Serra says. “I’m fairly obsessively internally driven.” He and Weyergraf don’t have children. They spend most of their time in their home in Orient, which was renovated by the architect Richard Gluckman. Every morning, Serra says, he wakes up around 5:30 a.m., swims in the indoor pool attached by a long walkway to his home and sits down to work from 10 a.m. to about 6 p.m. He invariably makes a few calls to Germany, where steelworkers help fabricate the huge pieces he designs in three dimensions using lead models that get translated into computerized production drawings.
Almost everything for him starts in a sketchbook, though. He maintains a parallel practice of making drawings—mark making that he says is separate from his sculptures but hews to the same artistic ideas. These drawings are often black or mottled, never figurative, and they have gained their own following over the years. (This past September, he unveiled a series of new drawings at Gagosian Gallery, New York inspired in part by his mazelike 2014 sculpture Ramble. New Ramble drawings will be on view at Gagosian Gallery, Paris starting January 28th.) Everywhere he goes he maps his thoughts in sketchbooks, and these notes represent a daily account of his creative life comparable in detail to the work of famed diarists like Benjamin Franklin. Serra has a room in Manhattan lined nearly floor to ceiling with boxes and trunks containing notebooks and sketchbooks he’s saved since college.
Gary Garrels, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which held a retrospective of Serra’s drawings four years ago, says the artist rarely lets anyone into the sketchbook room: “It’s like Ali Baba’s cave.”
Pedro Moreira Salles, a Brazilian banking billionaire who five years ago commissioned Serra to build a 250-ton steel piece, Cambuhy, a curving sculpture atop a former green maze at his country estate north of São Paulo, says artists often become “a caricature of their former selves” later in life, producing less-potent examples of their earlier breakthroughs. Serra, on the other hand, “refuses to be on that path.”
“You have to be obstinate,” Serra says. “You have to have an internal necessity. If you decide early on that you want an alternate life, no matter your success or reward, you have to stick with it.”
RICHARD SERRA cannot remember a time he didn’t like to draw. By age 4 he was already carrying a small notebook around, sketching zoo animals and family portraits; his parents could tell when he was angry because then he would refuse to draw in protest.
His mother, Gladys, had grown up in a bourgeois home in Los Angeles, the daughter of a milliner who sold Panama hats. She admired 18th-century painters like Thomas Gainsborough and Jean-Antoine Watteau, and she fell for Serra’s father, Tony, after hearing him play Spanish guitar songs on a ferryboat ride.
During World War II, Serra’s father worked as a pipe fitter for a shipyard near San Francisco, and afterward the family bought a spec home on the western edge of the city, south of Golden Gate Park, in an area that had been mainly sand dunes. Gladys tried to teach her three sons—Tony Jr., Richard and Rudy—to embrace cultural pursuits. Serra took to art first and realized it was “a way to catch my parents’ eyes,” he says. In the third grade, his teacher summoned his mother and told her to start taking him to art museums. “After that, she would introduce me as ‘Richard the artist,’ ” he says. “It was preordained.”
To read the full article, click here, originally published on WSJ.com, November 4, 2015.
"Richard Serra: Ramble Drawings" will be on view at Gagosian Gallery Paris from January 28 through April 2, 2016.