Artist
Richard Serra
American sculptor

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Richard Serra
American sculptor
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Birth Date

1939

ebrowne's picture

Contributor

Dubbed the “Man of Steel” by the New Yorker, Richard Serra is a no-nonsense large-scale sculptor who molded the art world around his little finger. 

It all started in a shipyard in San Francisco where his father worked as a pipe-fitter. The shipyard became the basis of a reoccurring dream of Serra’s laying the groundwork for an obsession with metal. Later, Serra made two valiant efforts to support himself and his artistic fantasies. First, he worked in a steel mill, which pretty much sealed his artistic fate. And second, he started a furniture-moving business employing his friends Chuck Close, the great 20th century composer Philip Glass (who was also his studio assistant at one point), and actor/writer Spalding Gray...but moving right along.

Serra studied English literature at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara before attending Yale Art School for his MFA where he was almost expelled for playing a prank on Robert Rauschenberg. He says about the incident, “Rauschenberg came up [to Yale] as a visiting critic. Being a bit sparky back then, I thought I’d see what he was made of. I found a chicken and tethered it to a rope and put it in this box on a pedestal… But when he lifted the box, the goddamn chicken flew up above him and started shitting everywhere. That incident sums up my attitude: I don’t give a shit but I care quite a lot.” This was only just the beginning of the turmoil that Serra would create in the art world. 

In 1979, Serra had a run of the mill (lol) site-specific commission for the Federal Plaza in New York City. So naturally, Richard Serra did something extraordinary. He created Tilted Arc, a 120-foot long, 12-foot high wall of steel that diagonally sliced the courtyard in half, which really messed up people’s lives. People’s routes to work were drastically altered and they were forced to (God forbid) look up while walking into the office. Now you wouldn’t think that this would be that big of a deal but there was a petition signed by 1300 people to remove it, followed by death-threats against Serra and ultimately a lawsuit. Serra tried to defend his work, claiming that it was designed for that space and anywhere else it would be useless, but ultimately it was scrapped. Art appreciation be damned. New Yorkers gotta get to work. 

His legacy has not been altered by those events, however. He is still a powerhouse of the American art scene, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Golden Lion Award recipient, has art displayed in the most prestigious galleries in the world and best of all is mentioned in the Vampire Weekend song, “White Sky.” How’s that for a resume?

melliot's picture

Contributor

Cantankerous, aggressive, arrogant -- that's how some critics describe Richard Serra. But others call him one of the greatest artists of our time.

Serra grew up around shipyards in San Francisco where his father worked. He was in awe of the giant tankers waiting to be launched. Early in his career, Serra supported himself working in the steel mills in Oakland.

Rubber, lead, and steel are his favorite materials. His works are torqued, twisted, curved, leaning in and leaning out, massive walls of magically arcing steel. You don't just see a Serra work. You have to walk in it, through it, and around it. Get up close and personal. Maybe even touching it.

The best Serra sculptures are not about the objects themselves, but about the space and how you feel when you walk through his towering pieces.

Serra's famously large-scale sculptures are site-specific installations. That means he made them just for that spot, and if you try to move them, he will sue you. Really!

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Richard Serra

Richard Serra (born November 2, 1938) is an American artist involved in the Process Art Movement. He lives and works in Tribeca, New York and on the North Fork, Long Island.

Early life and education

Serra was born on November 2, 1938, in San Francisco, the second of three sons. His father, Tony, was a Spanish native of Mallorca who worked as a candy factory foreman and in steel mills. Serra described the San Francisco shipyard where his father worked as a pipe-fitter as an important influence on his work, saying of his early memory: “All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory which has become a recurring dream.” His mother, Gladys Feinberg, was born in Los Angeles to Russian Jewish immigrants from Odessa and later worked as a housewife.

Serra studied English literature at the University of California, Berkeley in 1957 before transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, graduating with a B.A. in the subject in 1961. While at Santa Barbara, he studied art with Howard Warshaw and Rico Lebrun. Serra helped support himself by working in steel mills, labor which was to have a strong influence on his later work. Serra studied painting in the M.F.A. program at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture between 1961 and 1964. Fellow Yale Art and Architecture alumni of the 1960s include the painters, photographers, and sculptors Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and Robert Mangold. He claims to have taken most of his inspiration from the artists who taught there, including Philip Guston and the experimental composer Morton Feldman, as well as painter Josef Albers.

While at Yale, Serra proofed Albers' book Interaction of Color (1963). In 1964, after he received his M.F.A., he was awarded a traveling fellowship from Yale and went to Paris. He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship the following year in Florence. Since then he has lived in New York. In New York, his circle of friends has included Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson. At one point, to fund his art, Serra started a furniture-removals business, Low-Rate Movers, and employed Chuck Close, Philip Glass, Spalding Gray, and others.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Richard Serra.