Елена Окунева
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RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered

RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered
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Photo: nytimes.com


Richard Serra is 82 years old, more than 50 of which he has devoted to art. And it is not just a question of conveyorized artistic production, Richard Serra is a rare intellectual and thinker who puts his non-trivial conclusions into remarkably concise and yet impressive forms.

Serra was born in San Francisco and his walks along the coast as a child set the stage for the artist’s future thinking. As a child, Richard was puzzled by the relativity of space. He was unable to fully grasp how what had been from his right a moment before became from his left and, in general, slightly different after he turned around. Such spatial riddles will be found and solved by the artist for the rest of his life.

Before enrolling in Yale’s Master of Arts program, Serra studied English literature at the university. His first artworks reveal the author’s linguistic interest and keen philological mind. For example, one of his first artworks is  The List of Verbs.

On standard paper with a soft pencil he wrote out 84 verbs — to roll, to compose, to wrap, to rotate… and 24 possible contexts — gravity, nature, time…  The artist describes all these words and the concepts they signify like «actions aimed at establishing a relationship with oneself, material, place and process» [1]. This work tells us a great deal about Richard Serra. It reveals his serious nature, prone to precise calculations rather than expressive, casual movements.


RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered
«List of Verbs», 1968


However, there was also a lot of expression in his work. In his portfolio there are amazing performances, during which, like a phoenix, he sprinkled red-hot lead, which solidified in bizarre forms. It’s worth remembering that while attending university, Serra worked part-time in a steel shop.

The glowing metal fascinated the artist, but in addition to this fact, we should also consider Serra’s reinterpretation of childhood memories of the shipyard where his father worked, and the majestic oil tankers that glided gracefully across the surface of the ocean.

The combination of power, brutality and enormous mass with lightness and grace will fascinate Richard for a long time and he will strive to reproduce this feeling in his art so that the audience can experience this experience as well.

In his series of works titled Supports people can guess the inspiration for the choreography and supports performed by the dancers. All of these sculptures are in no way attached to the walls or floor; they rest only on each other, capturing the moment of tension, the climax. These works excite the viewer’s imagination, giving rise to a question, «How was everything  done?»

This question has preoccupied viewers since ancient times but previously they were struck by the technical skill of the artist. The criteria might have been the precision of the lines, the width of the stroke or the realism of what was depicted.

Richard Serra breaks this chain by saying with his work: an artist is not just a craftsman whose work is admired as the result of a craft. An artist is someone who has outstanding ideas and is able to implement them in a way that changes perception, changes consciousness, changes the world.


RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered
Supports, late 1960s and early 1970s


His sculpture «Olson» is a good example. Huge curved sheets of Corten steel are staged to resemble a ship or a boat. The sheets are not fixed too, standing only thanks to a calibrated proportion of weight and curvature. At one time, when he first saw this work, Damien Hirst claimed that he was terrified because these enormous walls might fall on him. And this sense of creepiness inspired his own fear-mongering art.

RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered
Olson, 19875-6.


Richard Serra insists on the importance of the process of experience. It is not for nothing that experience is also a verb in English. The viewer often has to walk around the artwork or go inside to understand Serra’s sculptures.

Basically, the artist is precisely known for his large-scale metal mazes, cleverly arranged in space with no additional supports through or past which viewers must pass.

Passionate about science, Serra uses the laws of physics. Understanding that space and time are inextricably linked to movement, he encourages the viewer to move in order to understand the space created.


RICHARD SERRA: How Steel Was Tempered
Sequence, 2006. Photo: Lorenz Kienzle


Serra explores how a work of art can closely interact with a particular setting; how it is able to acquire for the viewer not only a visual relation but also a physical one; and how he is able to create spaces and environments in which viewers can experience the universal properties of weight, gravity, mobility and even feel a kind of meditative peace or, conversely, anxiety. The author himself states (and this seems to be the perfect quote to end the text) that «art fills each of us with what he lacks».


[1] List of verbs. Richard Serra’s 1968 description of the work on the MoMA website.

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