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On the death of Richard Serra: All work is done

2024-03-27 14:11:21

Culture Richard Serra †

All work is done

As of: 8:54 a.m. | Reading time: 4 minutes

Richard Serra in his exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris

What: AP

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Richard Serra’s steel sculptures, which weigh several tons, are controversial, but they promise immediate artistic enjoyment: they appeal to our senses. Now the great American sculptor has died.

The sculpture “Berlin Junction” by Richard Serra stands on the sidewalk between the Philharmonie and the Großer Tiergarten. Two steel plates curved in an arc and tilted at an angle to each other, 14 meters long and three and a half meters high, form a narrow passage.

Serra’s urban sculptures have often been met with hostility. They are ugly and spoil the view of the city. Some, like “Tilted Arc” in New York, were removed after protests, never to be seen again. And even in Berlin, not every passer-by happily enters Serra’s heavily rusted steel tunnel because some people feel uncomfortable: What might await them in there?

It is an unparalleled artistic delight! If any sculpture could be less controversial, it would be this one. Without any mediation, she makes it clear what art – in this case minimalist sculpture – can do, namely to feel it directly. In the curatorial language of contemporary art discourse, there is often talk of physicality and spatial experience and low-threshold and changes of perspective, and one then stands in front of the work and at best frowns. Here inside “Berlin Junction” you don’t need a walkthrough to explain what you see and what you can know. Here you just stand there and feel.

Richard Serra’s sculpture “Berlin Junction” from 1987

Quelle: picture alliance / Shotshop

Anyone who enters the curvature of the space between the steel plates leaves everyday life behind. The sensory perception changes immediately. You hear more muffled. The eyes slowly adjust to light and shadow. At first you see nothing but corroded steel, but when you look up, you see a bold arc of the sky. You feel the surface of the walls that slope towards each other. The density and strength of the metal can be felt directly, you don’t even have to touch the plates.

The Californian is making a career in New York

Richard Serra was influenced by the serious material steel as a working-class child. Born in San Francisco in 1938, he grew up as the son of a pipe fitter who took him with him on shifts at the shipyard at an early age. In order to finance his first studies in Berkeley and Santa Barbara (English literature), he worked in a Californian steel mill.

Then he switched sides and enrolled in art at Yale in the early 1960s. On the east coast he became a student, and later also an assistant, of Josef Albers. The painter, who emigrated from Nazi Germany, is considered the father of minimalism (“Homage to the Square”). However, Serra felt less connected to the rigor of art theory than to working with simple materials, as did the artists of the Italian Arte Povera movement.

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Early experiments with industrial materials, rubber or neon tubes (for which his contemporaries Eva Hesse and Dan Flavin became known) did not satisfy Serra. He was looking for a material that was tailor-made for him and that was also, to a certain extent, innocent in terms of art history. In 1968, while Serra was now living in New York and was an artist in the program of Leo Castelli’s influential gallery, the three-minute-long film “Hand Catching Lead” was made. You can see the artist’s muscular forearm and right hand trying to catch pieces of lead falling from above.

It’s a game against gravity. Most of the chunks slip through his fingers, leaving only gray marks on the skin of his hand, which repeatedly grabs it, but only occasionally manages to grab hold of the heavy metal. In the film “Hand Lead Fulcrum” he balances a roll of sheet metal in his hand until it falls down. “Fulcrum” would later become the title of a ten meter high sculpture, whose three rolled steel plates placed next to each other support each other.

Richard Serra sculptures “East-West/West-East” in the Qatar desert

What: AP

In Castelli’s warehouse in 1968, Serra performed the “Splashing/Casting” action for the first time, which made him well known – also because he repeated it every few years in the world’s important museums. To do this, Serra threw liquid lead into the corner between the wall and the floor. The metal solidified and formed the positive form of a room, a sculpture.

Serra was still citing the gestural abstraction of action painting of the 1940s and 1950s, but in no time he was part of the New York avant-garde around artists such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and Walter de Maria, who at that time absolutely worked in a “site specific” manner “Land Art” turned remote and remote areas into exhibition locations.

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Serra has always remained a down-to-earth sculptor, whether his sculptures are exciting in the desert of Qatar, such as the “East-West/West-East” monoliths erected a few years ago or the “Matter of Time” snail shell labyrinths made of Corten steel in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. He always saw making art as work on his own, not in the sense of the Californian shipyard fitters, but as an obsessive person:

“To endure and begin again and again is to continue an obsessive work,” he once said. “In order to work, you have to already be working.” Richard Serra’s work is now finished. He died on March 26 at the age of 85 at his home in Orient, New York.

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