Richard Serra: Master of Monumental Minimalism Dies Aged 85

Richard Serra Dies Obituary

Richard Serra, a towering figure in contemporary art, has died at the age of 85. Serra was born in San Francisco, California, on November 2, 1938. From an early age, he exhibited a keen interest in art and sculpture, foreshadowing the prolific career ahead.

After studying at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at Yale University, Serra honed his craft under the mentorship of renowned abstract expressionist painters such as Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning. During this formative period, Serra developed his distinctive artistic voice, characterised by a bold exploration of space, form, and materiality.

“Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a rigorous, incontrovertible foundation and, in fact, to some degree, repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Repetition is a way to jumpstart the indecision of beginning. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work. To work, you must already be working.” —Richard Serra

Richard Serra Guggenheim Bilboa Photo: © Artlyst 2024
Richard Serra Guggenheim Bilbao Photo: © Artlyst 2024

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Serra emerged as a leading figure in the minimalist art movement alongside contemporaries such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. His early works, characterised by their stark simplicity and geometric precision, signalled a departure from traditional notions of sculpture, challenging viewers to engage with art in new and unconventional ways.

One of Serra’s most iconic works from this period is “Tilted Arc” (1981), a massive, curved steel sculpture commissioned for Federal Plaza in New York City. Controversial from its inception, “Tilted Arc” sparked intense debate and ultimately led to its removal in 1989—a testament to the power of Serra’s art to provoke dialogue and challenge the status quo.

Throughout his career, Serra continued to push the boundaries of sculpture, experimenting with scale, material, and site-specificity. His monumental installations, often composed of weathered steel plates arranged in imposing configurations, inviting viewers to navigate and interact with space in profound and visceral ways.

Serra’s influence extended beyond the confines of the art world. He has shaped our understanding of architecture, urban space, and the relationship between art and the environment. His works in museums, galleries, and public spaces worldwide serve as enduring monuments to the power of artistic vision and innovation.

In addition to his monumental sculptures, Serra is celebrated for his drawings, prints, and experimental film works, further showcasing his mastery of form and composition. He received numerous accolades and honours throughout his illustrious career, including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

As Richard Serra continued to create and innovate into his later years, his legacy as a pioneer of minimalist sculpture remained strong. With each new work, he challenged us to reconsider our perceptions of space, materiality, and the boundaries of artistic expression.

In her New York Times Obituary, Roberta Smith stated, “Mr. Serra’s most celebrated works had some of the scale of ancient temples or sacred sites and the inscrutability of landmarks like Stonehenge. But if these massive forms had a mystical effect, it came not from religious belief but from the distortions of space created by their leaning, curving or circling walls and the frankness of their materials.

This was something new in sculpture: flowing, circling geometry that had to be moved through and around to be fully experienced. Mr. Serra said his work required much “walking and looking” or “peripatetic perception.” It was, he said, “viewer-centred”: Its meanings were to be arrived at by individual exploration and reflection.

Serra died on Tuesday at his home in Orient, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. The cause was pneumonia, John Silberman, his lawyer, said.

Richard Serra Guggenheim Bilboa Photo: © Artlyst 2024
Richard Serra London Photo: © Artlyst 2024


Serra’s sculptures and drawings have been celebrated with two retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, twenty years apart: Richard Serra/Sculpture (1986) and Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years (2007). He has had solo exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1977–78); Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany (1978); Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany (1978); Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands (1980, 2014, and 2017); Centre Pompidou, Paris (1983–84); Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany (1985); Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, Denmark (1986); Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster, Germany (1987); Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (1987); Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (1988); Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, Netherlands (1990); Kunsthaus Zürich (1990); CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, France (1990); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (1992); Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany (1992); Dia Center for the Arts, New York (1997); Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro (1997–98); Trajan’s Market, Rome (1999–2000); Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis (2003); and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy (2004).

In 2005, The Matter of Time (1994–2005), eight large-scale works were installed permanently at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. For Monumenta 2008, the central site-specific installation

The promenade was shown at the Grand Palais, Paris. Three years later, the large-scale, site-specific sculpture Seven was permanently installed opposite the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. From 2011 to 2012, a major travelling retrospective dedicated to Serra’s drawings was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Menil Collection, Houston (the organizing venue).

Richard Serra Qatar
Richard Serra  Qatar East-West West-East 2014 Photo © Artlyst

In 2014, the Qatar Museums Authority presented a two-venue retrospective survey of Serra’s work, and East-West/West-East (2014) was permanently installed in the Brouq Nature Reserve, Zekreet, Qatar. In 2017, the Museum Wiesbaden, Germany, presented Richard Serra: Props, Films, Early Works; an overview of Serra’s work in film and video was shown at the Kunstmuseum Basel; and recent drawings were featured at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Serra has participated in numerous major international exhibitions, including Documenta (1972, 1977, 1982, and 1987) and the Biennale di Venezia (1980, 1984, 2001, and 2013). His work has also been included in many Whitney Annuals and Biennials (1968, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1995, and 2006). He is the recipient of the Leone d’Oro for lifetime achievement, Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2001); Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste, Federal Republic of Germany (2002); Orden de las Artes y las Letras de España, Spain (2008); President’s Medal, Architectural League of New York (2014); Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, Republic of France (2015); and J. Paul Getty Medal (2018).

Top Photo: Wiki Commons Oliver Mark – Richard Serra, Siegen 2005.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

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