Richard Serra obituary

<span>Richard Serra with The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim, Bilbao, in 2005.</span><span>Photograph: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Richard Serra with The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim, Bilbao, in 2005.Photograph: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Serra, who has died aged 85, was a remarkable cultural figure – a sculptor who belonged to the generation of American minimalists, was associated with process art and made experimental films, yet evoked something of an earlier, more heroic age. The critic Robert Hughes described him as “the last abstract expressionist”.

Although this statement stretches the point, Serra’s interest in the processes of sculpture led him to some extravagant gestural acts that belie the severity of his grand public commissions. Weight and Measure, made in the early 1990s for what is now Tate Britain, exemplified his austere side, with its massive steel forms designed to counter the building’s overbearing classicism. However, some of his other works, such as the twisting, “torqued” structures installed at the Guggenheim in Bilbao in 2005, are positively baroque.

Curled around an existing sculpture, Snake, that was commissioned for the museum’s opening in 1997, these steel works, dominated by ellipses and spirals, articulate spaces in which the gallery visitor can wander. They are monumental enough to take on Frank Gehry’s grandiose architecture, but, with their patinated surfaces and curved forms, also have an intimate, sensual quality. Above all, Serra’s sculptures create a remarkable interaction with the public and a strong experience of gradual discovery – hence the installation’s title, The Matter of Time.

His works have proved popular with curators, but are not confined to museums. They have appeared in settings as diverse as the Tuileries garden in Paris, the Federal Plaza in New York, and the Qatari desert, attracting responses from intense admiration to a public inquiry. One of his sculptures, Fulcrum, was put up in 1987 at Broadgate outside Liverpool Street station in London. It manages to combine monumentality with fragility, made of weathered steel plates that appear to support each other precariously.

He was born in San Francisco into a family that provided a foundation for his later career as a sculptor in metal. His father, Tony, who was from Majorca, was a pipe-fitter in a naval shipyard. His mother, Gladys (nee Fineberg), who was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, used to introduce her son as “Richard, the artist” and was, later, touchingly enthusiastic when he began to make his way in New York. Serra himself laboured in steel mills during his time as a student and subsequently, in 1979, made a compelling film, Steelmill/Stahlwerk, about German workers in the industry.

Serra began his studies in 1957 at the University of California in Berkeley, graduating from the institution’s Santa Barbara campus with a degree in English literature. He followed this in 1961 with a three-year course in painting at Yale University, New Haven – a period in which he also worked as a teaching assistant and as a proof-reader for Joseph Albers’s book Interaction of Color (1963). At Yale he encountered such luminaries as Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, before winning a fellowship that took him to Europe in 1964.

In Paris, Serra was profoundly impressed by the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuși, but in Florence the following year he continued to paint, producing coloured grids in timed conditions controlled by a stopwatch. It was only with his first exhibition, at the Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966, that he made a definitive move away from painting, filling cages with live and stuffed animals.

After moving to New York in the same year, Serra initially survived by setting himself up as a furniture remover, together with his friends, the composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Serra’s artistic development at this time was rapid, moving from experiments with rubber, fibreglass and neon tubing to the metal sculpture for which he became renowned. He soon began his long-term association with the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, in whose Warehouse annex he was photographed in 1969 throwing molten lead at the wall with a ladle.

In the same year Serra refined this procedure by splashing the metal against a small steel plate stuck into the corner of Jasper Johns’s studio. The “castings” produced when the lead cooled down were rough, expressive forms, but this project also inspired Serra to create more impersonal pieces, in which metal sheets were wedged into the angles of rooms, leaned against each other or pinned to the wall by lead pipes. His emphasis on objective phenomena – mass, gravity and other physical forces – can also be seen in his remarkable experimental films.

In Hand Catching Lead (1968), the hand is in fact the artist’s but it is shown disembodied, trying to grasp rather than cast pieces of falling lead, which it drops or misses altogether. The repetition of this fundamentally pointless act gives the film a serial quality, akin to the celluloid process itself.

Serra’s engagement with the cutting edge also led him to work with the land artists Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt. In 1970 he assisted them with Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake in Utah and, after Smithson’s death in 1973, Serra helped to complete Amarillo Ramp in an artificial lake in Texas. His own site-specific sculptures included Spin Out: For Bob Smithson (1972-73), in the park-like surroundings of the Kröller-Müller Museum at Otterlo in the Netherlands. Here the three converging steel plates interacted with each other and their environment, exemplifying Serra’s aim that “the entire space becomes a manifestation of sculpture”.

The 1970s was a difficult decade in Serra’s life. In 1971 a worker was killed in an accident during the installation of one of Serra’s sculptures outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His five-year marriage to the artist Nancy Graves ended in 1970, and his mother’s suicide in 1977 was followed two years later by the death of his father. However, in that decade he also met his future wife, the art historian Clara Weyergraf, with whom he collaborated on Steelmill/Stahlwerk. Clara was also to play a vital role in shaping his sculpture, as well as giving her name to Clara-Clara, a powerful, curvilinear work that was installed in the Tuileries garden in 1983. The history of this piece exemplifies Serra’s problems in making site-specific art, since it was originally intended to feature in a show at the Pompidou Centre, but at a late stage was deemed to be too heavy.

Clara-Clara’s travails were minor in comparison to the controversies surrounding Tilted Arc, a sculpture 36 metres long, set up at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981. Condemned for being intrusive, a magnet for graffiti artists and even a security risk, it was eventually removed in 1989, four years after a public hearing in which a majority of witnesses had advocated its preservation.

Despite this setback, Serra’s career continued to flourish. He had two retrospectives, in 1986 and 2007, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also devoted a permanent room to his monumental work Equal (2015), as well as major exhibitions at home and abroad. He showed frequently with his gallery, Gagosian, in London, New York and Paris, most recently in 2021.

In 2001 he received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale, in 2015 the Légion d’honneur in France and, three years later, the J Paul Getty Medal.

During his latter years, Serra became heavily involved with public projects in Qatar, above all the four steel plates, rising to over 14 metres and spanning more than a kilometre, erected west of Doha in 2014. Known as East-West/West-East, the work engages spectacularly with its surroundings, the gypsum plateaux of the Brouq nature reserve in the Dukhan desert. Serra himself described it as “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done”.

He is survived by Clara.

• Richard Serra, artist, born 2 November 1938; died 26 March 2024