Richard Serra, sculptor who created monumental works in steel that transformed public spaces – obituary

Richard Serra with one of his pieces at the Moma Sculpture Garden in New York in 2007
Richard Serra with one of his pieces at the Moma Sculpture Garden in New York in 2007 - David Corio/Redferns

Richard Serra, the American sculptor, who has died aged 85, was best known for transforming vast slabs of steel, twisting them into awe-inspiring torqued ellipses, spirals, curves and other shapes, making vast, dense pieces of metal seem improbably pliable and austerely beautiful.

Serra was held in enormous regard by fellow artists and critics and his work was designed to give visitors a physical as much as a visual experience. He wanted the public to walk around and between his austere rust-coloured metal sculptures, so that the pieces’ appearance would change in relation to each other and the space. The effect could be disorienting and unsettling, the huge metal forms looming over the visitor then closing in or veering away – but no one could leave feeling indifferent.

Entering a Serra exhibition was a bit like getting lost in a working shipyard, which was no accident. As a boy Richard had been taken by his father, a fitter in a shipyard, to see the launch of a new liner. Serra remembered the great steel bow sliding down the chute and knew that “all the raw material I needed was contained in that memory.”

Serra's controversial piece Tilted Arc, at Federal Plaza in New York in 1985: after much vitriol it was dismantled and put into storage
Serra's controversial piece Tilted Arc, at Federal Plaza in New York in 1985: after much vitriol it was dismantled and put into storage - Robert R McElroy/Getty Images

Richard Antony Serra was born in San Francisco on November 2 1938, the second of three sons of a Spanish father and Russian mother. After high school he studied English literature at the University of California, first at Berkeley then at Santa Barbara, where one of his tutors was Aldous Huxley. To finance his studies Serra worked in a rivet gang in a steel mill, and throughout his life he would return to the mill to learn about new techniques.

As a side interest at Santa Barbara, Serra took up painting under Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw in the art department. After graduation in 1961 he sent his portfolio to Yale, where he won a scholarship to study painting, mentored by the abstract expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, whose contacts within the New York School meant that he could call upon such figures as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston as visiting lecturers.

Serra graduated in 1964 with a BA in art history, a Master of Fine Arts degree, a travelling fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship which took him to Paris. There he studied the work of Brancusi and Giacometti and became friendly with the avant-garde composer Philip Glass. In 1966 he lived for a time in Rome, where he was influenced by the composer John Cage’s theories about chance in art, a concept extensively explored by Jackson Pollock, whose work impressed Serra when he visited a show by the artist at the Galleria La Salita.

Wake, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle
Wake, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle - UrbanImages/Alamy

However, during a trip to Madrid in 1966, Serra visited the Prado Museum and saw Velázquez’s Las Meninas and decided he could never match the artist’s skill and moved away from painting to sculpture, mounting his first solo show – mainly consisting of cages containing live and stuffed animals – at the Galleria La Salita.

Returning to the US towards the end of the year, he moved to New York at a time when minimalism was taking over from abstract expressionism. His early pieces, consisting of strips of metal, rubber and tubing arranged in random patterns, did not impress. But after he was taken up by the Leo Castelli Gallery, Serra began attracting attention.

In Scatter Piece (1967) he flung rubber and latex across the gallery floor in a gesture analogous to Pollock’s “action-painting”. He also published a “verb list” of 84 transitive verbs (cast, roll, tear, prop, etc) identifying sculptural possibilities, and 24 phrases such as “of tension, of gravity, of entropy” that defined external forces that might shape a work. He then explored these through series such as Tearing Lead (1968) and Splashed Lead (1969), art designed to encourage the spectator to contemplate the process of creation.

Serra’s Skullcracker Series (1969), its name taken from the Californian steel yard which supplied the raw material, established the themes that were to make his reputation. Steel had often been used in sculpture, but had been used pictorially. Serra wanted to “bring it back home”.

Serra in Matthew Barney's film Cremaster 3 (2002)
Serra in Matthew Barney's film Cremaster 3 (2002) - Photo 12/Alamy

Using a magnetic crane, he stacked 20ft towers weighing 200 tons of irregularly shaped slabs of “crop” – waste steel from the hot rolled mill – so that they leaned dangerously but did not topple. Standing before Stacked Steel Slabs (1969) the spectator was uncomfortably aware of their weight and the imminent possibility of collapse, but Serra’s triumph lay in their extraordinary balance, their unfulfilled threat. One-Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969) consisted of four rectangular plates of lead leaning against each other to create a similar effect.

Gradually Serra began attracting public commissions. Although his natural habitat was industrial, one of his first commissions was for a landscape. Untitled (1971), a series of concrete walls set in a sloping field, taught him the importance of context and how sculpture can augment or confront it. Preparing a piece Serra could spend up to three years walking a site, another year demarcating the space he wanted to use and two more years deciding what to put in it.

Encouraged by his success outdoors he began making public works for urban spaces. Terminal (1977), a 41ft steel four-plate on a traffic island in Bochum, West Germany, was censured as “an ugly waste of money” but T.W.U. (1980), a 36ft three-plate on a traffic island in SoHo, New York, and St John’s Rotary Arc (1980), a 200ft-long, 12ft-high curved steel wall at the exit of the Holland Tunnel, New York, were warmly received.

East-West/West-East (2014), in Qatar
East-West/West-East (2014), in Qatar - Sally Crane/Alamy

Not all his work went down so well in New York. When, repeating the wall idea, he laid a 120ft-long, 12ft-high steel wall – Tilted Arc (l981) – across the grim plaza of the Jacob K Javits Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, 1,300 office workers signed a petition asking for its removal and even Village Voice joined the protests, describing the work as “so mistaken, so wrong, so bad”.

Serra insisted that the sculpture had “a truly lyrical line” and argued that to move it would be to destroy it as it was “site-specific”. But the critics prevailed and after much vitriol the work was dismantled and put into storage. The concept would form the basis of Maya Lin’s hugely successful Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

It was not Serra’s first brush with controversy. In 1971, when a 34-year-old labourer was crushed to death by a two-ton steel plate while dismantling a Serra structure, the sculptor was attacked, ridiculed and advised by friends to stop working: “It put me into analysis for seven years.”

Asked to provide a monumental sculpture for a plaza adjacent to the Treasury in Washington in 1978, he clashed with the architect Robert Venturi, who wanted to put the Stars and Stripes on two pylons to frame the building, and resigned from the project protesting that his work was not ideological and that it related “to sculpture and nothing else”.

Visitors walk through Serra's piece The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Visitors walk through Serra's piece The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao - Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty

Serra continued to produce works on paper, mostly monochrome images of geometric forms which were not always appreciated. A show of abstract black oils at the Serpentine Gallery in 1992 was described by one critic as “the most unpleasant exhibition in London”.

But attitudes toward modern art – even minimalist sculpture – changed enormously over Serra’s career and when Weight and Measure, 35- and 39-ton steel blocks, was exhibited in the two central sculpture halls at the Tate in 1992, it was deemed a triumph.

But it was his Torqued Ellipse series, begun in 1996 and consisting of assemblages of massive rust-coloured Cor-Ten steel plates turned into circular sculptures with open tops, that converted even the most sceptical critics. Serra credited the inspiration for the series to a visit in the early 1990s to the baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, where he found himself fascinated and disoriented by the relationship between Francesco Borromini’s elliptical nave and dome. His sculptural take on this architectural oddity proved to be a major breakthrough for Serra as his sculptures now created contained spaces that people could walk into and explore.

Serra's piece for Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1, in Toronto
Serra's piece for Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1, in Toronto - Shankar Adiseshan/Alamy

In 2000 Serra exhibited Torqued Ellipses at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, his single biggest show since 1986. In 2005 The Matter of Time, consisting of eight huge steel sculptures – torqued ellipses as well as spirals, the largest sculptural installation in the world – opened at the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, to near-universal critical acclaim. Along the way the pieces, which remain on permanent exhibition, helped to solve a problem by filling a room which was far too big for any other work.

One of his last works was East-West/West-East (2014), four tall standing steel plates ranged across a kilometre of desert at the Brouq National Reserve in Qatar.

Alert to alternative media, Serra made two films to explore his ideas about industrialisation. Railway Turning (1976) placed a camera on a turnbridge as it revolved, while Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979) luxuriated in the environment he knew best.

In 1964 Richard Serra married the sculptor Nancy Graves. The marriage was soon dissolved, and in 1981 he married the German-born art historian Clara Weyergraf, with whom he had collaborated on Steelmill/Stahlwerk. She survives him.

Richard Serra, born November 2 1938, died March 26 2024