Richard Serra – Altering The Perception Of Space And Proportion

Richard Serra (b.1938) is an internationally renowned minimalist artist whose works stimulate the senses and transcend the ordinary. His impressive large-scale installations and monumental steel sculptures, which often explore the physical and psychological impact of the work on viewers, elicit awe and inspire contemplation.

His signature style focuses on the idea of space and motion, as well as the physical relationship between the visitor and the sculpture, inviting the viewer to explore from multiple angles. The rust-colored steel plates he uses the most, create an almost tangible physicality that encourages one to stop and experience his art.

Born in 1938 in San Francisco, Serra was the only child of Spanish-Basque and Italian parents. After studying English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, Serra decided to pursue a career in the arts and enrolled in the University of California at Santa Barbara, followed by a study at Yale University.

It was there, under the guidance of renowned abstract painter Josef Albers, that Serra developed a superior knowledge of the art world. In order to support himself during his studies, Serra worked in steel mills, without realizing that this experience would be the driving force of his later success as a sculptor.

What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are, by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are.

Richard Serra
Detail of Transmitter, 2020, Weatherproof steel, 4 × 17.7 × 18.2 m, © 2021 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Thomas Lannes
Detail of Transmitter, 2020, Weatherproof steel, 4 × 17.7 × 18.2 m, © 2021 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Thomas Lannes via Gagosian

In 1964, Serra went to Paris for a year to explore his creativity. There, he became acquainted with the city’s contemporary art scene and met the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti for the first time. But what left a lasting impression on him, however, were the works of the inspirational artist Constantin Brâncuși.1 “It was the first time I looked at sculpture seriously,” Serra said after visiting the atelier. 2

First Steps Towards Minimalism

Two years later Richard Serra returned from Europe and moved to New York. The city was dominated by a group of minimalist artists during that time, who believed that art should be appreciated for its own value and not for its ability to express one’s emotions. Robert Morris, one of the leading figures in the movement, invited Serra to participate in a group exhibition at the Castelli Warehouse, giving him the chance to work with artists such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

Serra, however, did not feel connected to the basic ideas of the Minimalists. He wanted to set himself apart from the rest of the group.3

In the 1970s, Serra began crafting his most influential works, prompted by the monumental land art created by his friend Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty. Serra was captivated by the concept of site-specificity and how a work of art could be informed, inspired, and contextualized by its location. How would a rolling meadow instead of a white gallery interact with his art? This question has driven Serra’s work ever since.

An exploration of his paintings

Since 1971, Richard Serra’s drawings and prints have been a consistent presence in his practice. Characterized by a bold and commanding use of black, these works are often large-scale. The intense black tone absorbs and reduces light, creating a powerful sense of weight and mass – a fascinating exploration of gravity and darkness.

His arrangement of forms often has a strong sense of rhythm and gives the viewer a sense of movement. Serra’s paintings often incorporate the physical properties of the materials used to create them, such as the thickness and weight of the paint, and how it interacts with the canvas.

Richard Serra, Deadweight V (Memphis), 1991, 407.4 x 208 cm © via MoMa under Fair Use
Richard Serra, Deadweight V (Memphis), 1991, 407.4 x 208 cm © via MoMa under Fair Use
Richard Serra, No Mandatory Patriotism, 1989, Paintstik on two sheets of paper, 236.5 x 510.9 cm, © 2023 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Richard Serra, No Mandatory Patriotism, 1989, Paintstik on two sheets of paper, 236.5 x 510.9 cm, © 2023 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use

The Sublime Experiences of Richard Serra’s Artwork

Serra’s works are deeply influenced by his early experiences as an artist. His first major works were large-scale abstract steel sculptures and installations. They explored the viewer’s psychological response to the physicality of the work and its environment. In this searching exploration, the visitor is invited to actively participate in the artwork, not only encountering the form and material but himself/herself in relation to the sculpture.

Here, the viewer’s experience is paramount, as the work can only be revealed through his/her engagement with it. In this way, the visitor is able to gain a unique insight into the artwork, unlocking a special dimension that cannot be appreciated by a passive observer.

To view his sculptures is to enter a deeply meditative space, and bear witness to his genius. His ever-evolving and interactive works are living, breathing testaments to art’s capacity to provoke, challenge, and spark dialogue. It is always a pleasure to see, walk and experience his artworks.

Further Reading / Resources

1,3 https://www.thecollector.com/

2 https://www.artnet.com/artists/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML1BkhqKo1Q&t=125s&ab_channel=TheMuseumofModernArt

Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.