A Sculptural Mastermind

Remembering the monumental work of Richard Serra
By Barry Pierce | Art | 28 March 2024


The sad news broke this week that the artist Richard Serra had passed away at age 85. Serra, who was born in San Francisco in 1938 to immigrant parents, rose to fame in the 1960s due to his large sculptural works that usually took the form of large sheets of steel that bifurcated an urban landscape. Due to the era in which he worked and the stark aesthetic that his works often emanated, Serra became a leading figure of postminimalist movement which purposefully strayed from the clinical cleanness of minimalism (think of the sharp, perfect lines of Donald Judd’s Stacks and Robert Morris’ mirrored cubes) and embraced the use of more tactile and everyday materials, such as, in Serra’s case, industrial steel and Eva Hesse’s latex and yarn.

Serra’s huge steel structures were constantly controversial. Their monolithic placement in, oftentimes, busy and crowded public spaces made them a menace to commuters but the smaller-scale works he made for gallery spaces had a cold allure to them. Many of these gallery-specific works required the visitor to walk through them, getting lost inside the artwork, as they towered over you and made you feel so very, very small.

To celebrate Richard Serra’s amazing legacy, we’ve chosen five of his most essential works that encapsulate how the artist could have been so controversial, yet so beloved.

Tilted Arc, 1981
What better place to start than with Tilted Arc? Undeniably Serra’s most controversial work, the artwork was on display in Manhatten’s Foley Square from 1981 until 1989. A 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high piece of industrial steel, it was Serra’s most public work to date and it attracted an almost endless barrage of criticism from the moment it was erected. Critics of Tilted Arc found its unfinished, rust-encrusted surface to be aesthetically ugly and felt its placement in the public plaza to be a large, unavoidable nuisance. It all came to blows when the controversy surrounding the work ended up in the federal court, which voted for the work to be removed. Serra sued the city but even after a series of lengthy trials, Tilted Arc was dismantled in 1989 and has never been on display anywhere since.

Tilted Arc, 1981. Photo: Ann Chauvet.


Fulcrum, 1987
Serra received commissions from all around the world, but we do have a tiny amount of local pride that one of his most famous and recognisable works was created for Liverpool Street Station in East London. Fulcrum from 1987 definitely solved the problems faced by Tilted Arc by building upwards instead of outwards. This time the rusty steel shoots 55 feet towards the sky and almost resembles a house of cards, the gigantic sheets of steel precariously leaning against each other.

Fulcrum, 1987. Photo: Andrew Dunn.


To Lift, 1967
Serra didn’t always work with steel or at such a large scale. In many of his early works you can see the signposts for where his practise to going to lead. A good example of this is in To Lift from 1967. The material here isn’t steel but vulcanised rubber. Materials like rubber and fibreglass are what distanced the postminimalist from the minimalists, in To Lift you can see a shape that Serra will revisit throughout his career but here rendered in a material that is naturally pliable. It also displays that alchemy of turning everyday objects into sculptures, in that it is a regular sheet of rubber but when bent into this curved position it suddenly takes on a wholly new sculptural persona.

To Lift, 1967. Courtesy of MoMA.


EastWest/WestEast, 2014
Serra never let his age get in the way of his work, which can certainly be proven by EastWest/WestEast which was completed in 2014 when he was 75. Consisting of four, 15 metre high monoliths of steel in the Doha desert, the work feels as if it is a nod to those opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where a mysterious monolith appears in a sparse, pre-historic landscape. The work itself is by far the greatest distance Serra ever covered with sculpture and is also the most difficult to see in person. You have to drive forty miles out of Doha, deep into the desert in order to come across the pieces. However, once you arrive there it’s just you, Richard Serra, and no sign of civilisation for miles.

East-West/West-East, 2014, via Wikimedia Commons


The Matter of Time, 2005
If you were to measure a work of art’s popularity by how many times it has appeared on people’s Instagram feeds, then The Matter of Time from 2005 is easily Serra’s most popular work. An installation made up of seven of Serra’s steel works that take over an entire room in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, The Matter of Time is the quintessential expression of Serra’s oeuvre. Visitors feel totally overwhelmed by the monumental structures as well as uneasy at the odd angles and the rough, rusty exteriors inside a white-walled gallery space. These works are Serra at his most playful and most powerful, the delicate and wavy bends of the steel defy the rigidity of the material and the maze-like route you can take through these monuments reduces everyone to a child’s-eye view of the world.

The Matter of Time, 2005. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.


Read Next