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Richard Serra — Man of Steel

Sculptor Richard Serra receives the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts.

En español | When the 2010 winner of Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts was announced, El País newspaper said that with the awarding of the prize, “the love story between Richard Serra and Spain had reached its zenith.”

Serra, a U.S.-born, world-renowned sculptor, already had developed a strong relationship with his father’s native country. “I feel a connection … to the Spanish tradition; from Picasso to Oteiza, from Velázquez to Zubarán,” says the artist, 70, who is scheduled to accept the award October 22, 2010, at a ceremony in Oviedo, Spain.

And the nation loves him back, having bestowed upon the sculptor three other major prizes since 2005. His enormous sculptures of rolled COR-TEN steel tower above other artwork in Spain’s major museums and form the core of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Until now, however, the Prince of Asturias Award had eluded Serra, who had been nominated four times for the prize.

Serra’s twisted, snaking, standing metal panels are meant to be experienced from inside and out, not seen from just one viewpoint.

In recent years, Serra’s exhibits have drawn crowds to museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Grand Palais in Paris. The prize doesn’t surprise Carmen Gimenez, curator of 20th-century art for Guggenheim museums worldwide. “For me, he is the best sculptor in the world,” she says. “He is number one.” 

Serra’s twisted, snaking, standing metal panels are meant to be experienced from inside and out, not seen from just one viewpoint. Unlike with other modern art, viewers of Serra’s work are forced to consider their own space and role in the sculptures, Gimenez says. 

The sculptor reflects on how his work was affected by his early California days, when he could speak Spanish, a language he says he later lost. “I was raised in a large area of sand dunes by the sea,” he says, “which influenced how I came to understand a personal definition of space.”

He also talks about his first glimpse in the 1960s of the 17th-century Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honor, by Diego Velázquez in the Prado Museum in Madrid. “I looked at it for a long time before it hit me that I was an extension of the painting,” Serra told The Guardian of London in 2008. “In my later work … the [viewer’s] experience becomes the content …  That’s really what I’ve been dealing with ever since...”

Serra had visited Spain in 1965–66, while on a Fulbright fellowship he received after graduate studies at the Yale School of Art and Architecture and undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Santa Barbara. In the late 1960s, he arrived in New York City, along with some Yale classmates, such as artist Chuck Close. Serra was influenced by minimalists who had created stark installations of bricks and other industrial objects.

The artist says he “wrote a list of transitive verbs to be enacted upon with various materials in relation to space: to lift, to roll, to fold, to cut, to curve, etc.”  For example, pieces of rubber stood at attention in his piece titled To Lift. He used other industrial materials, including liquid lead, torn lead, neon tubing and steel plates, to create other pieces. These, Serra says, “were precursors to what was to become known as ‘process art.’”

The sculptor’s works eventually grew so large that he could no longer be involved with process art, says Douglas Crimp, an art critic and professor of art history at the University of Rochester. Serra’s Five Elevations, a series of steel plates created between 1972 and 1974, were already eight feet tall and more than 10 feet wide. The plates had to be made in factories.

Explains Mark Rosenthal, an independent curator: “Process art is much more of a handmade sort of thing. You can’t visualize him making these things with his hands now. The work is far too big.”

The giant sculptures have brought Serra much media attention — some bizarre and some negative. In 2006, Madrid’s Reina Sofia contemporary art museum admitted it had lost a 38-ton sculpture titled Equal-Parallel/Guernica-Bengasi. The work referenced Picasso’s famous Guernica and the 1986 U.S. bombing of a Libyan port. On display until 1990, it was then put in storage and later couldn’t be found. Serra agreed to re-create the piece for the museum.

“He was very gracious about what happened and pretty much let it go,” says Mercedes Gallego, New York correspondent for Bilbao newspaper El Correo. That response, she says, endeared Serra to his Spanish fans.

But years before, he wasn’t so gracious when he publicly and unsuccessfully opposed the destruction of his 120-foot-long Tilted Arc, installed in a federal building plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. A year later, a similar debate echoed in St. Louis, Missouri, when some elected officials saw a public park installation by Serra called Twain as nothing more than a rust collector; but the piece remained, despite calls for its removal.      

Serra’s controversies, says Crimp, “have made it possible for there to be more debate about public installations.” Curator Rosenthal adds that these controversies have also encouraged sculptors of all ethnicities and nationalities to build large-scale works.

Despite the debate he has stirred, Serra’s focus remains with his audience, who he sees as a participant in each work. He told broadcast journalist Charlie Rose in 2007 that visitors “can walk in and through and around” his sculptures. “You do not have to know about the history of sculpture.”   

His art, Serra says, “has a function without being functionally useful. It makes the observer the subject of his own experience.”    

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