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Richard Serra, sculptor of steel and time, dies | Culture

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During the boy Richard Serra’s fourth birthday visit to the San Francisco marina, where he was amazed to see how large masses of steel were moved from one place to another, one of the most fascinating careers in contemporary sculpture began. That story came to an end this Tuesday, eight decades after that excursion, with the death of a totem of American art: Serra died at the age of 85 in his home on Long Island, near New York. The cause was pneumonia, according to what he reported to The New York Times his attorney, John Silberman.

It will be remembered for its large pieces of Corten steel, strangely graceful despite their several tons of weight. Capable of creating sinuous interiors in which to get lost, they were revolutionary in their invitation to the viewer to admire them, but, above all, to walk through their caldera-colored labyrinths. The best example of this style, a sophisticated and monumental reflection also on emptiness, is in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which has been on permanent display since 2005 and in its most emblematic gallery, a titanium arm extended parallel to the estuary. nerve, The matter of time, eight gigantic spheres, spirals and ellipses that marked a milestone in Serra’s journey toward understanding space. The complex, weighing almost 1,200 tons, ended up achieving the improbable: becoming an icon capable of rivaling the Frank Gehry building that houses it, another masterpiece.

‘The Matter of Time’, at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Vicente Paredes

It was around that time that the famous Australian critic Robert Hughes, as fond of provocation as he was of slogans, defined him “not only as the best sculptor of the 21st century,” but also as “the only truly great one still active.” With his eternally frowning brow, his compact complexion and his laconic and reflective personality, with Serra a certain idea of ​​the artist (man) abstracted in a transcendental mission for whom life and work are expressions of the same epic also dies a little more. adventure.

Son of the foreman of a candy factory of Mallorcan ancestors and a housewife who emigrated from Odessa, in what is now Ukraine, he was born in 1938 in San Francisco. He used to brag about his working-class origins, because, he said, they gave him a strong work ethic. This attitude, far from dilettancy, became evident very soon, thanks to his List of verbs (1967-1968), perhaps his most famous text, which began with “roll, crumple, fold, store, tilt, abbreviate, twist” and continued until he accumulated 100 infinitives, 100 invitations to action.

As a young man, he was intellectually forged from English literature, which he studied at university. He had formidable teachers: the writers Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, the painter Philip Guston and the composer Morton Feldman. He read Emerson and the rest of the American transcendentalists, but he also soaked up the French existentialists, especially Albert Camus. He left the West Coast to study art at Yale, during which time he supported himself by working in a heavy metal processing plant. In Paris he deeply immersed himself in Brancussi, an influence that was crucial in his drift towards sculpture, while on the other side of the Pyrenees, Eduardo Chillida, but, above all, Jorge Oteiza, were already embarking on similar reflections on space.

Goodbye to painting

His abandonment of painting also actually hid the assumption of defeat. When he first saw Las Meninas, of Velázquez, surrendered to the evidence: “I thought there was no possibility of even getting close to all that: the viewer in relation to the space, the painter included in the painting, the mastery with which he could go from the abstract to a figure. or a dog. (Velázquez) He persuaded me (to leave it). Cézanne had not stopped me, (Willem) De Kooning and (Jackson) Pollock neither, but Velázquez seemed like something much bigger to manage,” he declared in 2002 to Magazine The New Yorker.

He made a name for himself in New York straddling the tribes of minimalists and post-minimalists. It differed from the first by its taste for heavy materials. With the latter, in 1968 he shared the legendary exhibition at Leo Castelli’s gallery that earned him a name on the scene, thanks to his films and a piece in which he threw molten lead at the wall. After that early exploration of practices and materials, his love affair with steel would not take long to consolidate.

His sculptures are spread throughout museums and cities around the world, from the Glenstone open-air park, on the outskirts of Washington, to Liverpool Street station, in London. In countries like Germany and Holland they held him in special veneration. Despite the fame that accompanied him for decades, that list ended up being a most random list. The city of New York, after eight years of fighting in court, during which 13,000 signatures were collected against him, ended up tearing down his piece Tilted Arc (1981), installed in the lower part of Manhattan. And on one occasion he rescued two of his works from a park in Bilbao when he knew they were going to be auctioned.

'Equal Parallel / Guernica-Benghazi
‘Equal Parallel / Guernica-Bengasi””Equal-paralelo: Guernica-Bengasi’ (1986), by Richard Serra.

Although nothing surpassed, at least in Spain, the scandal of the disappearance at some point between 1992 and 2005 of a Madrid warehouse of Equal Parallel/Guernica-Benghazi (1986), property of the Reina Sofía, a museum that today exhibits it in its permanent collection in a version from 2007. It was one of the most bizarre unresolved stories of Spanish art in democracy, and inspired the book Masterpiece, by the writer Juan Tallón. When reminded of that nonsense, Serra used to respond with detachment that he believed that the thieves or those who were careless had surely “sold it to make razors.”

In recent times, health problems caused his incorruptible work ethic to lead him to dedicate himself to drawing daily, an art in which he also left his original mark. For him it was not a means (if it was about sketching sculptures he preferred to create 1:50 scale models), but an end, to which he dedicated himself from very early on. In an interview with EL PAÍS held at the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam, on the occasion of an exhibition of that part of his work, he recalled the first time, as early as “five or six years old,” in which he noticed on what it meant to be a creator. “My mother would bring huge rolls of pinkish paper from the butcher shop that I would spread out on the asphalt of the street to draw on them. Wherever we went, the artist introduced me as her son,” said Serra, who in 2010 was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts in Oviedo.

'Rotterdam Vertical #10', drawing by Richard Serra exhibited in 2017 at the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam.
‘Rotterdam Vertical #10’, drawing by Richard Serra exhibited in 2017 at the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam.

He attended the meeting in Rotterdam accompanied by his wife, Clara Weyergraf, who survives him. With her, his companion since 1981, he divided his days between New York, Long Island and Cape Breton, an enclave on the Atlantic coast of Canada, which has served as a refuge for other key artists of the New York avant-garde such as Philip Glass or Joan Jonas, who was Serra’s partner in the seventies. That day in Rotterdam, another port city, like Bilbao, he had written down his ideas on a piece of paper, so as not to forget anything he wanted to say. “My drawings do not impose a discourse, nor do they pretend to be a representation,” he warned. “I don’t want them to serve as a metaphor, or evoke something pre-existing. His task is to refute language knowing that this is impossible; We interpret everything through him. That is ultimately the ultimate function of abstraction: to refute superficial readings.”

A couple of weeks after the Dutch meeting, he did something that they say he used to do: send an email to the journalist to qualify his arguments in the context of a discussion about the political usefulness of creation, during which he assured that “the best “Art is intrinsically useless.” “There are two positions an artist can take; “engage politically or respond to his own internal needs,” he wrote then. “Both options were clearly represented by (Jean Paul) Sartre and (Theodor) Adorno. The first took the path of politics, Adorno opted to individually articulate his own aesthetics, divorced from ideology, in something that he, in his own way, understood as a form of political resistance. “I have always leaned towards Adorno’s option.”

'East-West/West-East', sculpture by Richard Serra in the Dukhan Desert, west of Doha, capital of Qatar.
‘East-West/West-East’, sculpture by Richard Serra in the Dukhan Desert, west of Doha, capital of Qatar.IVAN PISARENKO (AFP via Getty Images)

The origin of that discussion was in the criticism of his last great work, at least in ambition: a 2014 installation of four monoliths in the Qatari desert that he titled East-West/West-East. Despite being a sought-after creator, he liked to show himself as an artist away from the market and that day he did it again. Business, he warned, had spoiled contemporary art, and most particularly, the New York scene. He blamed the generation following his own for this, the one that, led by Jeff Koons, embraced money without shame in the 1980s.

In recent years, he tried to keep the fact that he had cancer a secret, and asked journalists to do so. For those who knew him well, this attitude was nothing more than another demonstration of his stubborn personality. That of that boy who saw large masses of metal fly in the port of San Francisco and ended up creating his own universe from the steel that formed the landscape of his childhood.

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