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Looking back on the life and legacy of sculptor Richard Serra

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Artist Richard Serra, known for his monumental sculptures made out of gracefully curved sheets of metal, died at his home on Long Island yesterday. He was 85 years old. NPR's Chloe Veltman has this appreciation.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Richard Serra's massive metal structures engulf the senses. Their high, undulating metal walls are both intimidating and inviting. You want to touch them. And in many cases, you can. But they look dangerously weathered and rusty. And when they're close together, the experience of walking between them can be both immersive and, if you talk, sing, or play music as you do it, wild on the ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAXOPHONE PLAYING)

VELTMAN: Musician Avram Fefer performed a concert in and around the Serra sculpture "NJ-1" at Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2016. Serra's works are so heavy and huge, some institutions around the world have been designed or redesigned specifically to accommodate them. Sarah Roberts is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's head of planning (ph) and sculpture.

SARAH ROBERTS: We had to shut down the street outside the building.

VELTMAN: She's talking about installing Serra's "Sequence" in 2016.

ROBERTS: We had to remove the giant glass walls outside of that gallery. We had to take down the bus electricity lines and have special riggers in order to move these pieces in.

VELTMAN: But Roberts says the tremendous effort involved in working with Serra was always worth it.

ROBERTS: I don't think there's any other artist who worked with the level of ambition, exactness and vision, really, to create something on a - just a magnificent scale that changes human experience.

VELTMAN: Richard Serra was born in 1938, in San Francisco. The son of a pipefitter at the shipyards, he grew up watching vast steel tankers come and go. He worked as a young man in local steel mills to pay for college in California and then went on to study fine art at Yale. He moved to New York in the mid-1960s, where he began making art from industrial materials, especially metal.

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RICHARD SERRA: I started as a kid in the steel mills, and in some sense, I've never left.

VELTMAN: That's Serra on NPR in 1986. The artist's pieces inspired both critical acclaim and fierce controversy. A worker died while installing one of Serra's works at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1971. And in the 1980s, residents and workers in Lower Manhattan campaigned to have Serra's public artwork, "Tilted Arc," removed.

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SHIRLEY PARIS: And if you wouldn't see the name with that title, "Tilted Arc" or whatever, you wouldn't know that it was a work of art.

VELTMAN: Government worker Shirley Paris voiced her disgruntlement at the 12-foot-high, 120-foot-long construction of brown, weathered steel to NPR in 1985.

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PARIS: It looks like in the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. People come in, and they have to walk around this thing.

VELTMAN: There were hearings. Serra threatened to leave the country if "Tilted Arc" was taken down. But his detractors won, and the work was dismantled. The artist ended up staying put in New York regardless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VELTMAN: Serra didn't only create hulking, industrial monoliths during his long career. He also made films, like "Television Delivers People." In the 1973 short, elevator music plays as lines critiquing corporate mass media scroll down the screen like credits from a TV show. And Richard Serra also loved to draw, as he told the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in a 2011 video.

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SERRA: I make drawings almost always - almost every day.

VELTMAN: Serra said, for him, drawing is like a language. It's a way to think.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCONUT RECORDS AND WOODY JACKSON'S "DAKOTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.