Richard Serra, master of large-scale sculpture, dies aged 85

Artist Richard Serra, whose monumental abstract sculptures transformed museums, public spaces and even entire landscapes, has died aged 85.

The American sculptor died from pneumonia at his home in New York on Tuesday, the New York Times first reported. His lawyer John Silberman confirmed the details to CNN.

Across his six-decade career, Serra established himself as one of the most celebrated artists in postwar America.

Working primarily with steel — often twisted into evocative shapes and oxidized to achieve a distinctive deep orange palette — Serra was known for large-scale sculptures designed not only to be observed but to be explored, experienced and felt. His site-specific creations, whether carved into a grassy field or permanently installed in the Guggenheim Museum’s outpost in Bilbao, also invited viewers to engage with their surroundings in new ways.

In 2005, the Guggenheim Museum's outpost in Bilbao, Spain, permanently installed eight major works by Serra. - Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In 2005, the Guggenheim Museum's outpost in Bilbao, Spain, permanently installed eight major works by Serra. - Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

A tribute posted to the Guggenheim’s Instagram account on Tuesday said that Serra’s work “reshaped our perceptions of space and form and redefined the connection between viewer and artwork.” The statement added: “Beyond the sheer scale and grandeur of his creations, Serra’s artistic vision was rooted in a deep understanding of the relationship between art, architecture, and the environment.”

Born in San Francisco, California in 1938, Serra was exposed to his signature material early in life: The son of a shipyard pipe fitter, he worked at steel mills to support his studies at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Barbara. In the early 1960s, Serra studied painting at Yale and befriended many of the medium’s modern greats, including Philip Guston and Robert Rauschenberg, though he seemed to yearn for a third dimension and materials beyond paint or canvas.

After studying and traveling in Europe, Serra moved to New York and began working on sculptures made from rubber and fiberglass. His early minimalist experimentations with metal saw him splashing molten lead into the corners of rooms and precariously leaning steel objects against one another.

Two of the four steel slabs that Serra erected in Qatar as part of the 2014 installation "East-West/West-East." - Mustafa Abumunes/AFP/Getty Images
Two of the four steel slabs that Serra erected in Qatar as part of the 2014 installation "East-West/West-East." - Mustafa Abumunes/AFP/Getty Images

His sense of scale grew even more ambitious in the 1970s — and so, too, did the settings he was invited to work in. Forging or rolling steel into plates and curved slabs, he began producing larger works that reimagined the spaces in which they were installed.

As a result, Serra started attracting high-profile public commissions. Among the best known was the 120-foot-long “Tilted Arc,” installed at New York’s Federal Plaza in 1981 before being dismantled eight years later following complaints (and a public hearing) over its impact on public space. Critics disliked the fact that pedestrians had to circumvent the sculpture in order to cross the plaza. But this epitomized Serra’s approach to art: His work was intended to engage, not be admired from afar.

In the decades that followed, Serra was asked to create site-specific sculptures in locations — indoors and out, urban and rural — around the world.

A museum employee walks through Richard Serra's "Two Corner Cut: High Low" at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. - Elizabeth Conley/AP
A museum employee walks through Richard Serra's "Two Corner Cut: High Low" at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. - Elizabeth Conley/AP

In downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the Serra Sculpture Park serves as a 1.14-acre outdoor gallery for a room-like space he constructed from eight thick, steel panels. At New Zealand’s Gibbs Farm, Serra’s 844-foot-long “Te Tuhirangi Contour” carves through the green landscape like a huge rusted ribbon.

A nature reserve in Qatar, a traffic island in Bochum, Germany and an entrance to London’s Liverpool Street train station are among some of the numerous other public spaces reshaped by his distinctive vision.

Serra was equally at home in architectural and institutional spaces. As with his outdoor works, temporary installations at prestigious locations, from the Grand Palais in Paris to London’s Tate Gallery, invited museum-goers to walk through — and among — his creations. Wherever his sculptures were installed, materiality, texture and the visitor’s experience seemed to trump metaphor or allusion.

Museum visitors walk among the cubic forms of Serra's sculpture "Equal" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2020. - John Minchillo/AP
Museum visitors walk among the cubic forms of Serra's sculpture "Equal" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2020. - John Minchillo/AP

Serra was the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2007 and won several major awards throughout his lifetime, including a National Arts Award. He also received overseas honors, from countries including Japan, Spain and Germany, and was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in 2015.

Serra is survived by his wife, the art historian Clara Weyergraf.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com