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David and Art - Richard Serra

Remembering a sculptor whose work showed how assertive art can be.

"Confrontational" is not usually a word that's associated with art. Artists aren't usually described that way either. Can art be confrontational? Well yes, it can be, and that's not necessarily a condemnation. When it's done well, a confrontational work of art can be absolutely transformative. It can change the way you think about art itself.

There was one American artist who, more than anyone else, regularly had that label associated with him, and with his work. Richard Serra was born in San Francisco in 1938. His father was from Spain and his mother was Ukrainian and Jewish. His father worked in a shipyard in the Bay Area and one of Richard's earliest memories was of watching a big ship being launched into the bay and floating gracefully despite its weight.

He went off to college at UC Santa Barbara intending to be an English major, but while there, fell in love with art. After graduation in 1961 he went to Yale to study art. He was interested in becoming a painter but gave that up when he went to Europe and came to feel like he would never be as skilled as the old masters. He turned to sculpture.

Serious artists in the 1960s were pushing the boundaries in all directions, trying to figure out new ways and new materials for artistic expression. When Serra moved to NYC he began using materials like rubber, lead, and latex. The malleable quality of lead intrigued him, and he began to make sculptures in a way similar to how Jackson Pollock made his drip paintings, using molten lead instead of paint. Behind this too was a fascination with how gravity effected materials. Soon he was making sculptures that were basically propped-up forms depending on themselves and balance to keep from collapsing: In a sense, defying gravity and confronting the viewer with a work that could be thought of as on the verge of falling to pieces with just a nudge.

His 1969 piece One Ton Prop: House of Cards was something of a breakthrough: four steel plates weighing one ton that were standing up solely because they were balanced against each other. It was a striking combination of the weight of the steel and the gracefulness of balance in defiance of that weight. It was what he saw when he watched that big ship slide into the water decades earlier.

Serra died from pneumonia at his home on Long Island in New York on March 26. He was 85.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.