Richard Serra made us giddy and afraid

Richard Serra made modern sculpture exciting. He did it by creating the feeling that it might fall on you.

Facetious as that may sound, it’s somewhere near the heart of what made Serra, who died Tuesday at 85, both a wonderful artist and intermittently vulnerable to accusations that he was a bully.

If you don’t find his works beautiful, you could easily hate them for being ugly, imposing and in-your-face. But attitudes toward modern art — even minimalist sculpture — changed enormously over Serra’s lifetime, and he personally played a role in converting millions of people to the possibilities of abstract sculpture. After years of operating as an edgy, uncompromising avant-gardist, he began to make things that, losing none of their toughness — and only growing in ambition — were undeniably seductive, dazzlingly original and just very cool.

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I don’t know what he was like to work with, but as an artist, he was no bully. Rather, he was a physicist. He wanted you to know, and to feel in your bones, that weight isn’t just a thing — it’s a force. It’s mass times acceleration.

As such, it carries an inherent threat.

Sculpture, for Serra, wasn’t just something over there — passive and separate. It was right here, all around us. And it wasn’t just active, it was involving.

A pioneer of process art, Serra loved verbs — action words like twist and roll — and spent part of his early career thinking about materials in terms of what he could do with them (as opposed to what they would become once things had been done to them).

But he also came to love nouns. And you can’t talk about Serra without tossing around big heavy nouns — words that most of us would never otherwise use but which make you feel suddenly tough just uttering. Cor-Ten steel and antimonial lead, for instance.

Serra used antimonial lead (an alloy which makes soft lead very hard) for “One Ton Prop” (1969) a key piece from his early mature period. The sculpture was four pieces of lead leaning against each other like the walls of a card house. No welding. No plinth. Nothing propping them up except each other.

“One Ton Prop” proposed a strange — and strangely intimidating — new way to think of sculpture. It was physical — emphatically so. But it was also psychological. It involved you in ways that had nothing to do with stories or sentimentality but that somehow went beyond pure form. “One Ton Prop” — like a lot of Serra sculptures — was about as ingratiating as a sewer cover, but it induced fear and giddy excitement, and you wanted to linger with it.

Most people’s favorite Serras — and mine too — are the ones he made after “One Ton Prop.” For the enormous, bending, exquisitely balanced sculptures he called Torqued Ellipses, he used Cor-Ten steel. Sometimes used for the prows of ships, Cor-Ten is weathering steel, protected from corrosion, which changes color in the open air. There, it takes on seductive shades of orange and textures as rich and streaky as the surface of Gerhard Richter paintings.

The colors and textures (and the spiderwebs and other marks of the organic world they can play host to) are important. They pull you in to the sculptures’ surfaces, even as you’re conscious of your body’s relationship to something that is overwhelmingly large — almost too big to grasp, and definitely too big to explain.

Engaging with them reduces the brain to the status of a six-year-old tugging at the sleeve of an adult with a checklist of unanswerable questions: How do these things stay upright? How were they made? How did they even get here?

The engineering behind Serra’s late works was indeed mind-blowing. But the pleasure of his greatest creations is afforded by a sensation of the mind giving up, and the body yielding. He dealt out stimulants to sublimity like a croupier dealing aces.

Serra was a practitioner — I would say the greatest — of what was sometimes called “walk-in modernism.” That’s to say, you don’t just admire his sculptures from afar. You walk into and out of them. Looming over you, they close in on you, then veer away from you. And they make you conscious of time as you make your way through, along or around them.

They sometimes induce vertigo. But they’re also remarkably liberating. You can come out of them with feelings of secret and victorious expansion, as if you were Theseus after slaying the Minotaur.

Serra’s sculptures fulfilled the primary purpose of minimalist sculpture — making you acutely self-conscious of yourself in relation to the thing you’re looking at or walking around. But they did something more. They challenged and seduced with psychology and undeniable emotion. They turned nouns into verbs, things into actions, and stray thoughts into lasting feelings.

Placed outdoors, they aren’t merely sculptures, of course. They do double duty as architecture, landscape design, urban planning. Ways of ordering space, in other words, often on a large scale.

It’s true that some of Serra’s outdoor sculptures prevent you getting from A to B, and that this has sometimes proved controversial. In the art world, an air of legend lingers like romantic fog over the “Tilted Arc” affair. Serra’s rude division of an open plaza in Manhattan with an enormous, hostile-looking steel arc, 120 feet long and twice the height of most humans, was one of the last moments of meaningful tension between public opinion and an uncompromising artistic avant-garde. In the end, the work came down.

Works like “Tilted Arc” made it easy to dislike Serra for being domineering. I can appreciate that line of thought, and I’m happy that there are other kinds of art, keyed to transience and delicacy, art with a light and poetic touch. But I love what Serra achieved. In fact, I’m in awe of it. At the Guggenheim Bilbao, at Glenstone, at SF MoMA and in St. Louis — in so many places around the world — Serra’s adamantine sculptures act on you. And they activate everything around them. Life quickens in their presence. We have lost a great artist, but we have not lost that quickening.

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