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Richard Serra: Man of Steel 

Richard Serra: Man of Steel

Richard Serra: Man of Steel

Posted: Tuesday, 25th November 2008

He is, says Glenn D. Lowry of MoMA, ‘one of the giants.’ Painter Chuck Close says ‘he’s probably the most important artist working today in any medium.’ The critic Robert Hughes writes that he “is not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the 21st century.”

He is Richard Serra: creator of enormous, immediately identifiable steel sculptures that terrify, captivate and bewilder. In tonight’s Imagine, he discusses his life and work.

As a child growing up in San Francisco, Serra tells us how he would draw pictures in order to get his parents attention. A teacher at school spotted his talent, pinned his pictures on the classroom walls and called his mother in to school to explain that his talent should be encouraged. As Serra recalls, “my mother took it very, very seriously and decided at that point whenever she would introduce me, she would introduce me as ‘Richard her son the artist.’ So in some sense it was predestined.’

In the film, Alan Yentob meets Serra at the Grand Palais in Paris to discuss the thought processes that lead him to create his lauded installation, ‘Promenade.’ He recalls being in Paris as a young student, finding a friend in budding composer Philip Glass. Together, they would visit La Coupole at night to star-spot Giacometti and Beckett. The sight of Giacometti, plaster-splattered after a day at work in the studio, was an inspirational sight to the young Serra, who had been planning on painting.

Serra discusses everything from his early sculptural experiments with rubber and lead through to the steel pieces for which he is best known. We discuss his landscape works with him as he installs a sculpture in a Provencal vineyard at the height of summer, hoisting huge steel plates high into the bright blue sky, and discuss his drawings as he installs an exhibition of them in Austria.

Central to Serra’s output is the idea that each viewer creates the sculpture for themselves by being within it and responding to it. As he says, “If you have an object on a pedestal and it is inscribed with a particular form, you know that it is a dog, or a cat, or a bunny rabbit … these pieces are not about that. Everybody will derive a different meaningfulness in terms of how they experience the what. And the ‘what’ really is their subjectivity. Without their subjectivity there is no work.’

To this end we meet a David Stocker, an enthusiastic Parisian jogger who runs through a curving Serra in the Tuileries to boost his energy; the Veno family who explain how ‘Promenade’ reminds them of the Temples of their native Kyoto; Jimmy Demetriou, a Londoner who finds sanctuary in the huge Serra near Liverpool Street station; and, most movingly, Martin Weiss, a Holocaust Survivor who sees a steel monolith as a wall that separates the living from the dead. “It does speak to you,” says Mr Weiss, “if you just give yourself a chance to contemplate.”

Contributors include Chuck Close, Philip Glass and Glenn D. Lowry, Director of MoMA.

Richard Serra, Man of Steel:
Tuesday 25th November, BBC1, 10.35pm

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