A Richard Serra sculpture is not always an easy experience. Most famous over the nearly half century of his career for the towering, metal shapes that have graced civic spaces from Tokyo to New York to Bilbao, Spain, he specializes in the monumental, the breathtaking, and the surprising. His deceptively unfettered, simple metal walls that cut through public walkways and plazas have confounded some while delighting others. This sheer physicality of his sculptures force passersby to approach the space with a new awareness.
But make no mistake. Like him or detest him, it's impossible to ignore Mr. Serra's work when you are in its presence.
On the occasion of not one, but two new West Coast installations – one at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center, another at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center at UCLA – Serra sat down with the Weekend section to discuss the role of public art in the US today.
"Public sculpture used to have a code," says the San Francisco native, who acquired his early metalworking experience during a stint in a steel factory. "There was a given iconography written into the way we worshiped our heroes. Public sculpture had to do with the depiction of a historical time or event."
As the artists of the 20th century began to challenge that function, Serra says, the concerns began to change. "Once the work came down from its pedestal and became organized in relation to its present time and space, it began to challenge architecture in a way that it hadn't before."
The biggest challenge for artists who work in the public arena today has to do with public expectations, says Serra. "The culture hasn't developed the kind of individual sensibilities in each of us to respond to new aesthetic questions," he says. Art, he says, has less approval than entertainment, which our culture is more comfortable experiencing in public spaces.
The goal of most public art, he says, has been to decorate or embellish the space, what he calls "corporate baubles for the prestige of the corporate donor." He avers that sculpture should redefine the space – in the context of the site in which it exists.
Serra would like to see government take the lead in encouraging more public understanding and value for art, the kind that raises questions rather than merely entertains. He points to a few administrations in recent history, such as the Kennedy White House, that encouraged artists to play this role.
"If you go to France, there is great reverence for the arts. The same is true in Spain, even Mexico," he says, warming to his theme. "This country treats its artists in a different way, unless they find them useful to hobnob with and help raise money. But the sensibility is not there to encourage the potential for the growth of serious art."
Often viewed as confrontational or belligerent for his views, Serra has mellowed in recent years, says Edward Goldman, art critic for the local NPR affiliate, KCRW. "Something in him and his art has changed from being antagonistic. You always have tension in front of great art, but in the past it was almost like he was asking for it."
Serra gained national notoriety in 1989 when his "Tilted Arc, 1981," the large, metal curtain sited in a Lower Manhattan plaza, was removed in response to public criticism. "He forced people to walk an extra hundred feet around it and they hated it," says Mr. Goldman.
The sculptor's most recent work shows a more graceful, undulating quality, which is irresistible, says Goldman, who calls Serra the most important artist working in the public realm today.
"You enter into the spaces they create, and your sense of space changes imperceptibly," he says. The rich materials and the walls bearing in on the viewer, "all affect you emotionally," says the art critic.
Serra says he has watched young people approach his new work on the UCLA campus, titled "T.E.U.C.L.A.," and he is happy to see them engage with it.
"These are the sensibilities we need to nourish," he says, adding that he appreciates the donors who absorb the considerable costs of his massive public creations.
Given the public attitude toward the arts right now, adds the artist, "I'm grateful that my works are still going up, because, hopefully, it encourages the process of thinking and getting people to ask questions."