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Richard Serra, the American artist who liked to “work on the edge of what is possible”, creating gigantic steel works on the scale of ancient monuments like Stonehenge or Egyptian tombs, has reportedly died at home in New York. He was 85 years old.

Serra’s oxidised steel works, which earned him the accolade of being the “best sculptor alive”, are housed in major collections around the world, including the Guggenheim Bilbao, where the circuitous 1,034-tonne work The Matter of Time (2005) fills the main hall. Other pieces have been commissioned and created for outdoor spaces: Qatar’s Dukhan desert, plazas in London and New York, and atop a manmade mountain of mining waste in Essen in central Germany, among many other places.

Born in San Francisco in 1938, Serra was exposed to materials such as industrial cold-rolled steel as a child. Serra’s father, who had emigrated from Spain, worked as a pipe fitter in a shipyard; his mother was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Odessa. In a 2001 interview with the former journalist and talk-show host Charlie Rose, Serra recounted how his father took him to the shipyard on his fourth birthday to watch the launch of a vessel. It was at that tender age that Serra had the inkling that “an object that heavy could become light, that that amount of tonnage could become lyrical”.

A sculptor through and through, Serra initially studied English literature, at UC Santa Barbara, working in steel mills to finance his studies. It was one of his literature professors who suggested Serra study fine art after seeing his drawings. With that, Serra gained a scholarship to study at Yale University, where he rubbed shoulders with painters including Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold and Nancy Graves—to whom Serra was married for a short while.

After a stint in Paris where he made almost daily visits to Constantin Brancusi’s reconstructed studio, Serra settled in New York. There, he began to experiment with other materials, making sculptures from rubber and molten lead. The famed dealer Leo Castelli took him on in 1966, though Serra refused to make works that were easily sellable, instead pushing for ever bigger pieces. The artist also refused to be affiliated with any particular movement, emerging as he did in the wake of Minimalism.

Despite his stature and success, winning the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2001, Serra’s public auction market has not reached such stratospheric heights, topping out at $4.3m—not altogether unsurprising given the unwieldy nature of his practice.

His career was also not without controversy. In 1975, a rigger was crushed to death when a part of one of his works being installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis accidentally came loose. An investigation found that the crane operator had not properly followed instructions, putting an end to calls from art world figures who said Serra should stop making sculpture. He was not so successful in 1985, when a public petition to remove Tilted Arc (1981) from a New York plaza led to a hearing after people complained it was an eyesore and a danger. Serra sued the US government but lost and the work was removed in 1989.

Such opinions were in the minority, however, and Serra’s popularity continued to grow. As well as winning the Golden Lion, over his lifetime Serra was recognised for his contribution to the arts with top awards from the Japanese, French, German and US governments. And the sheer audacity and monumentality of his work means he is unlikely to be forgotten. As the artist put it himself: “If you make some contribution at all, it’s very, very hard to predict, in terms of perpetuity, what’s going to last and what’s not. Let’s just say that this kind of work means that there’s a chance.”

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