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Molten magnificence: how Richard Serra’s giant steel sculptures bent time and space

The American’s mighty masterpieces – straight, curved or set at thrilling angles – ****** everyone nearby into their mysterious gravity. Our critic pays tribute to art’s legendary man of steel

What could seem more out of step or more timeless than Richard Serra’s work – with its obdurate metal blocks and curving steel walls that can feel as threatening as the side of a ship that curls above you as you flounder beneath? Serra’s sculptures are about as precarious as Stonehenge: they might last for centuries or even millennia – or fall and crush you to death in an instant. It is as if they were oblivious to human scale and the length of a human life. But without us, they are just ruins, remnants of overarching ambition. Most of them would survive our ending but there would be no one to witness them. There’s the paradox. Serra’s mighty works are nothing without us.

Le Corbusier’s architecture and early Morandi still lifes, Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of vacant city squares and Giacometti’s figures standing still and walking; Georges Seurat’s conte crayon gradations and elegant atomised forms whose edges seem about to dissolve – they are all somewhere in Serra’s formation, created in a career that lasted more than 60 years. In many ways, he was a very European American artist. Serra, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, was a daunting, fascinating artist. He made me think differently about space and sculpture – and about looking. Serra can make us feel physically and psychologically vulnerable, even though scaring us was never part of the point. Beyond all the analysis and critique, Serra’s sculpture is just there, like a rock or a cathedral.

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