Richard Serra, the son of an artist and a factory worker, was born in San Francisco in 1939. Initially he studied literature at the University of California at Berkeley, earning his B.A. degree in 1961. He supported himself by working in steel factories. In 1964 he received an M.F.A. from Yale University, working under Josef Albers. Prestigious fellowships allowed him to spend the next two years working in Europe.
Serra returned to the United States in 1966. He became part of a circle of West Coast abstract artists including Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Keith Sonnier, whose aim was to expand the perception and potential of various media. After experimenting with formations of rubber and neon tubing on walls, Serra started to incorporate the horizontal floor plane as part of his sculptural field. He soon became interested in the qualities of heavy metals and is perhaps best known for his lead prop pieces and steel plates. Often hundreds of feet long and weighing several tons, these monolithic sculptures focus on gravity, balance, and power, yet retain a certain beauty and simplicity.
Serra hoped to redefine the relationship between art and the viewer by creating space that is "discerned physically rather than optically." Although large-scale, site-specific sculptural installations in interior, exterior, and landscape settings remain his primary interest, Serra has also examined related themes in drawing, film and video, and printmaking, exploiting the specific processes and possibilities unique to each medium. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, many of Serra's large-scale sculpture commissions caused great controversy and public upheaval owing in part to their stark and unsettling presence. Serra is considered among the best artists of his generation.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]