IS Richard Serra America's greatest living sculptor? As his massive steel abstractions have risen from Bilbao, Spain, to San Francisco, many critics have come to think so. Best known for curvilinear structures with vertiginously tilting walls, he carves out great swaths of space in compelling forms that exude dangerous beauty.
But there hasn't been much evidence of his status in Southern California.
Nearly eight years have passed since a spectacular exhibition of his "Torqued Ellipse" series created a sensation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Caltech planned to acquire an undulating steel wall by Serra, with funds from philanthropist Eli Broad, but scrapped the idea in response to students who viewed the proposed artwork as an unwanted barrier.
"I haven't been too present there," Serra said, choosing his words carefully when reached by telephone at his New York studio.
That situation is changing fast. "T.E.U.C.L.A.," his first public sculpture in Southern California, was installed a couple of weeks ago in the plaza of UCLA's Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, to open Sept. 13. Funded by the Broads, who contributed $23.2 million to the art complex, the 42.5-ton work is a twisted, cylindrical enclosure comprising two 14-foot-tall steel plates.
And two other Serras are on the way. The Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa will install a 66-foot-tall tower on its plaza in mid-April. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego has ordered an assembly of six forged steel blocks for its expanded downtown facility, adjacent to the historic Santa Fe train station. That work is scheduled to go on permanent view in early June.
Together, the three public pieces will offer a multifaceted view of an artist who established himself in the 1960s and has dominated American sculpture for more than a decade. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will issue its official stamp of approval in 2007 with a sprawling retrospective exhibition -- his second at MoMA.
A long-running series
A force in person as well as in art, Serra, 66, customarily keeps a close watch over each new work. A knee replacement, done about two months ago, prevented him from traveling to Los Angeles for the UCLA project, but he plans to come to California when the other two sculptures are put in place.
"I've never missed the installation of a big piece," he said. "I would have been there if I could. I'm walking, but there was no way I could get on a plane, and I'm not allowed to walk for more than 20 minutes at a time."
"T.E.U.C.L.A." is part of the "Torqued Ellipse" series, which began in 1996 as single elliptical forms. Made of huge steel plates bent into circular sculptures with open tops, they rotate upward as they lean in or out. Viewers enter through gaps between edges of the plates, but the works are so large that it is impossible to grasp the entire structure from a single vantage point. As the series evolved, Serra began to combine curved forms in "Double Torqued Ellipses" that lead viewers around a walled walkway and into a circular opening.
"Some of the pieces were involved with a 'Torqued Ellipse' within a 'Torqued Ellipse,' " he said. "Then, as they got more complex, they even became spirals where the center drifted, so when you were walking through them you didn't know where you were going."
For UCLA, he kept the project relatively concise in a "single" that's similar to works at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Dia Art Foundation's facility in Beacon, N.Y.
"I thought I could make one that would say what I wanted to say in the most simple, abstract way," Serra said. "This piece is one of the prime movers of the whole series. It sets up the parameters of how the series spins out. Once you understand how this piece works formally when you walk inside -- that the walls are leaning toward you or away from you, and from the outside you can't discern that -- you realize that the more complex pieces started with a very reduced idea. The singles are where it started.
"One piece at Dia is probably as abstract as this," he said, "but I thought I could make this one better. That's why I did it. Basically, your work comes out of your work, and you have to analyze your work to know which move to make. I think that's how it goes for everyone."
The plaza of the Broad Center, designed by architect Richard Meier, is bordered by buildings on the north and west, a walkway on the east and the university's sculpture garden on the south. Serra selected a spot where his work can be seen close up and from a distance.
"To be able to place a piece of that kind in a public space is rare," he said of the university art-department setting. "It will have an in-built audience of people who are interested in art," he said, "and that's very gratifying."