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Richard Serra is carrying the weight of the world

His sculptures need so much space that buildings were bought to show them.

Serra with his sculpture Combined and Separated, consisting of 50-tonne forged-steel rounds, which will be on display in his upcoming show at Gagosian Gallery’s 24th Street location.

New York

WHAT do we talk about when we talk about sculpture? Not pounds or kilogrammes, for sure. It hardly deepens our view of Giacometti's spindly figures or Calder's light-as-air mobiles, or even the pioneering brown-hued Guitar that Picasso assembled from sheet metal, to know they weigh, say, 50 or 60 or 100 pounds.

But Richard Serra, unlike his modernist forebears, counts pounds. "This is my heaviest show ever," he said with a hint of pride, when we met recently in his studio. It was an August weekend, and the streets of Tribeca, where he lives and works in a six-storey brick building, had emptied out. The 80-year-old artist was preparing for a somewhat crazed fall season. Three exhibitions of his new work will open simultaneously, in mid-September, at the Gagosian Gallery's spaces in Chelsea and on the Upper East Side.

Add to that the unveiling of a not-slight piece at the Museum of Modern Art. Equal (2015), a room-sized assembly of eight 40-tonne forged-steel blocks that together weigh more than a Boeing 777, will occupy its own gallery in the new David Geffen Wing when the museum reopens on Oct 21.

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Serra, the best-known living sculptor in America, might seem out of step with our increasingly virtual world. In an age when visual satisfactions scroll by on Instagram in seconds, he revels in the physical - enshrining abstract forms as maximalist feats of mass and scale. Tellingly, his medium is steel, whose production in this country peaked in the middle of the 20th century.

Serra remains famous for a sculpture that no longer exists. Tilted Arc, a great broad swath of steel, once bisected the plaza outside the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. It spawned more than a few negative reviews from people who found it hulking and oppressive, and wanted it removed. In 1989, after nearly a decade of debate, the sculpture was dismantled and hauled off to a storage garage in Brooklyn.

The artist, who at the time likened the loss of his sculpture to a death in the family, these days refuses to waste any more time thinking about it. "The government has it," he said, when asked the work's whereabouts. "It's their property, and they destroyed it."

According to the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that commissioned the piece, the sculpture is in Alexandria, Virginia, in three parts. Its components are "preserved as artifacts of what was formerly known as Tilted Arc," a spokesman said. The GSA declined a request to let the Times photograph the "artifacts" for this article.

But even in its dismantled condition, Tilted Arc continues to distort Serra's reputation, fostering an image of an artist who set out to taunt the public. It is true that his great innovation was to redefine sculpture by making it look less like a polished object on a pedestal than an off-putting incursion into the viewer's space.

On the other hand, not nearly enough has been said about the protective or sheltering aspect of Serra's work. His sculptures often contain openings that allow you to enter them and linger unseen, to hide. It is as if Serra is trying to bridge two poles, to create an aura of danger and then banish it in short order.

Over the years, Serra has placed more than 100 commissioned sculptures from Philadelphia, St Louis and São Paulo to the deserts of Doha. His sculptures belong to two basic categories. His forged pieces consolidate steel into masses of unrivalled denseness, while his plate-steel pieces tend to be lighter and more lyrical.

These include his playful Torqued Ellipse series, looming ovoid structures whose rust-hued, orangey- brown walls turn and twist. The best ones - on long-term view at the Dia Foundation in Beacon, New York, and at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain - can be almost flirty in their wanton curviness.

Not that Serra would agree with much of this. He is opposed to viewing his sculptures as an expression of his interior life and insists that any metaphors that they suggest are accidental and wholly irrelevant. He prefers to believe in the untranslatable quality of his materials, as if there are "no ideas but in things", to borrow a line from poet William Carlos Williams.

As Serra says: "If you're dealing with abstract art, you have to deal with the work in and of itself and its inherent properties. The focus is mainly on mass, weight, material, gravity and so on."

Born on Nov 2, 1938 , Serra spent most of his childhood on the western edge of San Francisco, in a development that was so new it had tall dunes in place of tidy front yards. The family's stucco house was five blocks from the water, on a slight hill. "I could look out of my bedroom window and see ships go by," Serra recalled.

For Serra's fifth birthday, his father took him to the Marin shipyards as a treat. Later, recalling the experience in a page-long statement titled Weight, Serra adopts a steel-plated oil tanker as his Proustian madelein. It was a new tanker, and he and his father watched the launch with a cheering throng as the boat slid into the sea, transformed, as he wrote, "from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat and adrift".

In a startling coincidence, Mark di Suvero, the future sculptor, lived two houses down from the Serra household. Looking back, di Suvero, who turns 86 this month, recalled long, riotous afternoons when he and a young Serra played in the dunes, skidding down them on flat cardboard, having to empty their shoes of sand before their mothers let them back into the house. Their relationship, however, was not completely harmonious. "Our dogs would fight," di Suvero recalled with amusement. "I had a dog, they got a dog, and his father would say, 'Let them fight!'"

Serra arrived at Yale strong as a graduate student, after earning a BA in English literature from the University of California, at Santa Barbara. Settling in New York in 1966, he quickly found his way to the centre of the avant-garde. Minimalism was the leading style, and Serra became acquainted with its exponents, including Robert Morris, who invited him to participate in a group show at the prestigious Castelli Gallery.

But in contrast to the crisp geometry of the minimalists, with their reflective aluminium skins (Donald Judd), fluorescent lights (Dan Flavin) and Fiberglass L-beams (Robert Morris), Serra tried to get "down and dirty", as he says now; he wanted to turn closed, tightly sealed forms inside out.

To this end, he compiled a now-historic Verb List that itemised, in two neat, cursive columns, 54 manual actions that you can do with art materials (eg "to scatter", "to weave", "to stretch"). He then set out to enact them. He experimented with lead, a non-art material that he learned about from composer Philip Glass, who moonlighted as a plumber.

Serra's "splash pieces" were nothing if not hot. He heated sheets of lead in a cauldron and, using a ladle, splashed the molten metal at the base of walls. Then he let it harden into long, ragged-edged metal casts that lay on the floor and did not look much like sculpture.

In 1969, Jasper Johns, who was an early devotee of the casting process, invited Serra to create one of his splash pieces in his studio on Houston Street. "I felt like I had been tapped on the head by the pope," Serra recalls, adding that he credits Johns for helping him see how an artwork can enshrine the incremental steps of its making. Years later, when Johns sold his building, he donated Serra's sculpture - or, rather permission to re-create it - to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it resides with the title, Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift.

Another of Serra's early masterwork, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), from 1969, consists of an imposing four-foot cube whose lead-plate sides remain unwelded - they are literally unhinged. A painting cannot be unpainted, and a marble sculpture cannot be uncarved.

But Serra's "prop pieces" can come apart at the seams in less than two seconds. One Ton Prop combines the satisfactions of geometric abstraction with the frisson that derives from hoping that a slab of lead does not topple over onto your foot.

His work demands so much space that entire buildings have been purchased to exhibit it. Larry Gagosian, who first showed Serra's work in 1983, confirmed that he acquired 555 West 24th Street with Serra in mind. "It had the massive garage-door access where you can drive a huge truck in."

Forged Rounds, which will open there on Sept 17, is the show that Serra had described to me as his heaviest ever. One morning, when it was partially installed, we met at the gallery to see it. It consists of four massive sculptures composed from 21 forged-steel "rounds" or cylindrical drums, and part of its fascination lies in the perceptual riddle that allows rounds of varying dimensions - some the height of tables, others tall enough to take cover behind - to each weigh precisely 50 tonnes.

That sum happens to reflect weight limitations imposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "If they're 50 tonnes, they can go over the George Washington Bridge," Serra said of his sculptures, which are trucked into Manhattan from the port in Bayonne, New Jersey. "If they're 75 tonnes, they can't."

Taken together, the group of rounds can put you in mind of a shipyard or a well-defended military field with concrete pillboxes extending into the distance. The bulkiness is startling. But their surfaces yield up surprisingly delicate effects, with rosy pinks glowing beneath cracked and blistered grey skins. NYTIMES