Redefining Sculpture Is Richard Serra's Goal ; Richard Serra, the Subject of Two New Exhibitions, Chats about the Role of Public Art

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A Richard Serra sculpture is not always an easy experience. Most famous over the nearly half century of his career for the towering, metal shapes that have graced civic spaces from Tokyo to New York to Bilbao, Spain, he specializes in the monumental, the breathtaking, and the surprising. His deceptively unfettered, simple metal walls that cut through public walkways and plazas have confounded some while delighting others. This sheer physicality of his sculptures force passersby to approach the space with a new awareness.

But make no mistake. Like him or detest him, it's impossible to ignore Mr. Serra's work when you are in its presence.

On the occasion of not one, but two new West Coast installations - one at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center, another at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center at UCLA - Serra sat down with the Weekend section to discuss the role of public art in the US today.

"Public sculpture used to have a code," says the San Francisco native, who acquired his early metalworking experience during a stint in a steel factory. "There was a given iconography written into the way we worshiped our heroes. Public sculpture had to do with the depiction of a historical time or event."

As the artists of the 20th century began to challenge that function, Serra says, the concerns began to change. "Once the work came down from its pedestal and became organized in relation to its present time and space, it began to challenge architecture in a way that it hadn't before."

The biggest challenge for artists who work in the public arena today has to do with public expectations, says Serra. "The culture hasn't developed the kind of individual sensibilities in each of us to respond to new aesthetic questions," he says. Art, he says, has less approval than entertainment, which our culture is more comfortable experiencing in public spaces.

The goal of most public art, he says, has been to decorate or embellish the space, what he calls "corporate baubles for the prestige of the corporate donor." He avers that sculpture should redefine the space - in the context of the site in which it exists.

Serra would like to see government take the lead in encouraging more public understanding and value for art, the kind that raises questions rather than merely entertains. …