Artist's Dossier: Richard Serra

In 1967 Richard Serra famously compiled a list of verbs—to hurl, to split, to roll, to heap—which he then enacted through sculpture. From early experiments splashing molten lead against his studio walls through his decades-long engagement with steel, the emphasis on material and process has translated into vigorous artworks that are equally demanding of their spaces and viewers.

Fittingly for an artist who is notoriously uncompromising, Serra’s output does not conform to market barometers. “Richard doesn’t produce for the market,” says Alexander von Berswordt, of Galerie m in Bochum, Germany, who has represented the artist in Europe since 1975.

Despite early patronage from Leo Castelli (his main dealer in the ’70s and ’80s) and Emily and Joseph Pulitzer, sales were slim until the mid-1980s, the time of Serra’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the 1990s, exhibitions of increasingly large work confirmed the notion that Serra may be the foremost living sculptor. Still, because of the scale of his art, his market remains unorthodox.

Museum and private commissions take up much of Serra’s time, and he is very selective. He has completed 13 in the last five years, including The Matter of Time (2005), a permanent installation of eight sculptures scaled from 12- to 14-feet high and weighing from 44 to 276 tons, at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Such site-specific works can’t be accommodated by many museums, never mind most homes. For sculptures acquired as part of MoMA’s permanent collection, late curator Kirk Varnedoe insisted on weight-bearing floors and created a door for craning in works. The Gagosian gallery in New York became Serra’s primary dealer in 1991 after opening a SoHo space with large entryways and a supported foundation. “It wasn’t until we opened on Wooster Street that we could physically show Richard’s work,” says Ealan Wingate, director of Gagosian’s Chelsea branch.

When a large outdoor piece came up for sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2001, the salesroom couldn’t house the work. Interested buyers were given viewings of the untitled, 1984 curved steel wall at the home of a collector in Connecticut. It sold for $1.2 million, the auction record for Serra.

“I’d expect it to sell for more if it came up now,” says Leslie Prouty, a senior specialist in Sotheby’s contemporary art department, though, she admits, potential buyers would also have to factor in rigging costs.

The circumstances aren’t drastically different for noncommissioned sculpture: some 40 pieces over the past decade, among them the “Torqued Ellipses,” towering plates of bent steel that were introduced in 1997 to much acclaim, and the austere linear blocks in “Rolled and Forged” (recently on view at Gagosian in Chelsea). The works—each unique as Serra does not make editions—currently sell for $3 million to $5 million.

According to von Berswordt, material production, installation and shipping costs account for about one-third of the price. The sculptures require major commitments, so in many cases, Wingate says, buyers purchase with the intent to donate: “Most of the time, they are put in public spaces.”

Serra also makes relatively small, though remarkably heavy, sculptures. The most sought after are the “Prop” pieces from the late 1960s, arranged so that weight and gravity balance lead rolls and sheets. “The lead pieces are very important and hardly available,” says von Berswordt, who has two in his inventory designated for sale to public institutions.

“It’s been a long time since truly great and relatively manageable sculpture has come up,” echoes Robert Manley, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s New York. “A classic 1960s sculpture could easily sell for a million if not more.”

Instead less iconic examples from later years surface, resulting in figures that may seem low for an artist of Serra’s stature. A smaller sculpture from 1995, Zappa, sold at Christie’s New York in November 2001 for $446,000, against an estimate of $350–450,000. Still the price is the second highest for any Serra work at auction.

More recently, Corner Diamond, a 1986 steel cube estimated at $400–600,000, was bought in at Christie’s New York in May 2005. “The auction results are misleading,” says Manley. “He’s one of the most sought-after sculptors of his generation, so people aren’t eager to sell, and he doesn’t make many modestly scaled works that are easily traded on the secondary market.”

Only six of Serra’s top 20 auction prices are for sculpture; the rest are for his works on paper. In part, the latter appeal to collectors because they’re easier to manage and more available; however, Manley notes, they are regarded as a “fully realized and independent body of work with aesthetic integrity.”

Wingate pinpoints the 1994 “Weight and Measure Drawings” show at the Drawing Center in New York as a turning point in the development of Serra’s works on paper. “You sensed that these no longer represented sculpture but referred exclusively to the way black-oil stick sat on that surface, how lines accumulated to make that density, the way you felt when you saw that weight.” Single sheets sell for around $75–125,000 at Gagosian and Galerie m, and command more on the secondary market.

December and Reflect, both circular oil-stick works from 2001, sold for $144,000 each (against $70–90,000) estimates at Christie’s New York in May 2006 and November 2005, respectively. The 1999 paint-stick-on-Hiromi-paper work Out-of-Round X, which was available through Acquavella Galleries in New York, quickly sold for $300,000 at the gallery’s booth during Art Basel Miami Beach last December. Next month Christie’s is offering Finkl-Forge, a 1991 oil stick on paper estimated at $120–180,000.

Serra’s prints appeal to his ardent buyers. Since 1972, with publisher Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, he has released 170 different prints, 120 of them since 1990. “He may be the most prolific sculptor making prints,” says Gemini director Sidney Felsen.

Next summer MoMA’s retrospective of Serra’s mammoth sculptures will show how he has mined material and process to produce radical new forms. It will likely raise his profile even more, but there’s no telling how the market will respond.

"Market File: Richard Serra" was originally published in the October 2006 issue of Art + Auction Magazine.