Born in California in 1939 to Spanish and Russian parents, Serra studied painting at the University of California and Yale University School of Art and Architecture, where he paid his way by working in a steel mill.
In 1964, he moved to Paris, where he discovered the sculptures of Brancusi and Giacometti, and became fascinated with the way these artists played with gravity and scale. On returning to America in 1966, he settled in New York, becoming part of a small but enduringly influential underground art scene that included Eva Hesse, Chuck Close, Joan Jonas, the writer Spalding Gray and the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Serra believed in using the heavy-metal industrial materials of the modern age: steel, iron and lead. In 1969, he embarked on a series of ‘prop’ works in which large pieces of lead were held up by each other in a state of suspended animation. From lead he moved on to steel, partly because lead was unstable and prone to collapsing, but predominantly because it enabled him to start making work outside of the gallery.
Today, these monumental, gravity-defying curves of oxidized steel have made Serra famous across the world. In 2001, he won the prestigious Golden Lion at the 49th Venice Biennale. When The Matter of Time, a towering series of eight torqued ellipses, was installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2005, the art historian Robert Hughes called him ‘not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the 21st century’.
Serra’s paintings, drawings and prints are all in high demand at auction, but it is his sculptures which command the highest prices. In 2013, LA Cone (1986), a 14-foot curved sheet of COR-TEN steel, sold for $4,267,750 at Christie’s New York, establishing a world auction record for the artist.