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Richard Serra, who set out to become a painter but instead became one of his era's greatest sculptors, inventing a monumental environment of immense tilting corridors, ellipses and spirals of steel that gave the medium both a new abstract grandeur and a new physical intimacy, died Tuesday at his home in Orient, New York, on the North Fork of Long Island. He was 85.

The cause was pneumonia, said John Silberman, his lawyer.

Serra's most celebrated works had some of the scale of ancient temples or sacred sites and the inscrutability of landmarks like Stonehenge. But if these massive forms had a mystical effect, it came not from religious belief but from the distortions of space created by their leaning, curving or circling walls and the frankness of their materials.

This was something new in sculpture: a flowing, circling geometry that had to be moved through and around to be fully experienced. Serra said his work required a lot of "walking and looking," or "peripatetic perception." It was, he said, "viewer-centered": Its meanings were to be arrived at by individual exploration and reflection.

These pieces were assembled from giant plates of cold rolled steel made in mills more accustomed to fabricating the hulls of ships. They were so heavy that they required permits to cross bridges and cranes with elaborate rigging to be set in place.

They almost inevitably imparted a frisson of danger, in part because they stood on their own — as did all of Serra's work — without the benefit of screws, bolts or welds. His leaning pieces relied on their computer-plotted curves and tilts for stability. The flat, upright, slablike elements of some pieces — suggesting both sturdy walls and gravestones — stood because they were rarely less than 6 inches thick. And when Serra's forms expanded into solid cylinders (which he called "rounds") or near cubes of solid forged steel, they were unquestionably stable, even when stacked one on the other.

In interviews and conversations, Serra's telling and retelling of the important events in his life created an aura of singularity and destiny. For example, when he went east from the West Coast for the first time to study painting at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, his first off-campus trip was not to New York to see Jackson Pollock's work, he said, but to the Barnes Foundation, then outside Philadelphia, for "my first good look at Cézanne."

After Yale, while visiting Paris on a travel grant, he began to move away from painting with almost daily visits to Constantin Brancusi's reconstructed studio — then housed at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris — to repeatedly draw the simplified forms of that Romanian modernist's sculpture and bases.

But it wasn't until he got to Madrid and saw Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" at the Prado Museum there that he realized that he could not be a painter. As he told Calvin Tompkins of The New Yorker, "I thought there was no possibility of me getting close to that. Cézanne hadn't stopped me, de Kooning and Pollock hadn't stopped me, but Velazquez seemed like a bigger thing to deal with."

Serra's nearly six-decade career began with a meteoric rise in the late 1960s, when new mediums were emerging and old ones were mixing. Although frequently called a minimalist, he came of age with the slightly younger post-minimalist generation and helped define its concerns.

But Serra learned from, sidestepped and even reversed signal aspects of both movements. Claiming to make "sculpture as sculpture," he rejected the minimalists' use of thin, shiny sheets of metal, pristine ready-made objects and color. Above all, he turned away from its closed forms, preferring a decidedly industrial look of raw steel with nothing hidden.

While the size of his pieces took them far beyond portable art objects, he never got closer to dematerialization than in a brief phase in the late 1960s, when he made "in situ" works out of molten lead flung into the juncture of wall and floor and then pulled back in lacy, troughlike forms. His main interest lay in shaping space by using materials in ways that took advantage of their inherent capacities and even exalted them.

Serra enjoyed both great notoriety and great fame over the course of his long career, with notoriety coming first. In 1975, a rigger was crushed to death when one plate of a piece being installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis accidentally came loose. Many people in the art world urged Serra to stop making sculpture, even though an investigation revealed that the crane operator had not properly followed the rigging instructions.

Richard Serra's "Five Plates, Two Poles."
Richard Serra's "Five Plates, Two Poles."

Tom Wallace

Serra's early public pieces sometimes met with opposition, most famously "Tilted Arc," commissioned by the General Services Administration and completed in 1981. The work — a gently curving, slightly leaning wall of rusting steel 12 feet high and 120 feet long — was installed in a plaza in front of a federal office building in lower Manhattan. Some people who worked there regarded it as an eyesore and a danger and petitioned to have it removed. A hearing was held to consider arguments pro and con, after which the GSA decided in favor of removal.

Dismayed and infuriated, Serra sued the government to keep the work in place, vowing that he would leave the country if it were dismantled. He lost his suit, and "Tilted Arc" was taken down in March 1989. But he continued to be based in New York.

And yet as the single curved planes of "Tilted Arc" multiplied in subsequent works to create corridors and then grew into the torqued ellipses, spirals and S-shaped double spirals, Serra's art became increasingly popular. People lined up around the block to see his epic New York gallery shows.

Richard Serra was born Nov. 2, 1938, in San Francisco, the second of three sons of Tony and Gladys (Fineberg) Serra. His father, an immigrant from the Spanish island of Majorca, worked as a pipe fitter at a San Francisco shipyard during World War II. One of the artist's most vivid memories occurred on his fourth birthday, when his father took him to the shipyard to watch the launching of an enormous tanker.

"All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory, which has become a recurring dream," he later said. Starting when he was 15, Serra regularly had summer jobs in steel mills in the Bay Area.

After one year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he joined the progressive Students for a Democratic Society, Serra transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara. He took courses there with Margaret Mead, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and majored in English literature while studying art with painters Howard Warshaw and Rico Lebrun.

He was planning to continue his literary studies in graduate school when Warshaw told him he should think about applying to an art school. Serra sent a group of drawings to Yale and received a scholarship. His classmates there included painter Chuck Close; painters Brice Marden and Rackstraw Downes; and sculptor Nancy Graves, who became his girlfriend. Among his teachers, he was especially influenced by painter Philip Guston and experimental composer Morton Feldman.

A Yale travel fellowship followed by a Fulbright grant allowed him to spend two years in Europe with Graves, who also received a Fulbright. They married in 1964 in Paris, where they became friendly with composer Philip Glass. In Florence, Italy, after his Velazquez epiphany in Madrid, Serra began making assemblages that involved stuffed and living animals in cages. His first solo show, titled "Live Animal Habitats," took place at Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1966.

The couple returned to New York the next year, renting a loft in Tribeca and joining a circle that included Glass, Close, composer Steve Reich, writer and actor Spalding Gray, filmmaker Michael Snow and artist Robert Smithson. Serra started a moving company called Low Rate Movers, which employed some of these artists on various jobs.

His marriage to Graves ended in 1970, when he fell in love with video and performance artist Joan Jonas, who was his partner into the mid-1970s. In 1981, he married Clara Weyergraf, a German-born art historian. She is among his survivors. In addition to his brother Tony, a lawyer, Richard Serra had another brother, Rudolph Serra, also an artist. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.