Richard Serra: A Tribute

Richard Serra was a giant in so many ways and he was only 5 foot 9.  Gemini had the pleasure and privilege of continuously working with him for 52 years, producing over 330 fine art editions.  Richard had an unbelievable storage of strength, coupled with a human kindness in every day of his life.  This was the Richard I knew.  When working with him, I often had the feeling there was a locomotive in the room, and if you wanted to survive, just get out its way.  Sculpture has been redefined.   ~Sidney B. Felsen – March 26, 2024

Sidney took nearly 3000 photos of Richard.  Theirs was a deep friendship, one built upon mutual respect and trust.  When telling me of Richard’s passing on Tuesday, Richard’s longtime assistant, Trina McKeever, said something that really struck home. Her words were something to the effect of “Sidney and Gemini gave Richard a warm, welcoming place for him to be his true self – he was so comfortable there.”  I believe that comfort is reflected in each and every one of Sidney’s photos of Richard.

Although I had certainly met him previously, my own friendship with Richard likely began in earnest on November 30th, 1986, the day of my wedding to Sidney.  Richard, along with at least a half-dozen other Gemini artists, traveled to Los Angeles for it, and that meant a lot to me.  But I understood he really came for Sidney and the Grinstein family, at whose home our wedding took place and where Richard typically stayed when he was in town.  Sidney and the Grinsteins were Richard’s West Coast family.

As I’ve thought about Richard’s presence in our lives, it’s Richard’s affection for Sidney that keeps coming to mind.  So when the Hammer Museum honored Sidney and me in October 2004, it was Richard who made the tribute remarks.  Exquisitely expressed, in part he said:

Printmaking is a cult performed by practitioners who suffer from occasional anxiety, who demand guidance and support and patient collaboration, who need a witness to watch the process from the start, a witness who understands how the mark can be transformed and reproduced to evoke the printed image. It is impossible to accomplish this transformation without a guide, an overseer, a producer.  Sidney Felsen is all of that…. I prefer to think of Sidney as a muse rather than a producer; the assimilation of his aura a stimulant to the process…. Sidney will never say: it can’t be done, he might say “let me sleep on it”, meaning that a quick fix is not necessarily better than a long pondered reason.  Sidney prefers to hurry slowly…. To act as producer/muse is not the same as selling the product. It means dealing with artists, day in and day out, with their needs, their narcissism, their insecurity, their competitive colliding egos, their diverse temperaments.  For Sidney to be the ballast for all of us, however, is only possible with Joni. Sidney and Joni share a lightness. It is one of the main attributes of both their characters. I do not mean this in a frivolous way, quite the opposite: We would be unable to appreciate their lightness if it were not for the fact that their character has weight. Their moral support is discretely offered and can always be relied upon.  They share a particular combination of respectful reserve and humor and the ability to be available and present without imposing. That is also how Sidney functions with his camera.  Sidney has been photographing artists at work for decades. His images document the life of the shop and his lens is part of his presence. Sidney always carries a camera. Photographers can be very annoying especially when they take photos while you are working. Yet Sidney never made us feel self- conscious. We took notice, but we never felt pried upon. Taking photographs is Sidney’s way of watching over us not watching us.  Sidney and Joni are rare, rare in the art-world. They are decent, generous, honest, kind and caring, and maintain a level-headed calmness. They don’t flinch under pressure and they don’t create pressure. Their calmness is not acquired or manipulative, it is not an attitude, it's a character trait that they both share and mutually enable in each other.  The Egyptians measured a soul by the weight of a feather. How can we measure the weight of the kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, support and affection offered to all of us by Joni and Sidney. We have no such feather, but I do have a glass…

Richard had an incredible strength and depth in every aspect of his life.  He cared, he worked, he socialized – all with such intensity I’ve not witnessed in anyone else.  In 1995, aware that I was battling cancer, Richard titled one of his new etchings For Joni, and while I was hospitalized for the entire month of July, Richard called Sidney every day to see how Sidney was doing – something few people did with such regularity. 

Richard was super-smart, and articulately spoke and wrote about art – his and others.  Richard devoted much of his time to looking at art by other artists; he introduced Gemini to artists, and he and Clara formed friendships with many, including his Duane Street neighbor, Elizabeth Murray.

And if Richard recognized the partnership that Sidney and I shared in our marriage, he most certainly was looking in the mirror, as he and Clara were a similar “team.”  Clara was vital to Richard personally and professionally.  He – and we all – knew it.  Clara was by his side at every moment.  Over the past several months, there have been two Serra book projects underway.  This Fall, a catalogue raisonne of Richard’s prints will be published.  But a more intimate book, one comprised solely of 91 of Sidney’s photographs, was completed late last year.  And the spark that ignited this book project was this charming photo of Richard and Clara at Gemini. 

Richard understood and respected partnerships. In artmaking, one calls it collaboration. He relied intensely on the riggers who installed his sculptures, and in printmaking he had in-depth relationships with Ron McPherson, under whose guidance Richard created his early and exceptionally large screenprints; with Larry Mantello, who assisted at the signings of the majority of Gemini’s editions; with John Coy, who designed all of Gemini’s promotional materials; and with Xavier Fumat, with whom Richard had 26 years of collaborations.

Richard was devoted to printmaking; I might say it equaled his commitment to sculpture and drawings. And in a Gemini workshop exclusively facilitating Richard’s printmaking endeavors, there have been several master printers assisting Richard, but none so dedicated as Xavier.  Amongst the thousands of Sidney’s photos, the majority of them are of Richard and Xavier. As with Sidney, Richard’s relationship with Xavier was one built upon trust, and a confidence that his creativity would be supported and his vision achieved.

Many people knew the strong, intense, smart, articulate Richard.  Not everyone got to see the passionate, funny, and gentle soul that was also very much Richard Serra. I feel very fortunate to be one of the lucky ones.  May you rest in peace, Richard.    

~Joni Moisant Weyl – March 29, 2024