For Mr. Serra’s fifth birthday, his father took him to the Marinship yards as a treat. Later, recalling the experience in a page-long statement entitled “Weight,” Mr. Serra adopts a steel-plated oil tanker as his Proustian madeleine. It was a new tanker, and he and his father watched the launch with a cheering throng as the boat slid into the sea, transformed, as he wrote, “from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat and adrift.”
In a startling coincidence, Mark di Suvero, the future sculptor, lived two houses down from the Serra household. Looking back, di Suvero, who turns 86 this month, recalled long, riotous afternoons when he and a young Mr. Serra played in the dunes, skidding down them on flat cardboard, having to empty their shoes of sand before their mothers let them back into the house. Their relationship, however, was not completely harmonious. “Our dogs would fight,” di Suvero recalled with amusement. “I had a dog, they got a dog, and his father would say, ‘Let them fight!’”
MR. SERRA ARRIVED AT YALE as a graduate student, after earning a B.A. in English literature from the University of California, at Santa Barbara. Settling in New York in 1966, he quickly found his way to the center of the avant-garde. Minimalism was the leading style, and Mr. Serra became acquainted with its exponents, including Robert Morris, who invited him to participate in a group show at the prestigious Castelli Gallery. But in contrast to the crisp geometry of the Minimalists, with their reflective aluminum skins (Donald Judd), fluorescent lights (Dan Flavin) and Fiberglass L-beams (Robert Morris), Mr. Serra tried to get “down and dirty,” as he says now; he wanted to turn closed, tightly sealed forms inside out.
To this end, he compiled a now-historic “Verb List” that itemized, in two neat, cursive columns, 54 manual actions you can do with art materials (e.g., “to scatter,” “to weave,” “to stretch”). He then set out to enact them. He experimented with lead, a non-art material that he learned about from the composer Philip Glass, who moonlighted as a plumber.