German Steelworks Soars with Serra

Sculptor Richard Serra's longtime collaboration with Friedhelm Pickhan's steelworks has resulted in innovative work for art and industry

Friedhelm Pickhan's generally jaundiced opinion of artists was not altered by his first contact with American sculptor Richard Serra. In 1997, Serra faxed Pickhan a sheet of paper with little more on it than three curved lines drawn with a thick pencil. Serra wanted to know if Pickhan Heavy Fabrication in north German steel country could turn those lines into a monumental sculpture.

Pickhan, now 66, is the epitome of a down-to-earth German Handwerker, with a voice like sandpaper and a penchant for Marlboro Lights, which he smokes halfway, then stubs out and stashes away in the package to finish later. He took the Serra job, despite his reservations. "I didn't know a thing about art," he says. "But we had invested in a new machine and we needed work for it."

A Creative Path to Innovation

It turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, whose results are currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is staging a Serra retrospective through Sept. 10. The collaboration with Pickhan has not only been crucial to Serra's work but also has had a transformational effect on Pickhan Heavy Fabrication, based in a cavernous former steel foundry in Siegen, Germany, a hilly, working-class city near Cologne.

In the course of bending massive sheets of weatherproof steel into forms that now grace the likes of the new Gap (GPS) headquarters in San Francisco and the Basel home office of pharmaceutical giant Novartis (NVS), Pickhan and his workers learned techniques that allowed the small company, with about 70 employees, to take on much larger and more complicated projects. Besides building some 50 Serra sculptures, Pickhan now fabricates customized pieces for oil drilling platforms and giant ship cranes.

As well as being profitable for both parties, the Pickhan-Serra collaboration is a case study in innovation. The demands of art prompted Pickhan Heavy Fabrication, which was still making iron rims for wagon wheels into the early 1960s, to rethink its business and move to a new dimension. "We learned an unbelievable amount from him, " Pickhan says of the 67-year-old sculptor.

"I Lost a Lot of Sleep"

Serra came to Pickhan via his European dealer, Alexander von Berswordt-Wallrabe, who hails from the steelmaking city of Bochum and has connections in the industry. After Serra's Baltimore-based producer closed down in the mid-1990s, Berswordt-Wallrabe contacted roughly a dozen companies in Europe that had the huge presses capable of doing the work.

Only Friedhelm Pickhan was willing and able to take the unusual job, which required him to knock out a factory wall to accommodate sheets of steel measuring 30 feet (about 9 meters) or more. He also had to assume major financial risk and promise to deliver five sculptures in a very short time. "Very few people in the world would have dared that, " says Berswordt-Wallrabe.

The making of a Serra sculpture is one part heavy industry, one part origami. For the first project, a series of sculptures for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, Pickhan's crew used a press the size of a school bus that exerts 1,400 metric tons of pressure via a long, blunt blade. The unheated steel sheets, several inches thick, were fed through the machine in increments and carefully bent, until after several months they acquired the prescribed shape. "I lost a lot of sleep," recalls Pickhan. "We didn't know if we could do it."

Pickhan says his respect for Serra grew as he saw how energetically and expertly the artist, who had himself done time at a steel mill, attacked the job: "He was always in the middle of things, late into the night."

Art and Industry

When the MOCA piece was done in 1998, a private collector flew to Siegen in his personal plane to inspect it.

The collector, who planned to buy the work after the Los Angeles show was over, turned out to be François Pinault, founder of Paris-based luxury and retail group PPR. Pickhan, who had never heard of Pinault, chauffeured the French billionaire around Siegen in his Volkswagen Golf. After Pinault expressed pleasure with the new work, "Serra said to me, 'We have to make more!' " Pickhan recalls. Serra named that first piece Pickhan's Progress.

In the years since, Pickhan has fabricated Serra pieces that can be found all over the world—at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; on the estates of private collectors such as Pinault; and of course at New York's MOMA. Pickhan's reputation has spread as a result, attracting other projects requiring artistic sensibility, such as the planned entranceway to a Naples subway station designed by British installation artist Anish Kapoor.

Such projects continue to have an effect on Pickhan's industrial projects. The company has often had Serra in mind when buying new machines, Pickhan says. Walking through the plant, he points to a mammoth 5,700-ton press he picked up used from a French military contractor. "When we got this we could do totally different sculptures," Pickhan says. At the same time, such equipment allowed Pickhan to take on bigger commercial jobs. The company recently leased space in a building that fronts a shipping canal, allowing production of even bigger forms that can be shipped only by barge.

Unexpected Applause

Pickhan, whose offices next to an auto-repair shop are decorated with Serra exhibition posters signed by the artist, has become something of an art connoisseur himself, at least of Serra's work. "He makes sculpture for people. He creates new spaces. That's what makes his work so interesting, " Pickhan says, as he walks a visitor through a circular Serra work in progress.

Friedhelm Pickhan has seen only a few Serra sculptures after they leave his premises but made it to New York for the opening of the MOMA show, which began in early June. He sounds both proud and astonished at the reception he got. "The people clapped and I had to stand up," he says with a chuckle.

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