Richard Serra in drawing mode
As exhibition titles go, “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” is as telling as it is concise. By withholding a final ‘s’ on that third word, the title makes clear that to Serra, primarily known as a sculptor, drawing is a verb, not a noun. As he put it, in 1977: “There is no way to make a drawing — there is only drawing.”
The show, recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and running through Aug. 28, is an eye-opener, and even more gratifyingly, a mind-opener. Spanning 40 years and including some 60 pieces, it circumscribes a subset of Serra’s output but illuminates the whole, since the artist’s works across media occupy a single continuum of concerns having to do with density, gravity, division, juncture, balance and imbalance, presence and void, weight and counterweight.
Serra’s sculptures exert pressure on the spaces they occupy and the viewers who engage with them. At their best, the drawings do the same, staging force fields, black holes and dense, imposing walls of darkness that register in both brain and gut. They also exert pressure on the definition of drawing itself, defying its conventions (marks, usually on paper, usually seen frontally) and shifting attention, as ever, to actions and processes, the making and not just the made.
The show’s final gallery arrives like an exclamation point, urgent, reinforcing, but could have served just as effectively as a prelude. Aside from a selection of sketchbooks that range across the decades, its key contents predate the rest of the work in the show and launch the underlying ideas and motivations evident throughout. In the two-page, handwritten “Verb List” (1967-8), Serra catalogs actions and conditions: “to roll, to crease, to fold ... to splash, to knot, to spill ... to smear, to rotate, to swirl ... of equilibrium, of symmetry, of friction ... of location, of context, of time.” And in a quartet of short black-and-white films from 1968, he records the performance of simple actions: hands scraping up a pile of lead filings; hands tied together at the wrist, struggling against their bindings; a single hand clenching and unclenching to grab falling fragments of lead dropped from above, off camera. In each film, Serra appears only as a hand or pair of hands, an anonymous agent of doing.
Just a few years before, working toward his MFA at Yale, Serra took a design course that had been conceived by Josef Albers, legendary for instilling in his students (there and at Black Mountain College) an open, exploratory approach to materials. Serra’s interest in the properties and possibilities of nontraditional art materials allied him with a surge of other artists in New York in the late ‘60s — among them Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Barry Le Va and Robert Morris — responding to Minimalist sculpture’s austere geometry and industrial surface perfection with a physicality geared to bodily motion and an adventurous new menu of materials, including rubber, felt and latex.
Serra gravitated toward lead and rolled steel but simultaneously picked up black paintstick, a small, waxy crayon that became his primary drawing tool. His drawings don’t function as preparatory studies. They typically come after a sculpture has been completed, as a form of notating its spatial relationships. “Drawings After Circuit” (1972), for instance, followed an installation for Documenta of four huge steel plates (8 by 24 feet each) jutting in from the corners of a room, stopping short of meeting in the center. Serra’s sequence of 18 drawings, each with three or four vertical lines, records his response to the physical experience of the sculpture. Pure rhythm, interval and emphasis, they suggest a cross between musical score and perceptual mapping.
Large drawings on linen stapled to the wall, pigment saturating the surface from edge to edge, read like monochrome paintings shaped as triangles or diamonds. Scaled up and square, rectangular or subtly trapezoidal, such drawings double as walls, ambiguous architectural planes that assert a presence as much as they suggest self-swallowing voids.
Among the most involving of the works in the show are two installations (one from 1978, the other 2011, created for this site) in which pairs of large, blackened panels face each other on opposite walls and another (also 1978) in which broad panels line two adjoining walls and meet at the shared corner. Whatever neutrality the museum’s white-walled boxes aspire to is summarily canceled by Serra’s imposition of these thin but daunting slabs. Stepping into the inky corner or the empty space between facing black panels carries an inescapable charge. Serra’s drawings recalibrate the architecture of their rooms; they dissolve the boundaries between drawing, architecture and sculpture.
Movement through and around the drawings is fundamental to experiencing them, just as it is with Serra’s sculptural work. On an early trip to Japan, Serra studied and internalized the aesthetic of Zen gardens, how their pathways offer continuously changing viewpoints, the landscape only fully revealing itself to a body in motion. Moving in relation to the drawings also enables one to see the range of textures that Serra coaxes from the paintstick. Surfaces vary from smooth and slightly striated to crusty, gritty, volcanic. In a stunning series of drawings on handmade paper from 1997-2001, circles anchor themselves to the pages like slices of the dark side of cratered moons or cannonballs that have landed on the paper with a splat, sending dark bits of debris flying all around.
Serra started out drawing with single paintsticks but eventually took to melting them into larger bricks, which he presses into action with both hands — and even his feet. He also pushes softened paintstick onto paper through wire mesh screen. He spreads it like spackle. He melts the medium, lays paper atop it and applies pressure on the reverse side to transfer the pigment. He has also put paintstick through a meat grinder to enhance its graininess. For all that Serra’s work is about catalyzing space, it’s just as fundamentally about matter and its multiplicity.
Organized by curators Bernice Rose and Michelle White of the Menil Collection in Houston and Gary Garrels of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (where it will travel next), this first retrospective of Serra’s drawing(s) has its inert moments, in which frames seem to suffocate the drawn shapes or tensile power gives way to sheer, mute scale. Overall, however, the conceptual and physical dialogue the works generate is consistently dynamic, rich with propositions and challenges.
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