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Richard Serra Drawing @ SFMOMA

Taraval Beach, 1977,  paintstick on Belgian linen, shown installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art


Heir, 1973, paintstick and graphite on paper, 114 5/8 x 42 ¼ "

Whether he’s hoisting a massive steel sculpture into a public space or pressing bricks of melted oil stick on to wall-sized pieces of canvas, Richard Serra is, at root, about drawing. That may come as a surprise to those who know him primarily as America’s most celebrated sculptor. But for Serra, the two forms have always existed as co-equals, echoing and reaffirming each other at all the important junctures in a career that has flown at a more or less stratospheric level since the early ‘70s. While this show doesn’t take pains to make that link explicit, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the artist’s work will immediately sense it. The real revelation delivered by Richard Serra Drawing, a 44-year retrospective containing pivotal examples of his early sculptures, films, process experiments and sketches, is that the drawings exert a visceral force that is every bit as powerful as the one cast by his more famous sculptures.  

The best way to understand Serra’s drawings is to see them for what they are not. Black, flat, light-absorbing, geometrically shaped and unyielding in their command of space, these asphalt-textured works on linen and paper do not “distinguish figure from ground, nearness from depth, darkness from light, action from reaction, positive from negative,” writes Richard Shiff in one of several penetrating essays in the show catalog. As such, they foreclose any representational or associative possibilities. What we confront, when we look at them, are weight and volume.  For that reason, Serra’s drawings have been called Minimalist, but they chafe against that label because the Minimalists (and their kin to whom Serra has long been linked) were largely object makers. Serra’s drawings are anti-object and anti-authority. They may invoke the work of key historical figures (Seurat, Cezanne, Malevich, Pollock, Newman, Smithson, Judd, Long) yet they stand apart. The differences, Serra says, have to do with intent. “I did not want to accept architectural space as a limiting container,” he writes in the exhibition catalog. “I wanted it to be understood as a site in which to establish and structure disjunctive, contradictory spaces. By the nature of their weight, shape, location, flatness and delineation along their edges, the black canvases enabled me to define spaces within a given architectural enclosure.”  

Diamond, 1974/201, paintstick on Belgian linen, 115 x 115"
Unlike sculptors who typically make drawings as preparatory exercises, Serra does the reverse: he makes sculptures and then draws them. The point, he says, is to experience, through the act of drawing, how they operate on the human body, and then, through careful placement, make them replicate the kinesthetic impact of the sculptures themselves. The best example of this 3D/2D dynamic can be found in the fifth room of the show where of two iconic drawings stand opposite each another. The first, Abstract Slavery (1974), named for the extreme amount of labor it took to cover the surface with oil sticks, is a nine-foot-high, 17 ½ -foot-wide parallelogram whose bottom edge has been cut to give it a slight upward tilt. It appears to warp the plane of the wall on which it’s mounted, while also making the perpendicular wall that intersects it look shorter than it is. The second, Diamond (1974/2011), a square turned sideways on the opposing wall, creates the credible illusion of a black void – one you could crawl into.  Stand between the two pieces and there’s a palpable sense of gravity being skewed. For Serra, as with any artist, context is everything. It can turn a drawing into a mute object or animate it. Sometimes it can even induce a mild feeling of claustrophobia, as happens about three quarters of the way through the show in a room where two drawings (Zadikians, 1974) face each other across a span of maybe 20 feet. (It feels like less.)  Taraval Beach (1977), a 15-foot-tall monument, named for the stretch of SF sand where the artist, at age 8, had his first memorable visual/perceptual epiphany, looms tall in the corridor connecting the two halves of the show. It commands the room like a beacon.  Pacific Judson Murphy (1978) is one of the few installations that fall short; its intersecting planes, interrupted by a pale shadow on the seam where two walls meet, nullify the effect of infinite space.
out-of-round X, 1999, paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper,  79 ½ x 79"
Overall, hits outnumber misses. Whether you’re looking at drawings or sculptures, the connecting threads – form, line and volume – are everywhere to be seen. Serra’s audacious Gutter Corner Splash pieces, made by tossing molten lead against a wall and then prying off the solidified mass, are on display to primordial effect; they lie inert on the floor as if extruded from the center of the Earth. The Triangle Belt series, strands of vulcanized rubber tossed like spaghetti and hung from a wall by fat long nails, are, essentially, line drawings in space, sculptural equivalents of the figures Pollock looped in the air with paint before they hit the canvas as inchoate shapes. They feel as radical now as when they were first shown in the late ‘60s. In that same room, near the beginning of the show, you’ll also find four early videos. The one that captured my imagination, Hand Catching Lead (1968), shows the artist’s hand repeatedly (and for the most part unsuccessfully) trying to grab small blocks of lead being dropped from above. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect metaphor for art’s– and especially this artist’s — attempt to concretize the slippery nature of consciousness.
One Serra myth the show explodes is that size is all-important. It matters. certainly. But it has never been a requirement. Think, for example, of how a recording of a screaming electric guitar, even when played at low volume, can call up the ear-splitting sensation of hearing it live. It’s the same with Serra. Toward the end of the show there’s a room with a series of oil stick-on-paper drawings, each a double panel. The most powerful among them consist of carefully conjoined parallelograms where, in the off-kilter negative space, between the black forms, we see slender pyramids of white space. They recall the “zip” paintings of Barnett Newman and, more specifically, the geometric forms of the Constructivists, a consistent influence despite the artist’s repudiation of their mystical bent. Still, it’s impossible to look at these works and not feel, as the Russians surely did, that you are walking on a ledge. With titles, like The United States Government Destroys Art, The United States Courts are Partial to Government and No Mandatory Patriotism (all from 1989), it’s a safe bet that Serra must have, too. Having by this point figured out that he could cover surfaces more easily by melting oil sticks into grabbable bricks, he made these drawings in a sustained burst of anger after New York City, in that same year, removed Titled Arc from Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Here, as in so many places, the physical sensation of the sculptures is present in the drawings.
The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989,  paintstick on two sheets of paper, 113 x 215 ¼"
Another peak moment in this show comes from the out-of-round series (1999) – circular drawings on Hiromi paper that have no space or perception-altering ambitions whatsoever. Serra made them by forcing pigment through screens in a circular motion, creating thick, greasy looking ovals surrounded by splatter. They were done as process experiments, but they feel resolute and decisive, like action paintings, and therefore, less calculated than the large-scale drawings. These, and several related series, conclude the show on a note of relative levity.
The one flaw that cannot be overlooked is the decision to print the catalog photos in B/W.  Is black not a color? Serra (and just about any other artist) will tell you that it is.  So why did the catalog’s underwriters, the Menil Collection and the Gagosian Gallery, screw this up?  Money couldn’t have been the issue. 
Significantly, Serra posts his now-famous Verb List (1967-67) near the beginning of the exhibition. This handwritten, infinitive-heavy list of 107 ways an artist can create something functions as a manifesto – one that Richard Serra Drawing more than makes good on. It shows the artist, at each stage of his storied career, stretching a single idea – an iconic black form – across a universe of material and conceptual possibilities.
Richard Serra Drawing: a Retrospective @ SFMOMA through Jan. 16, 2012.
Cover: September, 2001, paintstick on handmade paper; 50 x 51"; Solid #13, 2008, paintstick on handmade paper; 40 x 40"
About the Author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.

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