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.”