Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2012
Bernice Rose, Michelle White, and Gary Garrels, eds. Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective Exh. cat. Houston: Menil Collection, 2011. 232 pp.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300169379)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 13–August 28, 2011; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, October 15, 2011–January 16, 2012; Menil Collection, Houston, March 2–June 10, 2012
Richard Serra. Pacific Judson Murphy (1978). Installation view at SFMOMA on the occasion of Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective. © Richard Serra. Photo: Ian Reeves.

Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a surprisingly varied display of the artist’s exploration in process, the body, objectness, and architecture. Divided among the museum’s two fourth-floor wings, the retrospective flows chronologically. The first wing showcases some of Serra’s early small sculptures, several films, the residue of a sculptural performance, and drawings. The curators have dedicated the second wing solely to his mature drawings. The central staircase that divides the two wings creates a slightly awkward flow, and I initially walked through the exhibition backwards and almost missed the first segment. While Richard Serra Drawing nicely frames his large-scale drawings as a continued investigation of process and architecture, it also reveals some ruptures in his work that I find less convincing.

As is well-noted in the exhibition’s wall text, the show begins with the simple and rather discrete Verb List (1967–68). Formally distinct from the rest of the exhibition, this text piece frames Serra’s work as process driven. Serra lists ways that artists manipulate materials and ways that materials react—e.g., to roll, to cut, to droop, to flow, etc. The more abstract terms at the end of his list—e.g., to systematize, of mapping, of location, etc.—address ways we make sense of the world and how artists construct content. The list not only creates parameters for Serra’s process, but explores our relation to the physical world as actions and reactions.

The exhibition maps out Serra’s developing ideas about process and materials through sculptures, films, and a performative sculpture. In To Lift (1967), as the title indicates, Serra lifted a slab of vulcanized rubber by the center to prop it up in a cone-like form. As an exploration in materiality, the rubber’s pliability and weight create enough tension to support itself. Mining the space between a volumetric cone and a flat plane, this piece is as much about the process of making as it is about its materiality. In addition, short films like Hand Scraping (1968), Hand Catching Lead (1968), Hand Tied (1968), and Hand Fulcrum (1968) skillfully explore process itself as artwork. Hand Tied features Serra struggling to release his bound hands and seems to propose the absurdist query: can artists make work with their hands tied? In Gutter Corner Splash Night Shift (1965/1995), Serra hurled molten lead into the intersection of the wall and floor. Several long, lumpy forms are displayed in the gallery, corner side up, to reveal the way that Serra expanded the traditional sculptural process of casting by using architecture as a mold for his molten lead. While the title alludes to the process through which Serra created Gutter Corner Splash Night Shift, it also explores the way architecture acts as a barrier to action and material. Serra’s early works explore process, defined as artists manipulating and struggling with materials. Moreover, these works mark the shifting trend in the 1960s when process become a privileged form for artists exploring the “dematerialization of art.”

Serra’s early process-driven works complement his paint-stick drawings as a continued investigation of materiality. While Serra’s sculptures exploit the heaviness of lead and steel plate, his drawings declare the gooeyness of paint stick. Using heated bricks of paint stick, Serra creates impasto-like black planes and circles. Serra refrains from rarefying his materials through rendering, as representation and symbolism encourage the viewer to look within the picture plane to formulate relationships and meaning. Moreover, representation diverts attention away from the image’s materiality and the viewer’s embodied experience.

As he simplifies forms in his sculptures, Serra restricts his drawings to squares, rectangles, circles, and arcs. In Serra’s rectangular and square pieces he refrains from using line, which is usually associated with drawing. In these pieces Serra establishes shape by covering the entire rectilinear or square piece of linen. Like architecture, geometric shapes create a measure to which we apply our spatial knowledge of scale, distance, verticality, horizontality, trueness, etc. By contrasting the architecture, Serra’s work encourages viewers to establish relationships between themselves, his shaped drawings, and context.

Mounted directly on the wall, Abstract Slavery (1974) is a massive black rectangular drawing that plays off the horizontal trueness of the museum’s architecture. Sitting just above the floor line, the black shape stands in stark contrast to the surrounding white museum walls. Serra slyly angled the top and bottom of this piece such that the lower-right corner sits slightly higher than the left. The effect is so subtle that some viewers may not notice it and upon consideration, may attribute it to perspectival distortion or to a sloppy installation. Abstract Slavery demonstrates the way deviations from rigid geometry call attention to architecture and our sense of place. Unfortunately, SFMOMA’s extremely tall walls prevent the top of this piece from resonating off the ceiling. Abstract Slavery is titled after Serra’s initial tedious process of covering entire pieces of linen with small individual paint sticks. Like the Hand films, Abstract Slavery is another example of Serra’s surprising sense of humor in regards to the resistance of materials and the folly of making.

In the dramatic piece Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), two adjacent rectilinear drawings form a corner that explores scale and context. The large black rectangles echo and contrast the white museum walls. While SFMOMA’s towering ceiling makes Pacific Judson Murphy feel object-like, once entered, the piece operates on a human scale and feels more like an installation. This play between object and installation complements Serra’s investigation of embodied presence and objective distance. While many titles in his earlier works reference the process of making, the titles in his largest drawings reference places, people, and events. The title Pacific Judson Murphy references an East Bay steel mill that Serra worked at as a young man. While perhaps possessing personal meaning for Serra, titles like Pacific Judson Murphy seem oblique and arbitrary. Moreover, these referential titles seem like a strange departure from his dedication to process.

Richard Serra Drawings is smartly installed to play off the architecture of Mario Botta’s design. Taraval Beach (1977/2011), a massive black rectangle, sits at the end of the corridor that runs down the west side of the circular staircase. The black granite slabs in the staircase and nearby elevator echo the dense rectangular blackness of Taraval Beach. Moreover, this echoing is repeated in the black, rectangular void-like gallery that concurrently displays Sharon Lockhart’s video and photographs. Representative of his investment in context, Serra considers the installation of his drawings carefully, even causing him to trim them in order to activate the architecture and space as he sees fit.

While Serra explores arc and circular labyrinthian forms in some of his large sculptures, I am less convinced of his circle drawings. Rather than draw directly on his paper or linen, Serra repetitively passes his heated paint stick over a printer’s screen such that it oozes through onto his paper/linen. While his early works challenged ideas of making, using a printer’s screen as an intermediary seems unnecessarily indirect. In out-of-round IX (1999), a dense black circle nearly fills the paper while the paint stick spatters outward. Looming large like a radiating or spinning black sun, out-of-round IX is too referential for me. In A Drawing in Five Parts (2005), a sequence of five images features concentric circles in varied positions to create a filmic animation quality. I find the narrative quality of these images slightly puzzling for an artist committed to abstraction. While they are in keeping with his process-driven practice and simplicity of shape, his circular drawings do not resonate off architectural space like his rectangular pieces. Moreover, the circular shapes within the rectangular or square frame seem more image based than object oriented. While this shift may seem minor, it runs counter to his dedication to framing and activating space and the viewer.

While Serra refers to his large paint-stick-on-linen works as drawings, I am perplexed as to why they are not referred to as large monochromatic paintings. With special attention to material and approach, many sculptors invested in banal materials have embraced drawing to reject the rarefied status of painting. While Serra claims that paint stick is a rather ordinary material, it is ultimately not that different from paint. While Serra’s absence of color may lead him to refer to these works as drawings, Institutional Abstract Art (1976/2011) and Forged Drawings (1977/2008) demonstrate his affinity to Russian Constructivists like Kazimir Malevich, who made shaped black paintings. Moreover, I find attributing his decision to consider these pieces as drawings due to his comfort with the medium unsatisfying. I am left wondering if Serra’s decision to refer to these pieces as drawings is an addition to his boundary-pushing career, or is a provocative gesture that indicates a pejorative view of painting.

While Serra’s architecturally scaled sculptures are site-specific, his most successful drawings define and activate pre-existing architectural space. Moreover, these pieces straddle the space between object, installation, and two-dimensionality. Despite my misgivings about some of his choices, Richard Serra Drawings presents innovative works that raised the bar for how sculptors create two-dimensional works. By methodically approaching his two-dimensional work with sculptural concerns for context, scale, and form, Serra retorts the genre of “sculptor’s drawings,” which in the past has qualified drawings made by sculptors as preliminary or as minor works. While many contemporary artists almost schizophrenically move through imagery and disciplines, Richard Serra Drawing demonstrates the potential play and variety that is available within an extremely limited vocabulary.

Genevieve Quick
independent scholar