Magazine article Artforum International

"Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective": Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

"Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective": Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Article excerpt

IT IS DIFFICULT to imagine drawing without sculpture in the work of Richard Serra. We inevitably invoke them together, even when drawing is the topic at hand. Drawing is always understood to be secondary, yet Serra himself has long said that his sculpture deploys--even that it is-drawing, by which he means that it represents the functional application of drawing as an operation. Specifically, it is his idea of drawing as "cut" that has, since the 1970s, determined two basic properties of his sculpture: the physical partition of material elements and the way the work itself is made to divide (or "cut" through) actual space. Conversely, if we name the chief concerns of Serra's sculpture as he has identified them over time--cut and elevation, the mobile observer, the investigation of the physical and material properties of a medium, and the unmediated psychocorporeal sensation of weight and space--we produce a list that can equally be said to apply to his drawings per se.

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These considerations are raised by "Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective," a traveling show organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, and on view this past spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (The exhibition was curated by Bernice Rose and Michelle White, of the Menil, and Gary Carrels, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Serra rarely displays drawing and sculpture together: There were, for instance, no drawings in his 2007 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Though drawing and sculpture are reciprocal practices, perhaps incorporating both kinds of work in a single exhibition would diminish the urgency of a discrete encounter, which most of Serra's works (being premised on phenomenological immersion) might be said to require or, at least, to invite. That is, we don't just look at a work of Serra's; we contend with it. Many of the drawings (such as Abstract Slavery, 1974, and Taraval Beach, 1977/2011) occupy large segments of a wall, and their dimensions wield scale--the proportional relation of the object to the body and the room--in a manner comparable to some of the works in steel. In Blank, 1978, for example, we enter the work, two ten-foot-square panels that face each other on either side of a small space. Being largely didactic, a retrospective exhibition can, in its own way, compromise our encounter with the art; still, it acquaints us with a range of activity, and, depending on the selection, it can also help us unpack the work's internal logic.

Serra makes multiple kinds of drawing using various media, including charcoal, graphite, lithographic crayon, and paint stick. Sketchbooks, more than two dozen of which are included in the exhibition, show him responding to specific sites (such as the pyramids at Saqqara) or developing--through the quick sketch--ideas for sculpture. Larger sheets tend to be process-oriented. The medium is worked--here generally tracing a circular path--using means that restrict the artist's control, including procedures or devices (such as screens) that prevent him from seeing the drawing as it develops. The enormous "installation drawings," which are executed on linen panels and stapled to the wall, require many hours, even days, of relentless labor--of leaning in and pressing hard. At the Met, Serra himself performed this labor for Union, a site-specific work produced expressly for this show, and for a re-creation of Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976/2011, the only work executed directly on the wall. Black paint stick, formed into blocks and heated to facilitate application, is laid on in broad rectangular fields, adhering to the surface like sludge. The result, in both optical and material terms, is heavy: dark, thick, and literally full of weight. These drawings are anti-image; what makes them drawings at all is a stark opposition of medium to bare support. Their purpose is to seize a wall and thereby influence one's sensation of habitable space. …

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