Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mind and Matter Serra Translates Ideas into Physical Realities . . . . . . with His Powerful, Large Black and White Drawings

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mind and Matter Serra Translates Ideas into Physical Realities . . . . . . with His Powerful, Large Black and White Drawings

Article excerpt

THREE or four artists of the post-abstract-expressionist era stand out from the pack and qualify as masters. Richard Serra is one of them. Words that describe his art - tough, serious, uncompromising, demanding, resolute, radical, unadorned, unaffected - describe him as well.

He has a long relationship with St. Louis. Back in 1969, his work was shown in the "Here and Now" show at Washington University and in an exhibition at the old Helman Gallery in Clayton.

He is represented in prominent public and private collections here; on the mall downtown, there is "Twain."

That sculpture, completed in 1982, is an arrangement of Cor-Ten steel plates that makes reference to Eero Saarinen's Arch directly east of it and focuses viewers' attention on nearby buildings and open spaces. "Twain," a work of character and consequence, maintains St. Louis' place in a league of cities such as New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin and Cologne, all of which have works by Richard Serra in prominent places.

Serra is best known these days for large, prepossessing sculptures such as "Twain." But for many years, he has also produced drawings of great intensity.

Last week the St. Louis Art Museum opened an exhibition of recent oil-stick-on-paper drawings by him.

They're hanging in the big gallery upstairs in the East Wing usually occupied by Gerhard Richter's paintings, and they are so emphatic and commanding that the word drawing - or at least the top-of-the-head notion of what a drawing is - doesn't seem to describe them adequately or precisely. The artist insists, however, that is what they are.

"They're not articulated like paintings," Serra said the other day as he and a crew were installing the work at the museum. "There's no painterly surface" - unless you think of a painterly surface in terms of an artist such as Cezanne, who built up thick passages of paint that have emotional and aesthetic strength, entirely apart from the pictorial quality of the work.

Drawing is a fundamental medium and activity. If there can be a direct translation of an idea into physical, visual form, drawing is it. In "Richard Serra at Gemini," published in the early '80s, the artist said, "Drawing is the most conscious space in which I work. It enables me to observe my working process from beginning to end."

In the drawings at the museum, the artist counterposes bold areas of black and white on large, double-thick sheets of Japanese Hiromi paper. Templates are used to establish the boundaries.

Each drawing is actually made of two sheets of paper, which overlap slightly but quite deliberately. There is a lot of muscle involved in their creation. With the paper stapled to the wall, Serra drags the thick, profoundly black medium (made up in bricks the size of bread pans) down the surface of the paper, leaving behind richly textured surfaces that look like bird's-eye views of freshly plowed fields in Illinois, or the blackest night imaginable.

Associations such as those are not what is intended in this work, however. And there is no particular literary or historical context, Serra said. The drawings are about weight and volume and density and placement.

There is an experience behind them, however. Serra said that it happened in a show in 1992 at the Tate Gallery in London. When you go in the front door of the Tate, a long passageway goes from the lobby through the rotunda and on to the back of the building.

A Serra sculpture called "Weight and Measure" was installed in that space, composed of two large steel blocks. These "volumes" were placed so that when you came into the building you saw them both, but your eye did not read immediately the separation between them. The relative height of each volume changed in relation to the other as you walked closer to them; the farther volume appeared to rise.

"The plates were 60 feet apart," Serra said, "but when you looked at them from the front door they looked very close together, but as you came closer the agitation increased between them. …

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