Richard Serra on sketching, mapping, rolling, stapling, cutting, and the other techniques he used to make the works in his Met drawings retrospective.
While preparing for his 60-work, 40-year drawings retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Richard Serra takes me on a grand guided tour of the show via a maquette filled with hand-drawn renditions of often-massive works. His spacious Tribeca studio has been mostly emptied out of the actual works in preparation for the exhibition, which arrives this month at the Met under the curatorial direction of Magdalena Dabrowski.
Serra seems worried, almost humble, about how the show will be received. “I’m not known for my drawings,” he says. “For many people, it’s going to be an aside; for others, though, it might be an eye-opener. The retrospective will show a broad range of work. I am trying to take drawing in an unconventional direction in terms of place, size, process,” the 71-year-old artist explains.
With his wife, Clara Weyergraf-Serra—the “we” in most of his conversation—providing facts, images, and corrections, he begins the tour, which involves my standing on a ladder, neck twisted, to peer into the mock galleries below—offering a Lilliputian view of the Brobdingnagian exhibition. It is difficult to visualize the real works—the sense of weight, breadth, and size in relation to the human body. But the exactitude and enthusiasm with which Serra describes his procedures, choice of materials, and evolution of the works miraculously fleshes them out.
The exhibition opens with drawings in ink, charcoal, and paint stick from the early ’70s before moving on to “Installation Drawings,” which seem to more closely correlate with his sculptures. For Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), Serra stapled two canvases to adjoining walls and then used paint stick to create a dense black surface. With huge-scale drawings like this one, he interacts with architecture, changing the way space is perceived. He points out how Blank (1978), which consists of paint stick and two ten-foot-square pieces of linen on opposite walls facing each other, “creates a new space that differs from the architecture of the room, in effect contracting the space,” he says.
All the drawings are black-and-white. “I work in black because black is weight and gravity,” he says. “A black surface doesn’t reflect; therefore it makes the density of the volume more palpable.” Serra often applies multiple layers of paint stick to the canvas or paper, building surfaces through repetitive action, enabling the work to show what it is, how it was made, and how it might harbor ideas or emotions. But his drawings make no explicit statements. They have their parallels in the laconic repetitions of writer Samuel Beckett and the minimalism of composer Philip Glass.
The first room at the Met holds a large work, called Drawings after Circuit (1972). The drawings in the piece are a diagram of a walkthrough sculpture he made for Documenta 5. They are about mapping—what he saw as he walked around the four plates of the sculpture—”the opening and closing of the plates.” Following this installation is a 14-part roller drawing, in which the pieces work together as a grid. Serra made the untitled work in 1973 in the print shop at Gemini GEL in Los Angeles, using the roller and the ink to make a drawing. “Drawings after Circuit,” the artist points out, “is about perception and movement; the roller drawing is about materiality and process. Both are about the perception of how things come into being.”
After the roller work there is a 1974 drawing he considers a kind of anomaly. For this piece, he drew a line on a sheet of paper and placed a rectangular steel plate on top of it. He then drew an outline around the plate, cut it in half, and put the pieces back on the paper. Wondering how he was going to frame it, Serra recalls, “I told my framer to just make a frame, stick the pieces in without fastening them, and let the plates slip to the bottom, so the halves would separate and show the line as a cut.”
In another untitled drawing on paper from the same time, “the bottom edge of the black rectangle is joined to another piece of paper,” Serra explains, “so the drawing is, in fact, on two pieces of paper. It’s about the paper as the ground, the paper in relation to the figure being on it.” He says, “I thought it avoided the problem of collage.”
Also in 1974, Serra made his first “Installation Drawings” on canvas. He showed two, titled Shafrazi and Zadikians, at his then gallery, Leo Castelli. A third drawing on canvas followed, called Abstract Slavery (1974). It’s a rectangle tilted on a wall with one edge cut perpendicular to the floor.
Two years later, the Art Institute of Chicago gave him permission to make a paint-stick drawing directly on a wall, but with some amusing provisos: he could work only at night and only under the supervision of a guard, and, once in the museum, he couldn’t leave until he was done. So he worked and slept there several nights, wandering the galleries with his guard. He titled the dense round painting Institutionalized Abstract Art, because, he says, “I felt I was being institutionalized.”
In 1989, Serra made a series of large diptychs, which came, he laughs, “right after the dust-up with the government”—referring to the dismantling of his sculpture Tilted Arc (1981), which had been commissioned as a permanent work for New York City’s Federal Plaza, but was considered an obstacle by some people, and an eyesore by others. Titles for the diptychs, such as No Mandatory Patriotism and The United States Government Destroys Art, expressed his feelings at the time. “But it’s just in the title, not in the art,” he says. “It’s my angry moment—it’s my revenge.”
After that he made a series of “Rounds,” heavily labored drawings, which take up one room at the Met. At this point, Serra animatedly details his process: “I take a board, flood it with melted paint stick; then I lay a screen on the paint stick; then I take a piece of paper, put it on top; and then I use a heavy metal tool and incise the back of the paper by putting pressure on it—the tool acts as a kind of roller.” It becomes apparent that part of what the material communicates is the time involved in making it.
Toward the end of the tour emerges the lesser-known Serra—the sentimental romantic within the tough innovator. Atop a long counter are some of his many notebook drawings—sketches from Egypt, Machu Picchu, and Iceland; drawings of a Cézanne painting of a swimmer; homages to the curves of Le Corbusier; and storyboards from a 1978 film he and Clara made, called Steel Mill Saw. These are spontaneous efforts. “The sketchbooks are like daybooks,” he says. “Some contain a lot of writing.”
As for the importance of having the show at the Met at this time in his career, Dabrowski says, “Serra is already an Old Master, and his work still influences young artists. He uses new concepts and new techniques.” And, she adds, “He is not your traditional drawings artist; he is pushing the boundaries of what passes for drawing.”
Ultimately, Serra says, “drawing is about the immediacy of the moment. It is the avenue into perception; it’s a language and a way of seeing and thinking.”
“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” was organized by Bernice Rose, chief curator of drawings at the Menil Collection in Houston, with Michelle White, associate curator at the collection. After its run at the Met (April 13–August 28), the exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from October 15 through January 17, 2012, where it will be presented by senior curator of paintings and sculpture Gary Garrels, and then to the Menil Collection from March 2, 2012, through June 10, 2012.
Barbara A. MacAdam is deputy editor of ARTnews.