For more than 40 years, Richard Serra has been a critical figure in the history of art, and that of sculpture, specifically. As an eager audience following his myriad exhibitions, we’ve observed Serra’s trajectory—from early sculptures in experimental materials to those in steel made at industrial foundries—and his persistent challenges, both physical and conceptual, to preexisting practices. Serra established a new narrative in contemporary sculpture, and for this he has been thoroughly canonized.
Enter, then, Serra’s drawing practice. Arguably lesser known and decidedly more demanding, this body of work he routinely describes as distinct from his sculptural practice. The exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is, surprisingly, the first comprehensive survey of Serra’s extensive and ever-evolving drawing oeuvre, which, like his sculpture, began in the 1960s. The careful selection affords us an opportunity to consider his drawing on its own terms and to understand it more wholly.
The show’s first, rather densely installed gallery offers an essential window onto Serra’s early experimentation with drawing, including trial-and-error stages prior to the mature drawings found in the next room. A more casual piece like Drawings after Circuit (1972)—24 sheets each containing three or four vertical paintstick lines-incorporates the basic vocabulary of drawing, yet explicitly relates to an earlier sculpture and offers the artist’s perception of the work after the fact. By contrast, Untitled (14-Part Roller Drawing), 1973, is an independent process work based on a preconceived idea; varying numbers of roller strokes result in the buildup and reduction of ink. Yet another approach emerges in an approximately 9-by-20-foot untitled drawing from 1974, made from two attached sheets of paper. Serra activates the paper itself as an essential part of the work’s form by counterbalancing the blank sheet in the lower half with the applied band of paintstick above.
The real story begins, however, in the early 1970s, when Serra chooses to wrangle space in response to supporting architec- ture: this attention to context becomes a critical aspect of his ambitious project, which works to redefine the very nature of drawing. Particularly successful is Abstract Slavery, of 1974 (the work’s title, in part, seeming to announce Serra’s decision to separate from object-oriented Minimalism, even in his drawing practice). In this 91⁄2-by-171⁄2-foot piece, Serra subtly disrupts our visual expectations as he creates an asymmetrical trapezoid, disturbingly tense in its understated challenge to the rectilinear space it inhabits. Quickly expanding on this spatial engagement is Pacific Judson Murphy (1978); the enormous paintstick-on-linen work, spanning two walls of a room, is not intended to be read as a distant panorama. Instead, Serra tempts the viewer to walk into the drawing—to interact with it while standing in its midst. (Here the comparison to his sculpture—for example, the 1974–75 Delineator-becomes especially relevant.) Taraval Beach (1977), an exhibition highlight, summons viewers down a corridor. A tall work installed floor to ceiling, it dominates (and dramatically alters) the gallery it inhabits, complicating visual assumptions about figure-ground relationships; its remarkably flat surface seems to recede into the wall or dissolve into a black void. The drawing not only affects the surrounding space but momentarily seems to become space.
By the 1980s, Serra began to make smaller-scale drawings that confronted issues ranging from weight, gravity, process and materiality to the elimination of figure-ground tension. The “Rounds” (1997) and “Solids” (2007-08), seeming to echo his famous Splashings from the 1960s, are process-oriented accretions of paintstick with highly textured, almost abject, surfaces. The final gallery, which wisely bookends the show with early pieces, includes Serra’s Verb List (1967–68)—a programmatic key for the work that would follow—along with four short films (all 1968), each elaborating on an action of the hand.
The exhibition can be construed as a virtual archive of Serra’s artistic interests: pure drawing engaged with line, installation drawings defining space, objectlike pieces such as Forged Drawing (1977/2008), performative films, process-based works, drawings directly related to sculptures and, finally, his personal notebooks. As a final realm to ponder, the unexpected notebooks, never before exhibited, demonstrate Serra’s compulsion to put pen to paper-and to narrate what he sees through drawing. Rarely have we been afforded such a personal view of Serra the artist and what he sees, now set alongside of what these perceptions have prompted him to make and do.
“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” is at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Apr. 13–Aug. 28.
Photos: Above, Richard Serra: Taraval Beach, 1977, paintstick on linen, dimensions variable. Below, Untitled (14-Part Roller Drawing), 1973, ink on paper, 14 sheets, 33 by 49 inches each.