Picture 1: Richard Serra, Abstract Slavery, 1974; paintstick on Belgian linen; 114 x 212 inches; collection of Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Robert Mates and Paul Katz

Richard Serra: A Retrospective


Richard Serra is the quintessential modern artist. The exhibition Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art makes obvious that he’s immune to convention, a follower of no movement, and firm against authority—occasionally even his own. He’s unrelentingly devoted to originality, thinking only about here and now and never looking over his shoulder. What’s modernity if not this?


The drawings in the exhibition are only drawings in a broad sense, as intentional markings on a flat surface can be. But, as the title implies, it’s not the drawings that are shown, but the making of those markings by Richard Serra for the past 40 years. One of the installations in the exhibition, a huge, totally black rectangle on Belgian linen he produced with a paintstick crayon in 1974, is entitled Abstract Slavery. The title refers not to some narrative about social oppression but to the monotonous, obsessive act of blackening the entire surface with a crayon. Soon after, he melted several crayons of black paintstick into a compact brick, so that he could cover wider areas in less time and with less effort and boredom.

Applying black pigment to a flat surface: what could be simpler, right? Not so fast. The process of crafting is essential to Serra’s work. It’s by crafting art that he frees himself from the techniques of the past that would lead to predictable results. A recent series of such works, the Solids (2007-2008) involved melting the pigment on the floor, transferring it onto a piece of paper, and only then applying it to the fabric. The result is a thick layer of paintstick, the thickness approximately 1/16 of an inch, on an uneven surface, that absorbs light and gives very little in return. It isn’t a drawing and it isn’t a painting—it’s something new.


In the 1970s, Serra began producing very large such drawings, for lack of a better word. The common misconception about these installations is that they establish a dialogue with the architecture of the place. Of course, large diptychs of black surface, floor to ceiling high, on opposite walls, such as Blank (1978) or Union (2011), do something to the space of the gallery around them.


Picture 2: Richard Serra, Blank, 1978; paintstick on Belgian linen; 2 parts, each 120 ¼ x 120 ¼ inches; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni


“The black canvases absorb light.” Serra writes, “they don’t reflect light. They contain it and thereby intensify mass.”  The two dimensions of a black surface communicate mass, and therefore volume, and change the geometry of the space around them. But they would only be partially successful without the presence of an observer. The dialogue is not between art and architecture, but between the architecture modified by the installation and its visitors. The drawing installations, Serra says, not only “alter the perception of the volume of a space, they also reassert its structural principles and physical identity, in that they call attention to the architecture’s boundaries and edges.”


There are other such installations, some occupying the corner of a room, such as Pacific Judson Murphy (1978),  others establishing alarming tensions between the walls and the floor. The show contains other series as well, some about body gestures, some about mass as weight, and some about the process and techniques of making art.


Doing art with his hands is no mere exercise, it is also a form of investigation. It’s the making of art, he told recently an interviewer, that suggests what comes next. On two pages of a notebook, framed on one of the gallery walls, is a list of verbs, such as “to scatter,” “to spray,” or “to hide.” Verbs denote actions. This is not just a shopping list, but a program of themes to explore, things to do, and results to attain. Each work embodies one or more of these themes, each explored to the point where they are exhausted.

But the exhibition shows some sketchbooks as well, something he always carries around with him. They’re full of ideas, thoughts or annotations, as he calls them. They’re about the world around him, pure ideas, art he’s seen, or places he’s visited. Of course, an artist who disdains tradition must have a remarkable knowledge of the history of art of all ages; how could he avoid following others’ footsteps, otherwise? Two of the books show sketches of the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, not very far from the border with Switzerland. This is a beautiful but odd project by Le Corbusier, the closest he ever was to the Romanesque cathedrals. 


Picture 3: Richard Serra, notebook: Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut: Ronchamp, France, 1991; graphite on paper; sheet: 8 ¼ x 11 ¾ inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever


With its heavy roof , thick walls, and small windows it expresses the mass of medieval architecture. It is a line of thought that also occupies Serra’s mind. This is the reason for the retrospective, to see the connections between the themes in Serra’s entire work. Personally, he says, he cares only for the next effort.

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