3.4 / Review

Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective

By Lea Feinstein November 1, 2011

Richard Serra is a man of action. In the retrospective Richard Serra Drawing currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), his most compelling drawings preserve the energy of the actions that created them in traces left by the movements of the artist’s hand and arm. His famous list of action verbs is posted unobtrusively near the entrance to the show. Don’t miss it. As well as suggesting the motions he has explored in his drawings, it is the key to operations he performed on various materials in his studio that resulted in such iconic sculptures as To Lift (1967), in vulcanized rubber, and Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift (1969/1995), in poured molten lead, both on view in this exhibition. “To draw” also means “to drag,” and in these assembled works, Serra exploits this action fully.

A Drawing in Five Parts (2005) is a recording of a series of arcs that he made by swinging his arm at full length across five sheets of paper. Over and over Serra swings and strokes, leaving thick black tracks of oil stick crayon that begin and end somewhere off the page. In each drawing, multiple black arcs reverberate differently with negative white spaces. In series, the grouped drawings create a rhythmic vortex that activates the entire wall.

In Untitled (14-part roller drawing) (1973), Serra obeyed a set of self-imposed rules, creating the sequence almost mechanically. The artist chose a heavy, inked rubber roller, one commonly used for inking printers’ plates, as his tool. He selected fourteen large sheets of paper and divided each into halves. Beginning with the first sheet, he rolled fourteen layers of thick black ink onto the left side, leaving the right side blank. In subsequent drawings he rolled inked passes onto the right side of the page, increasing the number by one in each, while decreasing the number of passes on the left by one. So, thirteen on the left, one on the right; twelve on the left, two on the right, and so on, until he reached the midpoint with seven roller passes on the left and seven on the right. Then he continued the process until the left side of the page was blank and the right side contained fourteen heavily inked passes. The resulting series is both powerful and surprisingly lyrical—even musical. There is a steady, methodical movement across the whole. Intervals of density and luminosity, moiré patterns, and soft, feathered edges offer subtle variations in the rhythm. The artist’s gesture with the heavy roller is preserved impeccably.


Installation view, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, 2011. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: Ian Reeves.


Blank, 1978; paintstick on Belgian linen; two parts, each 120.25 x 120.25 in. Collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni.

Serra often addresses this balance and imbalance between black and white. In his wall-size oil stick drawings, he works on a much larger scale and to different effect. He subtly cuts an edge or tilts a rectangle so that it becomes a trapezoid, a giant illusory mass slightly off-kilter, teetering. The strokes of his tool—a brick of black pigment and wax formed by melting painter’s oil sticks together—are ordered and directional. They fall vertically like heavy black rain, emphasizing gravity, the plane of the wall, and the endless gesture of Serra’s hand and arm, rising and falling, dragging the pigment. The visual weight of the big black drawings echoes the literal weight of his giant steel slab sculptures. And the charged spaces created in the gallery accord with the tactile spaces he creates in his sculptures.

In the site-specific Blank (1978), two 120-by-120-inch black panels, densely encrusted with overlapping strokes of black oil stick, face each other across a small gallery. Dominating their respective walls, the dark panels also butt up against the back white wall, forming corners where black meets stark white. The black panels both frame and crowd the smooth white space that separates them. Far from being simply a drawing on a wall, the piece creates palpable tension in the space.

An assortment of his notebooks assembled for this exhibition reveals sketches and notational drawings Serra has made during his travels. At a recent press preview, the artist spoke about his repeated visits to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel. He described the volume of the space as an entity in itself, created by the thick walls pierced by light coming through small windows. The notebooks are a rewarding glimpse into his mind’s eye, as he gestures mass against mass, or the angle of a built form against the horizon line. His finished drawings distill and enlarge these concerns with volume, density, light, scale, movement, and labor. 

The context of an exhibition can change everything. This past summer, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, I stumbled from the crowded Alexander McQueen show into the quiet, adjacent spaces where this same exhibition of Serra’s drawings was installed. Compared with McQueen’s exotic visions, Serra’s giant black walls seemed emotionally cold and cerebral. On view now at the SFMOMA, the same work (with a few additions) seems warm and sensuous—the product of sustained effort and passionate restraint.



Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 16, 2012

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