Intent or Artifact: Richard Serra’s Drawings.
I will confess that I have long had a fascination with the drawings of sculptors. Drawing as a medium is immediate in a way no other medium is; a mark on paper direct from the artist’s hand is about as close to thought or intent as you can get. Where a painter’s hand will leave an equivalent gesture from drawing to painting (think of Terry Winters or Brice Marden), a sculptor (may) have an interesting turn as the marks turn to towards the artist’s thinking in three dimensions. There was something to a drawing with the directness of a schematic, something only as refined as it needed to be yet dealing with idiosyncratic manufacture that spoke to me, but in a dialect I couldn’t quite fathom.
Richard Serra’s drawings approached this basic interest from the opposite horizon. His sculptural output seems to be about taking the basic language of art that is regularly commanded by drawing (line, volume, mass, gesture) and transposing it into sculpture (and from sculpture, one could argue, to architecture). A product of the late 60’s, Serra’s early concerns dovetailed with larger questions raised by the reductiveness of late Modernism in a way that could not help but engage painting. His early installation works of paintstick on linen stapled directly to the wall could easily be called paintings if the artist wanted to. (And matches the polished and otherwise anonymous metal wall reliefs of painters like Ellsworth Kelly.)
Abstract Slavery (1974) is a monochrome masterpiece of subtle orientations of mass, angle, and material that communicates with little in the way of vocabulary beyond the considerable work of making it. One edge is trimmed perpendicular to the floor, and the irregular plane suggests a cut into space that remains flat on the wall. The scale and irregularity alter the viewer’s space with a shove, which is about as direct as communication gets.
As a retrospective of his drawings organized by the Menil collection opens at the Metropolitan Museum, viewers will get a chance to see a less trumpeted side of the artist, his commitment to process. Serra’s drawings are not composed pictorially, but of an intent to act on a space or material. Since his heralded list of verbs and his under-recognized process based works of splashing, scattering, and other action on found industrial material that preceded his props, the artist’s commitment to the materials and process has not been as explored. Large bends in steel plates are not always talked about for the work of their making, but it is clear that the artist approaches them in this fashion, as would the ship builders whose steel plants help manufacture the pieces. Likewise his approach to his drawings exhibits a particular rigor that does not necessarily privilege the object.
Laura Gilbert’s look at the provenance and dating of the material that will be on view strikes me as utterly beside the point. The “installation drawings” simply do not exhibit any concern with finicky notions of a precious object or the artist’s hand. It is likely that anonymous assistants did a good deal of the manual labor of applying heated paintstick to linen, and it seems much more appropriate to consider those pieces of linen as no more special than a particular plate of steel or lead. Any minor surface inflection is beside the point, and with them dates of production or concerns about whether they are originals or copies. They are, as the artist bluntly states, material.
That is not to say that the Mr. Serra has discarded any care about his work in favor of some ephemeral notion of the dissolution of the art object; how could anyone with such an obvious dedication to weight and mass? I continually find myself thinking about his early work To Lift in MoMA’s collection. Made by the artist simply grabbing a piece of vulcanized rubber and lifting it up off the floor so that the sheet could support the weight of its new found (sculptural) volume, it is as direct a gesture as drawing can get. My engagement with the work comes from my day job as an art handler tasked to pack and crate works for shipment. Looking at the task of crating the sculpture with little information other than the picture, I wondered if the volume needed to be crated, or if we might just be shipping a flat piece of rubber that would be “re-lifted” for the exhibition. There was also the chance that nothing would be sent, and a new piece of rubber would be trimmed to size and lifted, duplicating the original (an exhibition copy).
Any of these courses of action would potentially fit within Mr. Serra’s practice. As it turns out I was able to talk to a colleague who had designed a crate for the work, one that supported a very aged fold of vulcanized rubber (a decidedly non-archival material that does not age well). I asked after the possibility of replacing the rubber, and it turns out that the artist was unconcerned with change in the material over time, looking at it as a natural process in the life of the piece. In the end the matter is one of an artist with a realized and considered practice working through his concerns through an engagement with materials and the process enacted on them; just as some bent plates sitting in a steel yard in the Bronx do not a Serra make, some new linen, paintstick, and staples do not change the artist’s intentions on the space around him, or us.