Richard Serra is widely known for architecturally scaled steel sculptures, labyrinthine structures often large enough to walk within. This month SFMOMA presents Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, an exhibition of rarely seen, comparably vast drawings that further illuminate the artist's thought process. Consider this a primer to the necessary viewing experience -- reproductions afford little in terms of detail, as such the work "fundamentally requires direct engagement" to paraphrase Gary Garrels, SFMOMA's Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture.
Movement is a necessary act in the production and reception of the work. A small drawing, Verb List (1967-1968), notes dozens of active verbs at the beginning of the exhibition: "to roll, to crease, to fold," and so on. In the first gallery four short videos are interspersed in the display of domestically scaled sculptures -- these works explore the creative potential within repetitive action. In Hand Catching Lead (1968), the artist repeatedly tries to grasp a block of lead as it falls through the air. The focus is on the artist's hand. Everything else, it would appear, is secondary.
Richard Serra, Abstract Slavery, 1974; collection of Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; c. 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Robert Mates and Paul Katz
Often more than 10 feet tall, the drawings embody a physical presence on par with the sculptures, often singularly commanding the galleries. Black oil-based paintstick saturates the picture plane with circular and rectilinear forms -- the shapes are anchored in space, unlimited by gravity. Iron strength is conveyed in their position and they hover more muscularly than float on the paper. You smell the paintstick as much as see it, perhaps more so when the galleries are crowded with people, and this offers an unexpected sensory experience of the work. The black surfaces of the drawings are dense with skidded texture, making evident the physical effort required to produce the drawings. Unexpectedly, these surfaces are similar to the weathered tactility of the sculptures, like the physical characteristics of shared DNA.
Serra's sculptures are often considered drawings in space. Whereas the sculptures appear to challenge gravity through the choice of materials, often steel or lead, the drawings on paper rely on perception. A timeline in the exhibition catalogue details an experience from Serra's childhood that shaped his work indelibly. As a four-year-old, he watched a tanker in a shipyard as it was rolled off of its cradle and the buoyancy of the vessel was a revelation: "All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory, which has become a recurring dream."
Richard Serra, notebook: Tilted Arc, 1988; collection of the artist; c. 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever
Invariably while considering one of his large public sculptures, one wonders how it arrived in place. The same can be said of the removal of his work, as with the famously contentious public sculpture Tilted Arc (1981), commissioned for Manhattan's Federal Plaza. Following protracted public debate, the 120 foot long Cor-Ten steel sculpture was dismantled, removed overnight and ferreted away to "storage," never to be seen again. Its legacy, however, and the discourse that continues to swirl around it are prominent in cultural memory. A display of sketchbooks in the exhibition features simple line drawings pulled across the page in thick black lines. The sketches are assertive and forcefully made. No dainty dashes here, only bold strokes. Of the several on display, one depicts Tilted Arc with little fanfare -- it is dated 1988, just before the work was removed. When asked about this bevy of sketches, sampled from a career of sketching in notebooks, the artist is unsentimental: "All memory is fictitious."
Installation view, courtesy SFMOMA.
But Serra's work extends beyond the visual experience into the realm of the senses, where memories are produced by more than just what we saw. We recall the temperature shift when walking through the artist's sculptures or the subtle scent of oil that hangs in the air around his drawings. Small, secondary details such as these are archived by imagination and when summoned, the recollection floods forth with startling precision. Amazingly, these subtleties bring Serra's drawings and sculptures into sharp focus. Once again the experience looms large, even when gone from sight.
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is on view at SFMOMA through January 16, 2012; it premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this spring and will travel to the Menil Collection, Houston, spring 2012. For more information visit sfmoma.org.
Public sculptures by Richard Serra currently on view in the Bay Area include Sequence (2006), temporarily installed at Stanford University's Cantor Art Center; it will be relocated to SFMOMA upon completion of their upcoming expansion. (Read Ben Marks's August 2 article.) Ballast (2004) is on permanent view at UCSF's Mission Bay campus. (See Spark video on the installation of Ballast.)