Friday, April 20, 2012

Richard Serra: Drawing in Space

Richard Serra
Taraval Beach, 1977
Paintstick on Belgian linen
Shown installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Whitney Biennial Collection of the artist Artwork by Richard Serra (c) 2012 Richard Serra
Photo: BeVan Davies

Relative to other modes of visual expression drawing is perhaps the most elemental, immediate, and direct.  Historically, it has been one obliged to service as a largely preparatory underpinning of art-making, and in the Western tradition has earned a space for independent consideration only comparatively recently.  By no means the exclusive province of drawing however, the physicality of mark-making also exists as an obvious and essential ingredient of written communication.  Writing by hand, the figures of letters and words must—irrespective of their individual or collective meanings—be drawn as both a preparatory and integral measure of their production, a process whereby writing ensnares thought, and drawing, signification.  However unintended or imperceptible, the consequence of such a circuit is that literal physicality gives rise to generative conception by way of paths both formative and receptive.  Considered in this way, making and cognition achieve an elusive procedural feedback which stands apart from—and even resists our common expectations for—where along this chain intention, as a decisive inertial moment truly lies.

Exploring this Möbius-like circularity is an exhibition organized by the Menil Collection, “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective.”  The third and final destination for the exhibition which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and remains on view at the Menil in Houston through the 10th of June—the retrospective examines not the sculptural forms for which Serra is most broadly known, but instead takes a view of his drawing discipline. 

This relationship of mark-making and meaning has greatly occupied art-theoretical mechanisms since its early confrontation at the hands of the Impressionists, and since Modernism has coalesced as an inescapable point of consideration with arguments whose forms have grown more refined as their employment has grown more radical.  Engaging methods for conceptually and procedurally distilling, if not resolving, these concerns is a point of preoccupying interest for Richard Serra.  It is profound understatement to say that Serra’s work is neither light nor easy; to engage it meaningfully requires an investment of consideration.  But among the retrospective’s accomplishments, one of significance is its ability to suggest Serra’s formal investigations in viscerally intuitive, rather than purely external, academic terms.  To some extent it is the curation and compressive context which foster this access—forcing apart and rendering observable the fundamental particles of his work as one might the composition of atomic nuclei, by slamming them against one another.

One such beneficiary of this contextual framing is his piece “Drawings after Circuit.”  Here 24 drawings are arranged into three rows of eight, with each framed sheet comprised of three or four individual, uninterrupted vertical paintstick marks.  More than many of the exhibited works, this piece bears a direct correlation with Serra’s sculpture.  Known for his somewhat idiosyncratic habit of making sketches which do not precede—but rather follow and respond—to his own installed sculptural works, Serra composed this series of drawings based on his own physical engagement with and reaction to his sculpture “Circuit,” an installation comprised of four steel plates, each reaching on the diagonal, out from the corners of the room.  The marks echo his motion through the space, varying in their length and placement.  But rather than serving to relate his drawing to his sculpture in reactive or derivational terms, the work and its simple, repetitive, meditative marks suggests among the most persuasive and articulate arguments for Serra’s sculpture as being highly informed by his drawing concern, embodying the experiential scaling of and impulse toward a drawing made physical—a drawing in space.

Hardly blooms unfolding to the mere touch of observation, then, Serra’s drawings are much more theoretical devices, mechanisms which when carefully probed often reveal a lever, a means by which the work may be opened in remarkable, if somewhat paradoxical ways.  The lesser works, however, do not do this.  And it is the ironic flipside of the retrospective that, while it provides the collisions which pry apart some of these recalcitrant works, that same context reveals others as essentially inert.  Such examples include the several “Untitled” works from the early ‘70s, images of rhomboid shapes or of circular forms which prefigure the Rounds and Solids to emerge later, or which invoke the more structural or architectural concerns of his sculpture.  While certainly handsome, they nevertheless resolve as far less compelling than their peers.

There are other casualties as well, but of a different sort.  Serra’s Installation Drawings, without question the main feature of the exhibition, are also works of extraordinary contextual fragility, with properties of light, room volume, and wall dimension substantively influencing their resonant properties.  Among these, “Triangle” and “Diamond,” pieces of heavily worked paintstick on Belgian linen trimmed in accord with the shapes their names suggest, feel uncharacteristically more localized in time than space, while other celebrated pieces are simply ill at ease.  “Pacific Judson Murphy,” a paintstick on linen which provocatively turns a corner, and “Blank,” two black paintstick fields which antagonize each other from across the room, each suggest having perfected their fight within the pre-war architectural context prevailing among New York institutions, but here seem decidedly unhappy with the excess of space, while “Abstract Slavery” appears equally discontent in the natural lighting and with the ceiling well beyond the reach of its threatening gestures.

Conversely, the vast black monolithic expanse of “Taraval Beach,” isolated in its own chamber and reaching floor to ceiling—the tooth of the Belgian linen resolving beneath the heavily matted paintstick to intone sculptural rather than graphic processes—cannot have been happier in life, with the draft and beam of the Menil apparently tailored for fit.  It is a work simultaneously of brutal confrontation and monastic concentration, and vividly illustrates Serra’s refutation of drawing’s conventional delineations of either gesture or form.

Richard Serra
out-of-round X, 1999
Paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper
79 ½ x 79 inches
Collection of the artist
Artwork by Richard Serra (c) 2012 Richard Serra
Photo: Rob McKeever
Among such conceptually preoccupied company one might expect Serra’s Rounds to offer a standout dose of narcotic immediacy, but they are unexpectedly swamped by the trio “No Mandatory Patriotism,” “Pittsburgh,” and “The United States Courts are Partial to Government.”  Excepting “Pittsburgh,” these are works whose titles invoke the vitriol of Serra’s contentious legal battle to preserve his sculpture “Tilted Arc,” and its eventual destruction.  In this case, the works are framed diptychs whose pigmented surfaces achieve a rich granularity by Serra’s application of meat grinder-prepared paintstick.  Unlike the Installation Drawings, here the use of frames proves essential for the dictatorial spatial control Serra employs, forging tension between the forms as they crowd against each other and their context.  These pieces are imbued with a distinct, raw visual intensity—a blind exquisitely rendered ferocity; and which, it might be added, succeed further by inducing the keen lamentations of a life spent in all the ways that will never bring one home.      

More than any one piece however, to truly submit oneself to this work is to be taken into the close and volatile confidence of a professional tuff, one whose assertions range between the opaque and the sublime—but are delivered with unswerving bare-knuckled, ecclesiastical certitude in every case.  In a very real sense, Serra’s drawings are the argumentative explorations for which they are their own artifactual proofs.  Despite the occasional sparsely-sutured point of self-referential closure, the severity and continuity of this argumentation can nevertheless astonish.  Serra’s concern is so adamantly theoretical that even additional powers of magnification seem to yield a startling coherence. 

In many cases the interstitial dimensions of Serra’s drawings are so close, the conceptual tolerances so tight, and the considerations of good and bad, like and dislike, so carefully circumvented, they seem almost quaintly irrelevant.  Instead, agree or disagree seem to be the valuational terms on offer.  But one is warned to mind the apparently egalitarian tone: Serra means to do irreparable violence to drawing’s formal considerations.  And if amongst its arsenal, a singular defense remains, it can only be the extent to which Serra’s work interdependently requires and relies upon those very semantical terms in order to entrench, define, and substantiate his opposition to them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Beautiful Malaise

Image Courtesy Focus Features

To begin:  A woman on the center aisle sent something like a toaster clattering improbably from her purse.  It was followed somehow by more.  And when she upended her sack to retrieve them, its entire remaining contents scattered like marbles.  Her bag had a marvelous capacity.  The theater and lobby were menacingly joined.  With the consequence that jangling registers and the prattle of fructose fingered attendants played on beneath anything resembling silence.  The only toilet on the whole of the main floor had been crammed beneath the projector.  Its flush was melodious.  Also, it seems sufferers of respiratory distress are keen enthusiasts for le Carré.  Popcorn was provided in brown paper bags so that every other sound was that of Christmas morning.  Hot dogs were cunningly served upon two microwave-hardened, tractionless halves of unjoined bun—to attempt one in the dark is its own occupation.  And for the certainty of good measure, the fellow at the aisle’s end fell asleep halfway through, and his gentle wife endured his snoring until compelled by the astonished choir of laughter to wake him.

And also there was the film.

Handsome and Impenetrable

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the Manila-foldered reality of the espionage business at the waning edges of the Cold War, and the byzantine frameworks which make secret keeping possible, and the apparatus for keeping them, vulnerable.  This current treatment directed by Tomas Alfredson, is the first to bring George Smiley (le Carré’s rain soaked protagonist) to the screen since 1979, when Sir Alec Guinness deftly handled the role in a mini-series adaptation.  Here it is reprised by Gary Oldman in a spare, sepia-tone vision of the 1970s information trade.  The work draws from the memory and furtive imaginings which are the property of le Carré, and to be sure it is no matter of sunshine and flowers. 

In life David Cornwell, the man for whom John le Carré is the Savile Row nom de plume, served as a bona fide spook for British Intelligence during the fifties and sixties.  And despite such nervy firsthand experience, or perhaps because of it, his work aligns at a great distance from the flash bang of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and centers itself instead on a high-resolution, macro view of the espionage business—its back rooms and book keeping—and upon the richly nuanced and brilliantly turned out characters which populate it.  With concern to mannerism Alfredson’s film adaptation faithfully renders the cold coffee, warm gin, and nicotine stained ambiance which hangs in the book’s air like the residue of a pub at close.  The setting is distinct and the mood is singularly palpable.  Regrettably however, while the dress and atmosphere of “Tinker Tailor” are points for praise, those other dimensions of le Carré’s painstakingly crafted work—those beyond the mere occasion of its backdrop—its convincing characterization and deeply constructed storyline, are both conspicuously absent.  

Precisely what obligation if any, a filmmaker holds out for the source of his material is a point with a history of broad interpretation.  Where the most liberal interpretations flourish, they generally do so by forging toward the essence of plot and character such that the filmmakers may have their merry way with what’s left.  On the other hand are works whose scope or structure is so vast, or so tightly bound, that they lend themselves poorly to attempts at creative manipulation.  What Alfredson and his screenwriter’s have chosen is a work belonging to the latter, and ill advisedly provided a treatment which belongs to the former.  The result despite all its careful attention to the topiary of 1970s men’s fashion, or the gritty tropes of 70s cinematographic techniques, nevertheless reveals as only slightly more than the stylish commercial for the film one expects to see: the film which responds intelligently to the source material; the one rightly expected to be superb.

It is true that the filmmaker lacks the narrative space which is the novelist’s luxury, with the consequence that he must considerably distill and refit the material in transcription.  In “Tinker Tailor” however, Alfredson fritters away precious time on countless establishing shots of Smiley treading delicately along English lanes as though struggling with incontinence; or upon a rush of abstracted interactions—no doubt intended as a stand-in for character development—with and between characters we do not, nor in this film, do we ever know.  In the same way that a rambling diatribe about toasters, whooping cough, and slippery hotdogs does nothing to expedite the substance of a film review, so endless clever cutaways to dumbwaiters, or holiday parties imbued with the implication of significant gravity, do nothing to advance the framework of a highly faceted espionage film.

The doom that comes to this draft of “Tinker Tailor” was certainly not preordained, but comes largely as the result of the free hand which Alfredson and his writers seek to have with its retelling, along with a considerable preference for style over substance.  Le Carré himself had his work cut out in composing this story, and his narrative and structural decisions are informed largely by the necessary balance of tension with the simple imperative of expediency.  Whereas in the film, where the first thing we know (when we know nothing at all) is that there’s a mole: in the book this revelation doesn’t present itself for some seventy pages, during a scene in which Peter Guillam has spirited Smiley away in his sports car to a meeting at Lacon’s shambling wood-paneled estate, and Ricki Tarr unfolds the elaborate and compelling tale which facilely introduces the pertinent players, and jump starts the narrative with a purpose.  The decision to trade this elegant section for the cubist early movements of the film, may have been the single most costly mistake of the enterprise.  The cohesion achieved with le Carré’s one scene is never replicated in the course of the entire film.      

The irritating paradox of “Tinker Tailor” is that despite utterly failing to convey an intelligible story, wasting a flawless cast, entirely missing the mark with regard to character—le Carré’s Smiley however dry and reserved, remains richly pearlescent, where Alfredson’s Smiley is merely dead—everything praiseworthy about it, belongs not to the film, but to the book: thereby reserving as the film’s principle accolade the simple fact of having chosen it.