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.