Charcoal on paper; 29 3/4 x 41 1/2 in.
Black shapes become a dominant force in Richard Serra’s Drawing Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heavy applications of oil stick on varied supports create an architectural and sculpturally inhabitable place for the viewer. Serra is one of the best known living Minimalist sculptors, and the Met has allowed us a glimpse at the drawing work that shows his talents in creating physical spaces within a two dimensional format. The connection of Serra’s sculptures and drawings is evident in this retrospective in many ways.
Upon entering in the galley we are faced with some of his earliest works on paper and linen. They are much smaller than the drawings that occur later in the exhibition. Untitled, 1972, a drawing executed in charcoal on paper begins to show his Minimalist language as well as how his drawings influence his sculpture. This drawing is heavily worked, showing erasure and redrawing, as well as the maker’s fingerprints and smudges. The labored process of this drawing creates movement and makes its trapezoidal shape vibrate. Although this drawing is fairly small in comparison to the rest of the exhibition, it creates an illusionistic space by the use of perspective and gesture where as the oil stick drawings, because of their size, create a physical space. Untitled utilizes all the corners of the paper, creating great tension as if this shape were going to bust out of its surface and exist in the third dimension. In many respects this work parallels his early sculptures that have this uneasy tension where they feel as though it might fall on the spectator.
Blank, 1978, is an imposing two-panel oil stick drawing on linen. Both panels are a little over ten feet by ten feet and are placed on opposite walls. Upon entering this space one can see the marks left by the oil stick on the rough linen and smell the odor of the thick oil stick. Blank creates an inhabitable sculpture. One feels enveloped by the black sheet; when one stands between the two panels they begin to close in on you and make you aware of your body in relation to them. Drawing usually does not have this effect on a viewer, the size, material, and color all create this effect and truly make this drawing a sculpture. As a Minimalist Serra’s work seems devoid of representational content, however, it seems that by creating this type of drawing he is commenting on the history of drawing, and what drawing can be. Serra is pushing the boundaries with these large black panels and making the viewer think more deeply about what is sculpture and what is drawing or does that question even matter in a contemporary art world? Blank is not the only one of these mutli-panel drawings it shares many characteristics with drawings such as Pacific Judson Murphy, Abstract Slavery, and others in their surface and grand scale.
Serra’s framed horizontal multi-sheet paper drawings such as The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989, are some of the most appealing works in the exhibition. This drawing references his court battles of the eighties in relation to Tilted Arc located in lower Manhattan, funded by NEA, and removed after a long court battle because of some complaints from tenants in the federal buildings which surrounded the plaza. This work has two large squares put together and one is tipped at a slight angle. Putting two pieces of paper together one at an angle creates visual tension, in relation to the title we can read into this minimal work more clearly. This drawing is reminiscent of Malevich’s Suprematist work with squares and rectangles in black and white. The United States Government Destroys Art, is drawn with oil stick, and like the Blank has a heavy texture and smell. The large drawings are reminiscent of his steel sculptures especially in their tactility by way of oil stick. This texture is achieved through multiple layers of application of the oil stick. The oil stick is applied in a vertical and horizontal application in layers to build up the surface. This build up shows the history of the mark and upon further investigation reveals the detailed and concise making of the surface. These multi-panel vertical works (Weight and Measure IX) seem to reference Rothko. The black is more feathered along its edges and has a white (blank) center like many of Rothko’s paintings. In many respects these drawings become more contemplative compositions. They aren’t as hard edged as the enormous oil stick drawings that reference sculpture. Works like The United States Government Destroys Art are more approachable for a viewer and the title gives the viewer more insight into the artists’ intentions, or comments on Serra’s own situation.
This retrospective works on many levels, it shows us his earliest drawings, sketchbooks, his large sculptural drawings, as well as drawings that seem to reference art history through the work of Malevich and Rothko. Even though Serra is considered a Minimalist, there is a lot of content to be read into his works, formally, art historically, and Serra’s own court battle. The connections of Serra’s sculptures are evident in his drawings, and show the confluence between medias. Many times retrospectives can be dull and monotonous, but the scale of the work and his varied formats keeps the viewer interested and wanting more.