(The Retrospective has been at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York, and is, for a few more days, at SFMOMA and will soon move to the Menil Collection in Houston)
You might feel you know Richard Serra’s work, having walked through two curving walls of one of his steel sculptures. This is "Band," now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
You may feel, too, that you know and understand the limits of drawing, a concept so basic that most artist’s dictionaries don’t bother to define it. My painter friend says “marks on paper, perhaps,” or “lines, generally in a single color by pen or pencil,” or “maybe a work on its own, or a study for something greater.” A drawing by Raphael is not so different in kind from a drawing by Jasper Johns (who, by the way, has collected Serra’s work; the “Gutter Corner Splash” lines of thrown-lead works in this show are a gift from Johns). I think of a Nicolas de Stael show we saw years ago, a show of drawings that I thought re-energized the possibilities: a border around the central room of a New York gallery, abstract lines of varied colors on paper torn from notebooks.
None of this will help you find an immediate kinship with Richard Serra’s work in this show, however: you will not want to wander into any of these rooms unaware. Serra attempts to do with drawing (using paintstick on paper or linen) what he once did with sculpture: to disconcert, to undermine, to bother, to change, to move the goalposts and remove the pedestal -- permanently. The drawing is neither an architectural plan for sculpting nor a framed bit of abstract gesture. Because it is not anything you have seen before, it may, indeed, infuriate you. In an interview with Charlie Rose (charlierose.com, dated April 21, 2011), Serra says that the intention of these drawings is “to create a volume of space within the architectural volume of the space that is different in kind.” So, the space inside each museum room is going to have to matter, because the drawings are meant, like the sculptures, to disrupt where we had been walking. As we move, we see a different light, a different angle on each room. Serra wants to avoid drawing an object, to avoid representing: “I draw interval or I draw space.” He isn’t using a Rapidograph or an HB pencil or a marker; “artists make up their own tools and make up their own procedures,” Serra tells Rose., and so he melted paintsticks together into bricks, creating a wall of drawing that will be difficult to crack.
The reviews I have read come mostly from the show’s installation at the Metropolitan, and the remarks are – generally – reverential. Walter Robinson wrote, in “Richard Serra: The Met Goes Modern” (artnet.com), that “Serra is our most powerful formalist, as everyone knows.” [If we need a gloss on the word “formalism,” we can go to the Tate Museum, where they tell us that the word means that “the most important aspect of a work is its form … the qualities of colour, form, line and composition” (tate.org.uk)]. Serra said (to Charlie Rose): “I don’t draw image.” If it is possible to do it, he seems to want to draw … form. And the critics seem pleased; they have their language at the ready. Robinson calls the drawings “elemental things” and says they “easily command their galleries.” Jane Panetta, writing of the piece “Taraval Beach,” says that it “dominates and dramatically alters the gallery it inhabits …. [it] seems to become space” (Art in America, June 16, 2011). David Hansen, writing in The London Review of Books (Vol. 33, No. 13, 30 June 2011), is a little more helpful, though he, too, rhapsodizes, bringing in Edmund Burke and Kant: “faced with the grandeur of the Sublime you can no longer think, let alone act, only be.” How is that helpful? you may ask. But, wait, other notations of Hansen’s do help: he explains that some of the drawings are textured like “combed animal pelt, or a hairy tweed, or like the squeegee drag and blur found in Gerhard Richter’s abstract canvases …. [or] sugary black molasses with faint traces of bootprints … [or] maps, reptile skin, leaves.” (At last, a description! This is what they look like – because, for some reason, photographers allowed to take pictures of these works only capture them head-on, where they look flat and black. Un-textured). So we begin to see a little, perhaps, a little of what it might be like to stand in front of one of these pieces. But, overall, the reviews can feel far too distanced, a kind of unquestioning admiration for “our most powerful formalist.” Only Roberta Smith, in an otherwise very positive review, acknowledge a weakness or two, such as: “the work can sometimes seem at once meager and histrionic” or “[it]can present empty echoes of traditional authoritative formats” (The New York Times, April 14, 2011). So what of the work itself … what is it like to be THERE?
My reflections on Serra’s drawing break neatly into two segments (which correspond precisely to my two visits to this show at SFMOMA). If I had to give a title to my first response, it might be Gertrude Stein’s “If the artist knows exactly what he is going to do and more importantly how it will be done and what it will become then there really is no use in doing it since there will be nothing new in it” (How to Write, xiv). This is the strain of thought I lapsed into after seeing the show for the first time. I mainly saw -- and remembered -- only the huge black presences called “Abstract Slavery,” “Taraval Beach” (below), “Pacific Judson Murphy,” “Blank” and “Union.”
My reaction to all these works was direct, visceral and angry. Why continue on past the first experiment? One piece, I thought, would have been enough, a single exploration on this scale, a single try at covering a large surface with a tool that was originally designed to add notations on steel or highlight a line of painting with texture or color. Once finished, move on: simple.
Two of these pieces, “Blank” (from 1978, paintstick on Belgian linen) and “Union,” (from 2011, also paintstick) are installed as massive “walls” opposite one another. Two rooms, two sets of black drawings, two sets of white walls, each time. The other three drawings are also wall-sized, but each is given its own space. These five, their massive scale, came together for me only in terms of how much space they wasted. These works in particular seemed to repeat a single formula: rub, rub more, rub again, repeat, cover the surface entirely as if covering a schoolyard with asphalt, hang with staples. The drawings did not seem, to me, to contain the power of Serra’s sculptures, nor did they live up to the elegiac language of many of their critics. Why were they there … except that they were signed “Serra.”
I should pause here and note that I always believed that abstract art revealed the truth of its making; I believed that I could tell when an artist was invested and when s/he was simply going through the motions. I felt supported in this because I had seen an interview with Robert Motherwell, who said (in my rough paraphrase), “I have made many paintings that are failures, but none that are lies.” I felt I could smell lies. And these five drawings, and perhaps one or two others, in this show, seemed to me … lies. These were not sketches, revealing the coming sculpture; these were … simply … big. And monotone. And yet -- I love the erased de Kooning by Rauschenberg (now at SFMOMA; see the video explanation of that process here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGRNQER16Do&feature=related) and his all-white series. I have seen Ryman’s and Pousette-Dart’s white paintings. I have read Yazmina Reza’s Art. I like the fact that Agnes Martin traces horizontal lines across a five- or six-foot canvas, over and over again. I like Gertrude Stein, who says, in “Portraits and Repetitions,” that “I continued to do what I was doing in Making of Americans. I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous succession of the statement of what that person was until I had not many things but one thing.”
What? Many repetitions make one thing? Wait, that’s … what’s happening here. On Belgian linen. Wait. Wait. I don’t like not liking something that seems so obviously, on the face of it, the art I should love: a departure from the art before it, a Herculean effort, a non-narrative but still thoughtful attempt at form and substance, “not many things but one thing.” So I went back.
The title, if I had to give one, of this second visit to SFMOMA would come from Serra himself, from his interview with Rose: in discussing his “Untitled (14-part roller drawing),” made in 1973 at Gemini Press in Los Angeles, Serra created “a very serial proposition … [I was] just paying attention … I could care less about what it looks like. I’m just staying faithful to the process.” Three things: first, the point of the work at SFMOMA is that it is “serial,” it is “process,” and the artist remains “faithful” to the initial proposition. These works are records of an encounter with scale and material. Serra clearly feels he is still working with these, a straight line from 1969 through to 2011. I have no trouble with this claim at all. Second, he was “paying attention,” Serra says, and this would be, for me, the thing I needed to find visible, somewhere. Third: yes, “new work will seem ugly” to its first audience, Picasso said once, because it is working through something difficult; Cubism and the Demoiselles were ugly once (then, Picasso said, the imitators come along and make pretty versions). The exhibition offers up ugly moments, certainly: the drawings can seem like discarded, well-worn rubber, the paper is stapled to the walls, and the oil from the paintsticks makes a yellow stain around the edges of some pieces. The black paint sucks the air out of some rooms, and the unrelieved raised furrows seem endless and unrelenting in the larger pieces. Pretty is not the point; the point is power. Even Hansen, the critic who wrote about the Sublime in relation to this work, concludes his review with: “But don’t try to get too close. Make no mistake, Serra is a tough guy, a front-end-loader philosopher, a ‘don’t give a damn’ democrat. While he is happy to share his hard-labour, hard-nut ontological confidence, he doesn’t solicit your vote. Sublime indifference, that’s what it is.” Besides making Serra into a combination of Sam Spade, Willem de Kooning and Nietzsche, Hansen makes a good point. One characteristic of the work is that it stands alone, like death. It doesn’t care what you think. But art, like death, needs a considered response.
So, what of my concern about whether or not Serra was “paying attention,” whether he was, in my old notions of measuring art, telling some kind of “truth”? As I walked through the show this second time, I understood the serial, the process, the labour, the confidence, the ugly exposure of the oily edges, the staples, the rubbery surfaces. But -- does it seem to be “real,” this work, in the way the sculptures are “real”?
The five pieces I most disliked on my first visit grow a little more receptive on a second go-round. Coming near to the surfaces of these massive pieces makes it possible to see all the textures that Hansen mentioned. “Texture and illusion,” my husband said. There are moments of Richter, there is a kind of vertical parade of harsh markings, the light comes and goes into ridges and valleys just as it does over a hillside, and is trapped or reflected without reference to the viewer, unrelievedly. I still find these pieces difficult because they seem to simply begin and end (I would assume that is the point) without a focal point, any carved-out edge, without any relief at all from its “dark declivities” (a Yeatsian phrase from his poem “Parting”). No relief is also the point. Drawings, Serra said to Charlie Rose, are “the subtext of how an artist thinks.” So, yes, we have that “subtext,” textualized in paint, here. Perhaps I object to the perfection of the unforgiving, unrelenting surface.
Other works that this I found myself far more inclined to love, on second viewing, involve not the perfection of those first five pieces, but a kind of imperfection that comes from the spaces that Serra creates on the ground, the linens or papers. These spaces appear between or around the form or figure and provide some breathing room, a way for the audience to enter in (as Serra said he wants us to). Barbara Rose writes “Serra is not interested in the mixing of light and shadow but in the absolute differentiation of the two” (exhibition catalogue, page 43). One of the earliest pieces where this “differentiation” occurs is “Untitled,” from 1972-3, a dark black horizontal triangle, with a smudged ground; this is more attuned to traditional figure-ground drawing, of course, and so it seems a bit friendlier. Here is a detail:
The works called “Solid 1,” “Solid 11” and “Solid 13” contain an off-square central shape that reaches nearly to the edge of the (handmade) paper, and in that edge is, for me, the payoff: droplets, Pollock-ian lines, smudges, oily smears. Where the work tapers off and the viewer can then see the body of the work more clearly, that edge, is what I love here. “A Drawing in Five Parts” from 2005 is composed of five drawings, each with (sideways) arched lines, again with splashes and drips at the edges and thicker and thinner applications of paint. These are the imperfect ones, the ones I have come to see are the record of the process, the artist’s hand, the true thing.
Serra may have said it best (he’s a pretty articulate Sam Spade): “I think in order to see a work, it has to generate a sensation that engages you with what you’re looking at. Otherwise, you’ll dismiss it. Otherwise it’s like other things. There has to be some factor of engagement, some emotional connection – something has to get you to the point where you’re aware of your reaction, your emotion, where you analyze the content of your perception. Only then will you become conscious of what you’re looking at “ (catalogue, p. 77). My old friend Kent Jacobson was right: never trust your first impression. Always go back, look, repeat, think, look, repeat. And then you might get it, sublimely indifferent though it may be.