Drawings are Thoughts: Richard Serra’s Drawing retrospective

Detail of an unidentified Serra drawing

“I make drawings almost always. Almost every day. And for me, it’s like a language. It’s a way to think — and drawings are just thoughts put down in a different kind of language.” — Richard Serra, in a 2011 interview at SFMOMA

The Richard Serra Drawings retrospective at SFMOMA contains a range of materials and forms, but it is dominated in my mind by just a few works: immense expanses of linen canvas tacked directly to the wall and covered edge to edge with black paintstick. In many cases one work alone occupies a room. A sweet aroma of linseed and beeswax pervades the air, chiefly because these works must be retouched during installation. Other works concurrent with these canvases are powerful in their own right; but the ones which feel most superlative, and which deliver on Serra’s reputation for creating new experiences in space and perception, are these vast, encrusted tracts of blackness.

Serra emphatically rejects representation and anything associative. He is insistent that these works, like his sculptures, aren’t of anything, and that while they may trigger something in the imagination of the viewer, none of this is intrinsic to the work. There aren’t other colors in his work because most colors carry associative baggage, while black, he says, “doesn’t give over easily to metaphor.”

Surely the closest relation Serra has in this practice would be Robert Ryman. Ryman has established a niche for himself making all-white paintings for more than forty years. From one painting to the next, we see variations in brushwork, coverage, scale, material, supports, mounting and more, while the white of the pigment remains the single unwavering characteristic throughout his work. By comparison, Serra’s black canvases are far more like one another, with the salient variation being the way each one acts upon its architectural space: some stretch from floor to ceiling; others mirror each other across a room; one is pressed into a corner, enveloping a portion of the room with its gravity. These shapes enlist the surrounding expanses of wall in a way that brings to mind shaped canvases by Ellsworth Kelly, chromatically polyamorous when compared to the monasticism of Serra or Ryman. Kelly’s vivid one-color canvases can endow the viewer with an acute new awareness of the wall, the room, the light; like Serra’s work, they demand the participation of the architecture.

All of this leads me to ponder the question, why is it drawing, while so enmeshed in the idioms of painting? Though one could argue that a paintstick is wielded more like a drawing implement — like charcoal or a crayon — so the action of making the work is drawing. But if we carry this logic further, then a great number of paintings would enter a grey area (for example, aren’t other paintstick-on-canvas works paintings? Isn’t a Warhol silkscreen a painting?)

Certainly none of this is lost on the artist, who has elected to call these works drawings and who ostensibly perceives them as having properties which he would not ascribe to paintings. While we might imagine most paintings being born of a dialogue between the artist and the canvas, a drawing can often consist of a single line, one gesture, without ever reworking or stepping back. Perhaps that directness, or that spareness, is the conceptual aim of this work.

“How do you change the context of what a drawing would be or could be?” he asks. “And how do you change it not only in relation to procedure… but how do you change it in relation to the context of the space in which it’s seen?”

My intuition tells me that the artist needs them to be something wholly other, to occupy their own category, in order that they not be measured against paintings. He wants to speak of them (and wants others to speak of them) with a language reserved for drawing — that of raw, unedited impulses and just-formed thoughts.

November 24 2011 07:19 pm | art on view and drawing

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