One on One: Serra Drawings Revisited

Sketch of "Union"

How many times does one need to look at an all-black painting to understand it?  A question like this crossed my mind in the final days of the Serra Drawing Retrospective at SFMOMA. I had walked the exhibition completely twice, each time slowing down in the latter half to take in the enormous all-black canvases which dominated walls and rooms. But as the closing date drew near, I considered getting one last look.

Among the works which beckoned me back is an installation called Union (2011) which consists of two enormous canvases which stretch from floor to ceiling and face each other across the room. Each is painted edge-to-edge and stapled to the wall, and tailored to meet the edges of the wall precisely, effectively assimilated into the architecture. The room is not deep enough for a viewer to see the whole of this installation; you may see one half or the other, or look at the white wall between them, with the dark expanses in the periphery of your vision. Where is one meant to stand?

Stepping into the zone between the two halves I breathe in a perfume of beeswax and linseed. I position myself squarely in front of one canvas and I feel the presence of its twin at my back, bearing down on me. How I am so acutely aware of it I cannot be sure. Is it because it drinks the light from the room, or casts a heavy shadow on my back? Does it exert some subtle gravitational pull, or is a trick of the mind, my awareness of it transmuted into a phantom sensation?

As I turn to face the other side, the difference is insubstantial; the experience of being within the piece is not about the looking, but about being. Its monolithic forms register visually first, then almost instantly they are felt, bodily. It brings to mind arriving at the edge of a cliff: once we’ve seen the precipitous drop, the depths will tug at us magnetically, as though a more powerful gravity is awakened.

After my first encounter with these works, I wrote an entry, Drawing is Thinking, in which I questioned whether these works can legitimately be called drawings. Indeed, these works evolved from a lifelong drawing practice–but they are in fact paint on canvas. Though I wanted to challenge this taxonomy, I find no suitable alternative. In their sheer physiological effect they most evoke Serra’s massive steel sculptures (specifically I think of works like Call Me Ishmael (1986), which invite passage between parallel plates), but I wouldn’t insist that makes them sculpture. Standing within the field within Union brings to memory certain Anselm Kiefer canvases which seem to have their own gravitational field; even when Kiefer’s paintings depict space, the solidity and unwieldy thickness of the canvases overpower and annihilate that space. Serra’s Union works a similar alchemy by more subtle means: it presents us with a field which shifts capriciously between density and emptiness. We can choose to perceive it as a window into a void, or like a monolithic slab of stone or steel. It can be these things simultaneously, and our  very inability to hold the whole of it in our field of vision, to bring the work into clear focus, is essential to its power.

January 28 2012 05:47 pm | art on view and drawing

2 Responses to “One on One: Serra Drawings Revisited”

  1. Lillian on 31 Jan 2012 at 12:03 am #

    Perhaps the taxonomical solution is to recognize the homonym in drawing. The gravity you speak of qualifies the work as a drawing in that sense, no?

  2. Jeff shapiro on 31 Jan 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Very good…very good Serra, very good Tim Sven…, very good Lillian. Yes, we feel drawn to the work, don’t we…Large enough, Minimal enough that it’s gravitational pull is maximized to the degree that we feel it. Serra drew it, we are drawn to it. Jeff

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