by Jeff Strabone
What happens when a great artist in one medium exhibits work in another? 'Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks us to consider this question. For forty-some years, Serra has developed a non-representational sculptural practice based chiefly on physical properties of mass, weight, and counterbalance, as opposed to visual agendas of image and representation. In doing so, he has opened up new ways of thinking about art in an era when representation and image-making, no longer the raison d'être of art, are simply two among a smorgasbord of options.
Although the world's attention has gravitated to his sculptures, Serra has been drawing for his entire career. That the Met's exhibition is the first retrospective devoted to his drawings is telling, particularly given his many exhibitions of sculpture and site-specific works around the world. We must ask then, Why has it taken so long, and what do Serra's drawings have to offer us?
Although the Renaissance Man has not survived the division of knowledge into the modern disciplines, many great artists continue to try their hands at media other than those in which they are best known. Some of the artists we think of as giants of the early twentieth century, for instance, produced peak work in multiple formats: Pablo Picasso (painting, sculpture, printmaking), Louis Armstrong (trumpet and voice), and Babe Ruth (pitching and hitting).
These days, musicians are among the most media-adventurous, perhaps none more so than David Byrne, a genius of American popular music. Byrne's exhibited works—which include pseudo-scientific tree diagrams, animations made with Microsoft Powerpoint, and a building converted into a musical instrument—stand on their own as art objects deserving serious attention, yet even he, the artiest of rockers, has not produced visual art to rival his music. (Admittedly, that would be hard to do, given the music he has made.) Bob Dylan's paintings, on the other hand, make a fitting visual companion to his music, but I have trouble imagining them appealing to non-listeners.
What of Serra's drawings then? Do they stand on their own merits, or do they depend on the achievements of their three-dimensional kinsmen, the sculptures? Although I have been a devoted student of Serra's work since the 1990s, I was never moved by his drawings on the occasions when I would see a few of them here and there over the years. Then again, the point of Serra's work has never been to move the viewer emotionally. Many of the sculptures do, however, move the viewer physically through a shifting, vertiginous volume of space carved out by massive torqued ellipses, toruses, and spirals made of steel.
Serra is among the most articulate of artists, and his words certainly help us understand his work. In a lecture at Yale in January 1990, Serra contrasted his own sculptural practice with the entire prior history of the medium:
Most traditional sculpture until the mid-twentieth century was based on a relationship of part to whole. That is, the steel elements were collaged pictorially and compositionally together.
Where Serra differs is in his refusal to convert his material into picture-yielding shapes:
To work with steel not as a picture making element, but as a building material in terms of mass, weight, counterbalance, loadbearing capacity, point load, compression, friction and statics has been totally divorced from the history of sculpture […] Sculptors for the most part have ignored the results of the industrial revolution failing to investigate these fundamental processes and methods of steel making, engineering and construction.
(Source: Art and Theory, 1900–2000, ed. Harrison and Wood.)
His sculptures are thus not about anything other than their own material and the relationships—sometimes very dramatic—between their physical properties, their settings, and the bodies that move through and around them.
Because his sculptures are so elemental, they are the rare contemporary artworks that can be as deeply appreciated by the expert as by the novice, a hypothesis that I had the opportunity to test in an episode a few years ago. In 2007, I took my grandfather, born in Manhattan in 1920, to see the MoMA's big Serra retrospective. I am not in the habit of dragging unwilling relatives to museums, but I had a hunch that Serra's massive steel constructions would appeal to my grandfather's interest in all things mechanical. As a kid growing up on East Twenty-Eighth Street, my grandfather watched the Midtown Tunnel being built and remained fascinated by engineering throughout his career as a tool-and-dye-maker. When we arrived at the MoMA, my grandfather, despite being a lifelong New Yorker, expressed surprise. Is this a new museum? he asked me. He had made it to the age of eighty-six without ever hearing of the MoMA. This was the test case, if ever one were needed, of whether art can speak to the completely uninitiated.
When we got to the second floor of the MoMA's new building—built to specifications that could withstand the size and weight of Serra's work—my grandfather was amazed and began to ask me how these objects were made and so on. He talked to me of metallurgy and steel mills and the effects of walking through the pieces. With no prior knowledge of modern art, let alone Serra's, my grandfather was able to engage the entire exhibition at a deep level, not just the ellipses but the prop pieces, too. It was the perfect fit of new audience and artist. Other things we saw in the museum did not suit him so well, but Serra's sculptures tapped into something in him that needed no familiarity with art.
Can Serra's drawings on display at the Met speak as readily to people at all levels of experience? Although I had never thought much of his drawings when seeing them in ones and twos, they do rise above mere conceptual rigor to a thoroughly immersive and engaging æsthetic experience when brought together, quite smartly, in the Met's largest exhibition galleries. Yet I have the strong suspicion that they will, unlike the sculptures, leave the uninitiated cold, although, as I hope to show, that is not necessarily a bad thing. We might even see it as a good thing.
On the simplest level, many of them are solid black monochromes, done in paintstick, that cover the entire surface of large sheets of paper—less drawings per se than works on paper. Getting too close to them leads to feelings of falling into a black void, a hole with nothing on the other side. I found this very calming in a Zen-like way, although I am sure Serra did not set out to achieve such an effect.
What he did set out to do was to explore the same set of properties as in his sculptures—mass, weight, counterbalance—though here in two dimensions and with ink and paint, not lead and steel. Not all of the drawings are solid though all use only black and all share a rigorous concern to explore how ink or paint masses on paper. Solid fields of heavily layered black paint are more imposing in person than they may sound when described in words. And although the paper is often hidden beneath the black, one can admire its resistant strength. The paint is so heavy on some of these works that I imagined the accumulated weight of the paint pulling perilously downward on the paper with a force that could tear it. I got to wondering how much matter a suspended sheet could withstand before giving way.
As for the particular pieces, several stand out. Pacific Judson Murphy (1978) is a work whose two large, thoroughly paintsticked panels meet in the corner of a room. Thanks to the Met's clever, reverent installation, they remain hidden in a corner until one has stepped into the gallery; on the approach, the gallery appears empty.
Many of the drawings not only take up the concerns of the sculptures, but they even look like them. Here is a side-by-side comparison that I made of a drawing and a sculpture. One of the two images is No Relief, a 2006 work (not on display) consisting of panels of weatherproof steel on opposing walls. The other is Blank, a 1978 work of paintstick applied to two pieces of Belgian linen on opposing walls. Both sets of panels create the sensation of a room-size force field between them. Can you tell which is which?
Here is the curious thing about such similarities: Is a Serra drawing that resembles the sculptures a representation of the sculptures it resembles (or at least a representation of the sculptural practice which produced them)? Because the drawings look so much like his sculptural practice, do they, via backdoor or frontdoor, become images thereof? I began to wonder if the sculptures are the originals and the drawings the copies. Even if we put the sculptures and the drawings on an even footing, how can we express in words what we do or do not understand about the translation or mediation of a single artistic enterprise over dual media with such single-minded purpose that the resemblances start to seem uncanny? I do not know, but I would like to. These are the kinds of serious questions that Serra's drawings provoke, but, for better or for worse, it takes a long familiarity with Serra's other work before such questions come into view.
There are other pleasures, cerebral and otherwise, in the exhibition. The later works, from the last decade or so, add a new dimension—literally—to his drawings: depth. In the out-of-round series from 1999, Serra applied the paintstick through a screen or strainer so that it massed on the paper in three dimensions. Up close, the low-relief massed paint resembles a lunar landscape viewed through a powerful microscope, as seen below.
out-of-round X (1999) reminded me of Damien Hirst's apocalyptic works with dead flies. In another work, Black Tracks (2002), the circles of paint look like choppy ocean stormwaves frozen in black time. However much one knows these drawings are meant to be non-representational, the mind does want to form images sometimes.
How important is knowing then? If I think of flies where I know no 'picture-making' whatsoever—let alone pictures of flies—is intended, am I doing something wrong? What if one knows nothing going in and supplies one's own meanings from random associations, as in E.M. Forster's famous essay 'Not Looking at Pictures', where, of course, Forster wants us to do a bit more work than that?
Notwithstanding special cases like Serra's sculptures, whose elemental simplicity seems to provide the fewest obstacles to any audience, art is hard. It demands study. In an era when other major museums are sometimes cluttered with rubbish to appeal to crowds who don't really care about art ('Star Wars: The Magic of Myth' at the Brooklyn Museum, or Tim Burton's 'art' at the MoMA), the Met should be congratulated for mounting such a difficult, inaccessible show.
I don't mean to sound contrarian or elitist in saying this, but I am glad that Serra's drawings are not a widely 'accessible' exhibition. They will baffle, annoy, maybe even repulse some people. They are opaque, mysterious. It is good that they are so and that many people will stumble into the show and not know what the hell they are looking at or why. I have always taken it as an article of faith that we benefit from having to deal with difficult, challenging material.
Admiring Serra's drawings really does require knowing a fair amount about him and the generation of American artists—Donald Judd, Dan Flavin et al.—who came of age with him. This high entry fee of knowledge is not a bad thing. Art should make us want to know more and to work for it. Art can make us feel weird, unpleasant things, including the sometimes unavoidable sensation that one just doesn't get it. That sensation of perplexity is the necessary first step toward learning.
Museums should provide all the study aids under the sun, but accessibility should not come at the cost of shunning difficulty. The artist worked hard; so should we. Serra's drawings call us to meet the artist halfway: to join him in the important work of thinking through difficulty towards understanding.
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 28, 2011.