Witness & Access: Thoughts on Richard Serra Drawing Retrospective

Metropolitan Museum of Art  | April 13 – August 28, 2011
By Jonathan Beer

Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times -- From left, works from 1989: “The United States Courts Are Partial to the Government,” “No Mandatory Patriotism” (center) and “The United States Government Destroys Art.”

Since 1971 Richard Serra has focused on large-scale drawings as an art form separate yet linked to the large site-specific sculpture he is known for. The Richard Serra Drawing Retrospective cohesively collects these 40 years of drawing into one exhibition for the first time. The works in the show offer a special insight into the artist’s thoughts and conceptual process, including pieces created in a variety of formats and materials. Much like his colleagues Sol Lewitt and Cy Twombly, Richard Serra confidently shows the unprecedented and unique results that arise when drawing, sculpture, and installation overlap. He reminds us that when mastered, elements of space, form, and material together can create a transcendent experience.
On a fundamental level Serra’s work deals with contradictory relationships. Light versus heavy, open versus closed, imposing versus inviting, black versus white. He doesn’t simply address these concepts, but pits them against each other. Like the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Serra creates contradictory spaces that are bound by an inverse law of physics, pitting our preexisting knowledge of space against that of perception. In early Serra works, monolithic sculpture, whose steel structure implies its impenetrable and unyielding nature, is shown to be malleable and open. Serra’s drawings are no different in their resistance to logic. Here, Serra favors black oil stick on paper, imbuing the fragile paper with the qualities of steel. The drawings’ heavy, pitch black surfaces somehow creates space instead of swallowing it. They are not dissimilar from the removable rabbit hole in Bugs Bunny cartoons, creating the illusion of an abyss but alas are deceptively solid. Openness and obstruction build a tangible space that denies the possibility of comprehension. Serra’s work challenges our trusted conceptual foundations of spatial understanding, and by actively undermining our intuition about space Serra is free to manipulate it how he wants.

In the 18th century the Sublime emerged in the philosophical treatises of Kant and Hegel, it was described as an encounter between the individual and the immense universe, a spiritual oneness with nature.  19th Century artists Caspar David Friedrich and John Martin may have been some of the first to represent the search for the Sublime moment within their epic landscapes, juxtaposing a fearful humanity against a natural world that is both beautiful and indomitable. Clearly Friedrich and Martin depicted the concept of the sublime and while Serra grapples the actual thing. Instead of translating experience into a picture he attempts to create the experience within the work. Serra is not the first contemporary artist to reference a vision of the Sublime, Anselm Keiffer and James Turrell are other contemporary examples of artists who engage it in their own work. In the past Nature provided mankind with a singular spatial experience and its only outlet to the Sublime. Serra’s sculpture and drawing succeed in manufacturing an artificial portal to the Sublime. The physicality and subversion of standard spatial relationships in a site specific context constructs an interface for the public to access the Sublime. In this way the artist underscores the loss of connection to a Nature-based Sublime experience; showing that this man-made Sublime moment is just as effective.

Instrumental to the success of any artistic experience is the consideration of the viewer during creation. In that role, the viewer is immensely important in completing the intended experiential circuit of each piece. Departing from the innate cloistered relationship between onlooker and art, we are no longer just a witness but an indispensable part of Richard Serra’s work. Process-based art grants access to the artist’s investigations; towering torqued ellipses and cavernous drawings are physical documents of this contemplative journey. They exceed the standard experiential limitations of traditional artwork by enabling a closeness that is physical as well as emotional. Despite the fact that this axiom can be applied to all of Serra’s work, the drawings compound this intimacy. This actual interaction and its unavoidable distortion of standard spatial experience distill Serra’s intent. The physical object serves as a vessel or a conduit that must exist in order for the viewer, the drawing, and the environment to seamlessly meld together into a singular experience. In contrast to the immense presence of his sculptural work, the drawings are scaled to the body, enhancing their power to elude perception. We interact with a fossil of Serra’s Sublime moment, and we confront the Sublime through our contact with the work.

While artists are often expected to pander to the confusion of post-Modernism, making work that reflects a similar confusion, clarity can always be found within the oeuvre of Richard Serra. With grace and efficient articulation, Serra shows us that the possibility for transcendent experience is never lost.

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