New York

Richard Serra

Castelli Gallery uptown, School of Visual Arts

Having said that, let me add that I regard Richard Serra as a sculptor whose work stands comparison with any from the past or present, and that it is’ with this in mind that I’m going to express certain reservations about his drawings. Serra’s sculpture presents one with an incredibly beautiful dislocation of physical space by steel. However, when this dislocation becomes the subject of a two-dimensional work, other elements seem to intrude that undermine the efficacy of the piece. Serra’s feeling for steel seems to oblige him to work in a way that transfers, or wants to transfer, that material’s properties to the sheet of canvas or paper. But what happens is not quite that. Paper is a precious material, surrounded and protected by convention, and Serra’s treatment of it comes across as—in part—a willful attempt to abuse that preciousness. The smudges and smears he often insists on read, more than anything, as the traces of an incipient machismo. Charcoal, too, is a precious—or art—material and cannot be made to look as necessarily shitty and menacing as steel (although it’s true that they both make your finger black if you rub it against the surface), nor can it be made to displace space in the same way. For this reason, one of the works which interested me most in his show at the School of Visual Arts was Untitled (1973) (Cut paper and two steel plates), in which the space of the drawing was displaced by a direct interaction between the steel and the rest of the work.

If one can talk about the steel acting on the drawing I suppose that, in a sense, one can also say that a sheet of paper is no more precious or conventionally privileged than the space of the gallery itself. But the point is not quite that,rather it’s that steel isn’t made to look the way it does by the artist, and other materials are. The two large works shown at Castelli go some way to illustrate the contradictions this engenders. Zadikians (1974), is a large work made out of two pieces of Belgian linen covered (drawn) with a black paint stick. They hang next to one another and, with a gap between, take over a complete wall. The one on the right is more or less vertically aligned, while the other slopes slightly upwards and leftward. In places, blue lines are just visible on the wall, lining up the edges of the canvases. Certainly a displacement of space does occur, one’s orientation to that half of the gallery becomes uncertain and speculative, but it seems incredibly belabored. It’s as if Serra were drawing one’s attention to the fact that what steel does automatically can only be hinted at using conventional art materials, and then only if those materials are manipulated in a manner which implies the attribution of grossness through what comes across as a desperate assault on delicacy, and, of course, in the associations resident in finely woven—and expensive—canvas. The other work in the show, Shafrazi (1974), named after an incoherent vandal of professedly political sensibility, was hung so that a huge bulge swelled out at the bottom right-hand corner. I can’t see that this kind of defamiliarization serves, at this time, any purpose that mitigates its distracting introduction of personality at its most self-referential into work otherwise succinctly impersonal.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe