New York

Richard Serra

Blum Heiman Gallery

You wouldn’t expect Richard Serra—an artist consistently conscious in his sculpture of what sculpture is—to want to carry his sculptural thinking over into his drawings, which would emphasize the parameters and possibilities of drawings. Yet he cannot act as if he didn’t make sculpture, and neither can we. Serra is a master of sculptural space and construction, but I don’t think he has been able to unknot the problems of pictorial space, and he often tries deliberately to pervert them. This cannot be done by eliminating the trappings of pictorialism, or by pretending they are not necessary, through sheer willpower. Sculpture is something we respond to as whole bodies; drawing is not, but Serra seems to force it to function as something bigger than ourselves. The immense size of Serra’s drawings disturbs us first, for it makes drawing something available only at a distance, placing a highly traditional sculptural distance between the viewer and the drawing.

It is not an unimportant detail that Serra’s best drawings are big but don’t touch the floor. Both drawings in this show did touch the floor, and they seem to me inferior, but for very complex reasons. Anchored to a ground literally and metaphorically, they don’t tip off balance, or radiate pressure, or sustain weight. The two drawings look as if they began as normal drawings that have fallen off the wall with a thud, but without exactly responding to gravity. They have no weight because they have ceased to be pictorial, and drawings don’t have literal weight, or not much. The wooden floor’s brown color introduced an element profoundly at odds with the severity of the drawings, as if Serra had not taken it into account at all. To insinuate space in this way seems to be a short-cut to another planar reference that has nothing to do with drawing.

Blank was really two drawings—black rectangles pushed into the corners of the right- and left-hand sides of the entryway into a room. It was impossible to take them both in at the same time from any point of view, facilitating a play of divided peripheral vision. (Bochner has accomplished the same thing with much simpler methods.) Usually, good Serra drawings will exaggerate something about the room they inhabit in very subtle ways; neither of these drawings did. Pacific Judson Murphy traversed two adjacent walls, covering a corner. Articulated doubly by the room’s givens (the floor and the corner), the drawing lacked dramatic precariousness and urgent energy. (And the continued use of black as an automatic source of weight and density is getting to be like the use of blue for sumptuousness or white for purity.)

So both drawings cross the boundary lines of the rooms—extending to opposite or contiguous walls. Thus another anti-pictorial problem. Serra pushes drawing right to the edge, destroying internal divisions, absenting any relational parts. But in turn the drawings’ edges become relative to the next biggest thing—the shape and features of the rooms. I think Serra wants his drawings to be as forceful and aggressive as the bald interior space, but what is gained by the internal elimination is not clear, unless it is only a signal for anti-pictorialism or anti-allusiveness—the need to be absolutely literal. Serra just pays homage to the next higher authority, architecture, which forces the question of the relation between drawing and architecture. Either Serra’s sculpture has nothing to do with the surrounding architecture, or else it clearly defines its relation to it as an articulation of the enclosing space radiating out from the viewer’s body. These drawings do neither; their space constantly pushes away, receding from the viewer into the wall. I do not think this is a purely psychological effect; it has to do with understanding the work metaphorically.

Serra introduced very particular, abstract kinds of narrative devices and operations into his sculpture, right from the beginning. Writers stressed the beginnings and endings of his sculpture—for instance, how a plate was seen as line/plane/line; how line opened up to reveal implied, full volume; how a sheet rolled up became a cylinder. It was always the two extreme points of origin and ending—climax, really—that identified the form of the work, and not the movement and the aspects of becoming—in other words, the parts of Serra’s sculptures which constituted their “plot development” or their middle. Since the sculptures were often repetitions of single elements, the “middles” were clearly doublings of ground already covered, movements replicated, where parts eventually yielded the total configuration in the end, as a movement from passivity to mastery. The repetitions of plates or processes before the end functioned as plot diversions—improper endings, postponement, wrong choices, detours—all the devices of narrative plot to keep the story, the process of making sculpture, moving toward its ending.

The energy of these devices, and the often precarious nature of their bonding, belongs to the career, the itinerary of Serra’s making the work and our ability to re-create it exactly in our experience of it. Our interest in the middle arrives from its constant verging upon a premature climax, a short-circuit. It is precisely the middle which generates the movement of sculptures—the beginnings and endings hold the middles in place. This movement is narrative as an articulation of a set of verbs—compare Serra’s famous list of verbs—an articulation which is essentially sculptural. It is just this highly defined middle which we miss in the drawings, as if Serra were unable to imagine the energy, the plot, the narrative, the process possibilities of drawing. These things do exist; they aren’t sculptural or verbal; they are pictorial. For as much as we demand that drawings play with the differences between their physicality and their pictorial nature, Serra adamantly insists that they do other work, seemingly dissatisfied with their two-dimensionality. These drawings’ intimate connection to the floor required Serra to break their continuity. He would have the corner and the “blank” of the air space act as middles, articulations of a movement from the edge of the drawing to the room to the drawing once again—edge redefined as the entire frontal surface of the drawing itself: edge as plane.

These were extraordinary, if deeply flawed, drawings, demanding the most serious consideration.

Jeff Perrone