Richard Serra, Black Tracks, 2002, paint stick on handmade paper, 51 1/4 x 50".

Richard Serra, Black Tracks, 2002, paint stick on handmade paper, 51 1/4 x 50".

Richard Serra

Richard Serra, Taraval Beach, 1977/2011, paint stick on Belgian linen. Installation view, 2011. Photo: Rob McKeever.

IT IS DIFFICULT to imagine drawing without sculpture in the work of Richard Serra. We inevitably invoke them together, even when drawing is the topic at hand. Drawing is always understood to be secondary, yet Serra himself has long said that his sculpture deploys—even that it is—drawing, by which he means that it represents the functional application of drawing as an operation. Specifically, it is his idea of drawing as “cut” that has, since the 1970s, determined two basic properties of his sculpture: the physical partition of material elements and the way the work itself is made to divide (or “cut” through) actual space. Conversely, if we name the chief concerns of Serra’s sculpture as he has identified them over time—cut and elevation, the mobile observer, the investigation of the physical and material properties of a medium, and the unmediated psychocorporeal sensation of weight and space—we produce a list that can equally be said to apply to his drawings per se.

These considerations are raised by “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective,” a traveling show organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, and on view this past spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (The exhibition was curated by Bernice Rose and Michelle White, of the Menil, and Gary Garrels, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Serra rarely displays drawing and sculpture together: There were, for instance, no drawings in his 2007 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Though drawing and sculpture are reciprocal practices, perhaps incorporating both kinds of work in a single exhibition would diminish the urgency of a discrete encounter, which most of Serra’s works (being premised on phenomenological immersion) might be said to require or, at least, to invite. That is, we don’t just look at a work of Serra’s; we contend with it. Many of the drawings (such as Abstract Slavery, 1974, and Taraval Beach, 1977/2011) occupy large segments of a wall, and their dimensions wield scale—the proportional relation of the object to the body and the room—in a manner comparable to some of the works in steel. In Blank, 1978, for example, we enter the work, two ten-foot-square panels that face each other on either side of a small space. Being largely didactic, a retrospective exhibition can, in its own way, compromise our encounter with the art; still, it acquaints us with a range of activity, and, depending on the selection, it can also help us unpack the work’s internal logic.

Serra makes multiple kinds of drawing using various media, including charcoal, graphite, lithographic crayon, and paint stick. Sketchbooks, more than two dozen of which are included in the exhibition, show him responding to specific sites (such as the pyramids at Saqqara) or developing—through the quick sketch—ideas for sculpture. Larger sheets tend to be process-oriented. The medium is worked—here generally tracing a circular path—using means that restrict the artist’s control, including procedures or devices (such as screens) that prevent him from seeing the drawing as it develops. The enormous “installation drawings,” which are executed on linen panels and stapled to the wall, require many hours, even days, of relentless labor—of leaning in and pressing hard. At the Met, Serra himself performed this labor for Union, a site-specific work produced expressly for this show, and for a re-creation of Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976/2011, the only work executed directly on the wall. Black paint stick, formed into blocks and heated to facilitate application, is laid on in broad rectangular fields, adhering to the surface like sludge. The result, in both optical and material terms, is heavy: dark, thick, and literally full of weight. These drawings are anti-image; what makes them drawings at all is a stark opposition of medium to bare support. Their purpose is to seize a wall and thereby influence one’s sensation of habitable space. As such, they maintain a precise relation to the edges of the wall and the floor; they might even be said to concern themselves with the wall as a plane and a support. But most of the works are situational, not site-specific, and can be reinstalled from place to place.

“Creating a definite place within the given space” is how Serra described the function of his sculptural work in 1976 (something of this kind had already been posited by Carl Andre and, before them both, on behalf of his own paintings, by Barnett Newman). The same might have been said about the large drawings, which are conditioned by the plumb line and the level, the common (yet existential) coordinates of gravity and orientation that obtain in every kind of built space. But the material nature of the work can be identified with the other chief aspect of Serra’s early sculptural activity, his attention to “process”: to the idea of the work as the result of an action taken against a resistant medium. Such is the premise of Serra’s celebrated Verb List, 1967–68 (included in the show), an inventory of actions of this kind: “to roll,” “to fold,” “to drop,” “to heap,” “to gather,” “to scatter,” “to hide,” and so on. A number of items on the list aren’t verbs at all but prepositional phrases designating states that, in this context, also implicate irreducible material concerns: “of tension,” “of gravity,” “of entropy,” “of time.”

Richard Serra, Black Tracks, 2002, paint stick on handmade paper, 51 1/4 x 50".

So, in considering the autonomy of Serra’s drawing practice, we might claim that drawing, for him, has been the refuge for process, which directly motivated the early sculpture but virtually disappeared as a sculptural concern after 1970. With his work in industrial rubber and, above all, lead—rubber remnants scattered across a floor, molten lead “splashed” into the corners of a room, tightly rolled lead sheets, propped lead sculptural elements poised to collapse—the artist’s own physical agency is on display. Certain works of the period (spanning roughly 1966 to 1970) can be characterized as the residue of an event rather than as objects conceived according to the imperatives of aesthetic form. A good deal of effort was expended in producing the lead splashings, for example, yet the result, once the lead cools and hardens, is a cast of the corner where the wall meets the floor, a kind of leftover. With the emergence of the increasingly expansive steel sculpture, the artist’s body gradually absents itself. Even as Serra continues to participate in the installation of the work, we are speaking now of rigging and many stages of team labor, which all but obviate an explicit physical relation of artist to medium. It is true that, with the props and other early work, Serra had help; but the evidence (or implication) of his own effort was always a primary factor. We do not have to valorize strenuous labor in order to acknowledge that the artist’s firsthand role in the process of the early work partly defines it: The work may be propositional by nature, but, contingent and aggressively material, it was openly opposed to the kind of delegated fabrication (not to say the formal refinements) that had come to characterize the objects of Minimal art.

It should be added that, in the case of the large drawings, Serra sometimes produces “exhibition copies” in order to save wear and tear from repeated installations (something that physically weakens the edges of the drawings), and he has done so here. Is there such a thing, in this body of work, as a sacrosanct original? Saying yes risks misplaced connoisseurship (although the question of refabrication in postwar art remains—for historians and conservators, as well as collectors and museums—a philosophical and practical minefield). Regardless, Serra produces the large drawings himself (or with collaborators). About the smaller ones, obviously solitary efforts, he has said that there are times when he makes many drawings before achieving one he feels is worth preserving, although his criteria are elusive. Walking through the exhibition, which is redolent with the smell of paint stick, we might conclude that, as a place within a space, drawing has been the means through which Serra exercises the intense, absorptive physical immersion of his early sculptural practice and the one-to-one engagement with a medium that remains raw or untransformed. In this way, drawing possesses its own ethos, and even manages to bracket the later sculptures’ sometimes vexed relation to industry, on the one hand, and to monumentalism, on the other. The early sculptures were entropic, always pushing toward fatigue; this quality is sustained by the rote process of the large drawings, which may signify endurance but, long and slow, could never be described as a climactic feat.

At the Metropolitan, four monitors showed some of Serra’s early short films, each devoted to activities that serve to exhaust or frustrate the body. The body in question is Serra’s, although we see only his arms or hands performing the tasks: catching or holding scraps of lead (Hand Lead Fulcrum, 1968), freeing his bound wrists (Hands Tied, 1968), or (with Philip Glass) scraping a floor (Hands Scraping, 1968). It is sometimes said that these operations, being functionally pointless, bluntly reposition the role of “the hand”—of touch and technique—in the history of studio practice. Given their presence in the show, the films frame the drawings with reference to physical and material means, and to the flagging body itself, which becomes a kind of medium. Process isolates making from craft and privileges blanker forms of agency, attention, and temporal experience. Serra tells us that this sort of activity was originally grounded in task-based performance practice (he cites Yvonne Rainer, in particular, and we can add Simone Forti, another originator). But in Serra’s case, the performativity of process is involuted, a negation of public values for private ones. Perhaps, in examining the role of drawing in Serra’s work, it is best to reflect less on what drawing means to us than on what it has meant to him.

“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oct. 15, 2011–Jan. 16, 2012; Menil Collection, Houston, Mar. 2–June 10, 2012.

Jeffrey Weiss is Curator of the Panza Collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and an Adjunct Professor of fine art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.