Richard Serra is best known for his 50-ton steel Torqued Ellipses and site-specific sculptures, yet the intimate retrospective of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by the Menil Collection and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, provides perhaps the most illuminating encounter yet with the Mick Jagger of American sculpture.
With 43 drawings and 28 sketchbooks tracing his work from the 1970s to the present, this is a drawing show where you don’t need reading glasses. A few early works in the first room map in charcoal on paper something Serra drew, but soon giant oily shapes take over. Triangle affixes a 6-foot triangle to the wall. It’s solid black, sculptural, smearily gestalt. The drawing is not about how your eye sees line, but how your body reacts to its massive shape. A number of pieces have been remade for the exhibition; the galleries smell like fresh oil paint, like newly cut hay to an art viewer. Black paintstick–an oil-based, oversize crayon–is Mr. Serra’s medium of choice. This is the ideal art exhibit for someone who is color blind. Every piece is black.
Donald Judd wrote in 1965 that “half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture,” and you get the sense that Mr. Serra got the memo. In the late ’60s, he made up a list of verbs on a sketchbook page. which is on view: “to roll,” “to crease,” “to fold,” “to time,” “to laminate,” “to scatter,” “to grasp,” “to knot,” “to cut,” “to curve,” “to remove.” “To draw,” and “to paint” were not among them.
Mr. Serra was born in San Francisco in 1939. A muscular man with an M.F.A. from Yale and two years of looking at art in Paris and Italy under his belt, he was 28 living in New York in a loft on Greenwich Street, supporting himself by moving furniture. He had just started to work in lead, fiberglass and rubber. At about this time Dan Flavin, Carl Andre and Sol Lewitt had been in the 1966 Primary Structures show at the Jewish Museum; their move to make impersonal, reconstructable work and use the gallery as an installation environment is evident. But Mr. Serra’s real community is Robert Smithson, Eve Hesse, Yvonne Rainer and Bruce Nauman–people who politicized and eroticized Minimalism, who above all brought it back to the body. Mr. Serra’s brother is the counterculture San Francisco trial lawyer Tony Serra (“More freedom for more people through law is a beautiful concept”), and both Messrs. Serras may err on the side of defiant anti-institutional idealism.
In Blank, two giant facing rectangles press on either side of the narrow walls of gallery. Walking through the show you realize Mr. Serra’s work is not compositional. It doesn’t have parts or bases. When you get close, you see his infinitely dense shapes are held in place with tiny black staples pushed directly into the wall. If the show is not about painting, or even drawing, it is about scale, mass and the way planes pull at you. It’s like meditation: You start to notice how you stand on the balls of your feet, the way certain things attract you or repel you.
The 1970s drawings are also often funny, even endearing. In Institutionalized Abstract Art, a black circle with a 90-inch diameter has been paintsticked directly on the wall about 7 feet up. The black registers as absence, a hole in the white wall, and the piece looks like a giant cartoon mouse hole. Mr. Serra knows that black empties out the steel shapes in Forged Drawing, so that rather than massive, these paintsticked sculptures look hollow, like pipes. It wasn’t clear to me that laughter would be a welcome response, though, and the glee the works elicited seemed a little out of place, so I stifled it.
It was the 1980s when Mr. Serra was at his best. Pittsburgh has slightly Guston-y radiant shapes, and time has haloed the paper with oil around the two barely touching paintstick squares. He was ticked off at the government the year he made No Mandatory Patriotism, two rectangles just touching at top with a wedge of white showing through their lower facing edges. (Tilted Arc, that 1981 debacle of site-specificity once installed at the Jacob K. Javits federal building, was removed in 1989 after much public debate; another drawing from the same year is titled The United States Government Destroys Art). This is the best room in the show, where Mr. Serra wields with delicacy the powerful relationships of form to form and artwork to viewer.
In the 1990s, the scale of the work grows smaller. These more picturelike drawings recap earlier breakthroughs. Their size and framing seems to retreat from the kind of engagement with the viewer and the walls that made the earlier rooms thrilling. In the late 1990s and 2000s, square-framed circles like Robert Frank and out-of-round X swirl paintstick into what looks like black radiant suns with a centrifugal velocity. They aren’t resolved and seem on the verge of proposing a problem that other artists will have to solve.
The show’s final room puts on display 28 of Serra’s never-before-exhibited notebooks. Almost jarringly representational after the exhibition’s insistence on pure form, these drawings are like postcards from places you’d want to see Mr. Serra sketching: the Giza Pyramids, the Guggenheim museum, the Le Corbusier Chapel in Ronchamp, Machu Picchu. Four videos, among them the literal Hand Catching Lead, round out the show’s generous definition of drawing.
The artist is now 72 years old. He spent three weeks at the Met installing his retrospective, and the staff there seemed proud and almost proprietary of his presence, as if the artist himself were an artifact on loan. Mr. Serra at the opening pointed out that the Met was exhibiting his work simultaneous to Cézanne’s Card Player series; Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969) suggests another way to view the mass and weight of the planes of paint in Cézanne.
Speaking with Michelle White, associate curator at the Menil, I was told that the Met’s galleries were remodeled to accommodate Mr. Serra: The continuous decorative molding along the base of the walls had been taken out to install his often floor-to-ceiling works. (You can spot the remains of wainscoting along one stubborn wall.) The museum’s molding is gone for good, and this is fitting–if works in the Met have influenced Mr. Serra, this exhibition has in turn definitively made the Met more modern.