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Paintstick and Perception

At the Menil, Richard Serra masterfully uses simple materials to alter the world around us.

At 72, Richard Serra is a force to be reckoned with. You can still tell that this is a guy who started working in a steel mill at age 16 to earn money for school, and who later started a furniture-moving business, hauling heavy crap up the stairs of walk-ups to fund his art. This is the guy who made videos about catching pieces of lead and holding a hefty chunk of it out straight until his arm gave out. Serra's probably of less than average height and physically compact; he's one of those guys who have done so much physical labor that growing old doesn't make a lot of difference. He could still kick your punk ass in a bar fight, and he's probably cantankerous enough to do it.

Early works by the post-minimalist sculptor involved steel plates propped up by poles or leaned against each other, works in which the viewer's awareness of weight and tension is palpable. Serra's later sculptural works use massive bands of steel torqued, curved, spiraled and arced to create stunning forms and volumes on the scale of architecture. His sculptures are widely known, but until I saw a piece he made for the Menil's wonderful Bernice Rose-curated drawing show four years ago ["How Artists Draw," February 28, 2008], I don't think I'd seen any of his drawings. I had never had any special affinity for Serra's work, although I had seen sculptures that I liked and had been impressed by; but they never got me the way that drawing did.

Serra had done it on site in the Menil on a massive swath of Belgian linen. He slightly angled it and obsessively and densely marked the entire surface with an opaque layer of black oil-based paintstick. Seeing the work, smelling the fresh paintstick, experiencing the scale of that drawing was impressive and affecting. In addition to its massive expanse and slightly disorienting optical effect, you could feel the manual labor and energy that had gone into the work. Serra had, of course, had assistants, but the fact that this highly successful artist in his late sixties was physically engaged with something so epically tedious and physically demanding was as impressive as the drawing.

"Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective" is now on view at The Menil Collection. Organized by Menil curators Bernice Rose and Michelle White, and Gary Garrels, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco MOMA, the show debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you aren't already a Serra enthusiast, this show just might make you one.

It opens with a series of notebooks in a vitrine outside the galleries filled with thick, emphatic black lines and marks. I like that kind of confident, direct, no-bullshit drawing. Serra says he never shows these — he views them as notations, a daily exercise for seeing and thinking rather than as independent artworks. He always has a notebook with him, and when he gave a talk at the press preview, he pulled it out and started sketching to explain a particular point he was making. The packed gallery got quiet, staring rapt as the artist created something before their very eyes.

It's weird the kind of awe that artists of a certain stature are accorded. To his credit, Serra was matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He wasn't trying to perform. He's got an ego and he's determined and self-confident, but Serra doesn't come across as pompous. People who worked with him at the Menil in 2008 and on this show had great things to say about him. That's definitely not true for every artist.

Drawings by sculptors traditionally have run to sketches, renderings or diagrams for projects. But Serra's large-scale drawings, while conceptually related to his sculptures, are entities unto themselves. The first gallery has an early work that Serra produced in 1974 and hadn't seen since. It's a long, rectangular band of black paintstick on an expanse of white paper. The bottom edge had disappointed the artist, so he just cut it off by stapling a band of white paper along the bottom — an unfussy, pragmatic solution that, according to the artist, "avoided the problem of collage." It's not the greatest drawing, but it offers an enticing glimpse of what is to come.

The crucial move came when Serra started drawing all the way to the edge of a paper (or linen) shape. Triangle (1974) and Institutionalized Abstract Art (1976), a triangle and a circle shape, respectively, are a couple of early examples of this. The shapes feel somehow dated and a little hokey (although from the circle's title, that may be the intent), but the fact that they are these clean, dark shapes flush on the wall, rather than drawings of shapes on a piece of paper, is important.

Serra's 1974 Abstract Slavery was his first wall-size drawing on linen. It was so named because the artist covered the whole nine-by-17-foot area one paintstick at a time. Oil paintsticks are like extra-fat crayons but are made of solidified, but not dried, oil paint (basically linseed oil, pigment and wax); they're covered with a cardboard sleeve. A skin dries on the outside of the stick and has to be peeled off or it gunks up the surface. So covering that expanse meant each paintstick had to be stripped down and scrubbed into the surface, one after another until the entire area was coated in a thick black layer of paint. Serra would later hatch the idea of melting the sticks down and casting them into brick-like shapes to cover a broader area. This shape means you also can use greater pressure, holding the brick in the palm of your hand and leaning into it, which is exactly what Serra appears to be doing in the photograph on the cover of the exhibition catalog.

But why draw something black rather than paint something black? Scrubbing black paintsticks into the surface leaves a record of the physical effort. There is less effort involved in stroking the paint onto a surface with a brush. It can also give you a smoother surface. One might wonder why it matters, if it's all black anyway. The natural lighting in the Menil beautifully illustrates the point of all that work.

Blank (1978) is an installation of two ten-foot square drawings on opposite walls; each butts up into the corner of the connecting wall. If you walk up with the sun behind a cloud or from a certain angle, the drawings appear to be impossibly thin, yet impossibly heavy sheets of darkly burnished steel. And as you move into the space or as the light shifts, you see the subtle sheen of the vertical marks — they're deliberate and focused, not crazy, agitated scribbling — and the tiny bits of paintstick accumulated on the slubs in the fabric. You can see the control and the effort. To civilians, this is seventh-degree art geekery, but nuances like this make a difference in the visual effect of the work. Serra deftly plays with our perceptions of space in his drawing installations. Standing inside Blank, it feels like squares have been cut from the visible world, leaving windows into some cosmic void beyond. In Abstract Slavery, Serra created a barely noticeable parallelogram that is just perceptible enough to throw you off.

Some later works are more expressive, and I think less successful. A series of 1999 circular drawings made on square paper have a great, dense accumulation of melted paintstick matter in the center, but the splattering haze around the circles' edges just makes them seem kind of pointlessly dramatic. But overall it's a great show.

The one distracting thing was the layout, which has you zigzagging through an almost maze-like arrangement of rooms. I understand the drawing installations need to have their own space, but the layout is a little gimmicky and distracting. The Menil usually has pitch-perfect tone when it comes to installing work, so I found this a little surprising. I think it may be a result of the artist's input, as it seems something similar happened in the Met show. Serra has effectively created these kinds of spaces in his sculptures, leading viewers in and out and through them. But it doesn't fit well with the rectilinear confines of the gallery, so it feels too contrived.

When you get to the end of the installation, however, it's all worthwhile. The last gallery is Two Corner Cut: High Low (2012), commissioned specifically for the Menil. It's incredible. Two drawings run down opposite walls of a long, narrow gallery in thick bands, like enormous rolls of wallpaper hung sideways, crooked and with the ends cut off at odd angles. The drawings are so recent you can still smell the linseed oil of the paintstick, and Serra has placed them on the walls so masterfully that the viewer is totally disoriented.

The optical effect of those dark, massive drawings convinces you that the floor you know to be perfectly level is sloped. I sat at the end of the gallery typing on my laptop and looking down through the installation. My eyes told me that if I did a somersault, I'd keep rolling down the slope until I came to rest at the opposite wall. The logical part of my brain tried to convince me that wasn't the case, but what really stopped me was the fact that I haven't done a somersault in 20 years. It's amazing how these drawings, made from materials as simple and low-key as fabric and paintstick, can so alter your perception of the world around you.

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