Richard Serra Drawings: A Sensitive Connection To Oneself

Few would expect a black and white reproduction of a still life by Cezanne to hang in Richard Serra’s bedroom. However that picture struck him years ago during a visit at the Courtauld Gallery. He remembers the strong physical reaction of the encounter, ‘making the hair at the back of his neck stand up’. Today Cezanne is not in his sights anymore says Serra. But he is still interested in the picture plane, the materiality of paint and the balance of the shapes he discovered in the Courtauld painting. The minimum of means used to capture the real world and the contradiction of structures at play influenced Richard Serra’s artistic research in his steel works and drawings.
Even if he might be better known for his large scales steel sculptures, he pursued a parallel career as a draughtsman from a young age. He defines his relationship to drawing as a sensitive connection to oneself. There is an inherent feeling of vulnerability in his works on paper, as opposed to the strength of his steel sculptures. Serra explains that in the 70`s a spine operation forced him to stay reclined.  Being impaired encouraged him to reflect on alternatives to sculpture. It fostered his exploration of drawing as a means of expression. The works from that period translate a different rhythm of the body. They track the fragility of his physical state. As dealing with forms inspired by the surrounding world they are informed with the sensibility of being.
As a tribute to Cezanne, Serra created twelve drawings for the Courtauld.  Each drawing is a layering of transparent plastic sheets worked on with dense black crayon. While sculpture making is a disconnected time process due to different stages preceding the realisation of the work, drawing procures an immediate gestural return. In the Courtauld drawings, the process of creation translates into a line that is broken on the front side but continues at the back. The negative space of the drawing becomes a positive figure referring to the matter created in between the layers of the picture plane. The use of ink allows a part of chance in the final result. It is an uncertain material which fluidity is difficult to control. Therefore the works contain both a level of creation and of destruction. The inherent spontaneity of the process of making allows a greater degree of play. And for Serra there is an underlying tragic tone in the question of playfulness. ‘I am not saying play hard, I am saying serious play’ he explains.
A closer look encourages the beholder to reflect on the contradiction between matter and form. This addresses a broader question on the process of art making. How does one define the how and the why in art and, is one prevailing on the other?
Art criticism, according to Serra, offers a theoretical analysis aimed to place things in the context of history. It sometimes loads the ‘why’ with meanings the artist did not intend himself. For him it is easier to talk about the ‘how’ of his works while the ‘why’ is difficult to pin down. Both are however in close interdependence.
The Courtauld drawings are not site specific but Richard Serra coordinated the hanging and approved of the final setting. His work aims to create an environment space within the occupied architectural space.
Hung together this group of work activates the space and affects the rhythm of the room. The fact they do not respect a single, fixed, viewpoint creates a disorientating experience. The beholder is confronted to the same materiality of space as in presence of his sculptures. Space becomes more than a volume, it becomes a substance.
Richard Serra drawings are on view till the 12th of January 2014.
Words: Amelie Timmermans Photo: Courtesy Courtauld Gallery

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