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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Opens Richard Serra Drawings Retrospective

Richard Serra’s large-scale steel sculptures have made him a crucial figure in contemporary art, but his work also takes another striking, lesser-known form: drawing. On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from October 15, 2011, through January 16, 2012, in its only West Coast presentation, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is the first-ever critical overview of Serra’s drawings, offering new insight into both the artist’s practice and the possibilities of the medium.

This landmark traveling exhibition brings together roughly 70 works made over the course of some 40 years—including many of the artist’s sketchbooks that have never been shown before—and will unfold chronologically, tracing Serra’s ever-evolving ideas and methods since the 1970s. A major breakthrough in his career occurred in 1974 when he began making wall-size abstractions (which he calls “Installation Drawings”) that radically alter the relationship between drawing and architectural space. In these and many subsequent works, Serra uses black paintstick—an oil-based crayon—to build stark, densely layered forms that impact the viewer’s sense of mass and gravity, making for an experience that is as visceral as it is visual.

Organized by The Menil Collection, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is cocurated by Bernice Rose, chief curator, Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center; and Michelle White, associate curator, The Menil Collection; and Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA. The exhibition premiered at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in spring 2011. Following its West Coast debut at SFMOMA, the show will travel to The Menil Collection, Houston, in spring 2012.

SFMOMA’s presentation—the largest on the tour in terms of gallery space and number of works—is overseen by Garrels and will be augmented with 10 of the artist’s earliest sculptures from the 1960s, underscoring the vital connection between the processes of sculpting and drawing in Serra’s art. It was not until after Serra’s groundbreaking work with lead, rubber, and fiberglass that he began to seriously make drawings on paper.

“As Serra shifted away from making sculptures with flexible materials and turned to steel, and began creating work for site-specific and public arenas instead of contained spaces—that’s when drawing first emerges as an autonomous, parallel stream to his sculpture practice,” says Garrels. “At this point, working on paper became an activity in and of itself, independent in terms of the exploration of space, shape, and line.”

Works in the exhibition are drawn from renowned private collections and museums in both America and Europe and will also include a selection of important Serra pieces from SFMOMA’s and other Bay Area collections, such as the artist’s pivotal thrown-lead piece Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift (1969/1995).

The presentation opens with Serra’s seminal Verb List (1967–68), depicting columns of words on paper that connote ways an artist can manipulate materials: “to roll,” “to cut,” “to splash,” “to spread,” etc. Serra’s early sculptures, also introduced here, give form to those actions. Shown alongside the sculptures will be four of the artist’s early films, in which actions of his own hands emphasize the directness and processes of his early work.

The show continues with a wide sampling of Serra’s process-oriented drawings from the early 1970s, when he drew primarily on paper with ink, charcoal, and lithographic crayon. Over time, his drawings began to increase in size; the bold forms he created strained against the boundaries of paper, challenging the notion of drawing as merely preparatory work.

By the mid-1970s, Serra had made the first of his enormous Installation Drawings—some of which extend from floor to ceiling and are 10 to 20 feet wide—marking a radical shift in scale and technique and fully altering previous understandings of how a drawing could be made and how it might exist in dialogue with architecture. To make works such as Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), the artist affixed linen directly to the wall and applied paintstick—melted down and recast in large, heavy blocks—evenly over the entire surface. The drawings of this period begin to command entire rooms, playing with the viewer’s perceptions of space. Taraval Beach (1977), another monumental floor-to-ceiling work, seems to the viewer less like a flat surface and more like an opening into a three-dimensional dark void.

Since the 1980s, Serra has continued to invent new techniques and to explore a variety of surface effects, primarily on paper. In 1989, Serra made a series of large diptychs. Several of the titles of these drawings—such as No Mandatory Patriotism (1989) and The United States Government Destroys Art (1989)—express the artist’s reaction to the controversial removal of his sculpture Tilted Arc that same year, which was commissioned as a permanent work for New York City’s Federal Plaza in 1979. The exhibition will also include works from several of Serra’s drawing series made in the 1990s, such as Deadweights (1991), Weight and Measure (1994), Rounds (1996–97), and Out-of-Rounds (1999–2000).

In Serra’s recent drawings, such as the Solids series (2007–08), the accumulation of black paintstick on paper is extremely dense and nearly the entire surface of the paper is covered in a layer of viscous material. To make these drawings, Serra often pours melted paintstick onto the floor and then lays the paper on top of the pigment. The paintstick is transferred to the sheet by pressing a hard marking tool onto the back of the paper.

The exhibition will also feature Elevational Weights, a new drawing series from 2010, as well as Union (2011), new large-scale installation drawing—both created for this exhibition.

A final gallery presents 25 of the artist’s personal sketchbooks, which, shown for the first time, offer a more intimate look at Serra’s process and way of looking at the world. Like daybooks, they vary widely in content—sketches made during travels in Egypt, South America, and Iceland; storyboards for film projects; studies of masterworks by other artists; and writings.

The 176-page exhibition catalogue ($50, hardcover; $40, paperback) features 160 illustrations along with a groundbreaking new interview with Serra, contributed by cocurator Gary Garrels, that represents five days of conversation that took place in 2010 in preparation for the project. The book also features essays by Bernice Rose, Michelle White, and Magdalena Dabrowski, as well as texts by Richard Shiff, the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin; and Lizzie Borden, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer. Also included in the catalogue are an illustrated chronology related to the artist’s drawing production, a selected exhibition history, and a selected bibliography. The catalogue is published by The Menil Collection and distributed by Yale University Press.

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