Richard Serra - Black is the Drawing
24.10.2013 - 01.12.2013
Opening on October 24th, 6-9pm
BLACK IS THE DRAWING
Drawing as experience
“What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are, by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are.”
In 1972, American artist Richard Serra (°1930) makes his famous Verb List. On two sheets of blank paper Serra writes down a number of possible actions (to roll, to fold, to cast…) and contexts to act upon (gravity, entropy, nature…). However ordinary at first glance, we can rightly argue that this ‘linguistic drawing’ is a perfect summary of Serra’s artistic practice. The artist himself describes his Verb List as “a series of actions to relate to oneself, material, place, and process”.
In line with the artistic questions raised by the minimalists, the work of Richard Serra deals with the object-hood and the self-referentiality of an artwork. His works are presences in space, devoid of all external references or meanings and referring to nothing but themselves as objects. But, being one of the most prominent members of the post-minimalist generation, Serra also attaches great importance to the process of making these presences and to the way this process and the logic of matter itself dictates the outcome of his artistic decisions. Serra explores the possibilities of materials and acts upon them within their natural confines, so the results of his acts reveal the true nature of the materials that are processed.
Though the interpretation of Serra’s work goes beyond language, Serra’s Verb List can in a way be considered as the conceptual blueprint of his entire artistic production. It is a linguistic dissection of the process which he never takes for granted and which he tries to translate physically in time and space. Every new work is a re-questioning of acts, contexts, materials and a repositioning of the artist himself in the dialectics between those different parameters.
In the same year when he makes his Verb List, Serra also starts making his famous paintstick Wall Drawings on linen. In drawing, Serra re-interprets the verb ‘to draw’, which for him is not necessarily a transitive verb. Serra does not draw something. He just draws, as an act, referring to nothing but itself as a process of seeing and structuring space. The only thing revealed by the material residue of this act is the moment of making the drawing itself.
The ambition to make a non-representational, non-referential, autonomous drawing is not an easy one to realize. How to step away from art historical continuity and avoid a drawing to be an illusion, a window to a fictious reality? How to avoid metaphors, associations, gestures, figural interpretation…?
First of all Serra solves this problem by strictly using black. He considers black to be a non-color, referring to anything but itself. Color alludes to nature and would thus risk a metaphorical interpretation of the drawing. But Serra’s use of black not only avoids possible misreadings, it also helps the artist to structure space in the act of drawing. “Black is a property, not a quality,” he states. “In terms of weight, black is heavier, creates a larger volume, holds itself in a more compressed field. […] Since black is the densest color material, it absorbs and dissipates light to a maximum and thereby changes the artificial as well as the natural light in a given room. A black shape can hold its space and place in relation to a larger volume and alter the mass of that volume readily.” Serra’s black is not on the drawing, it becomes and is the drawing.
Another way of achieving the autonomy of a drawing is to avoid any subjective gesture. Nothing in Serra’s drawings directly refers to the artist in persona. Rather than making gestures, Serra makes marks. Both gestures and marks are the material expression of an idea. The difference however is in how this idea comes into being. A gesture is grounded in and always biased by one’s personal history and the emotions linked to it. It is an idea that reveals the subjectivity of a person. A mark, on the other hand, reveals how a person really thinks. A mark is not an idea that is filtered by the existing conventions, traditions or frames we use to structure our lives with, it does not follow the logic of language nor of the image. Mark making is a way of thinking out of time, only present in the experience, here and now. It has its own, unstable logic and allows for intuition, the perfect blend between reason and feeling, to enter in the development of ideas and in the process of making an artistic decision. A mark is made in a dimension between the conscious and the unconscious. It is immediate and direct, it’s entirely unpredictable and creates its own, ever revisable order of things. Marks reveal fragments of the truth hidden in the natural logic of matter and process. And as Richard Serra states: “The vulnerability of not knowing what you are doing is always more rewarding than knowing it.”
Because of their directness and their one to one relation to the process and the experience of a given time in a given space, Serra’s marks contain a certain truth that is however not one to be taken for granted. About this James Lawrence says: “In Serra’s drawings, where things assert their properties, even as their state changes, the true and the made are also convertible. Line is weight, mass is direction, matter is time. This convertibility, however, is not spontaneous. It arises through the constant process of thinking and rethinking, acting and reacting, which constitutes involvement with the worlds as we find it from moment to moment. This is true for Serra, and it is true for us as we view his work.” (E. Schneider (ed.), Richard Serra. Drawings – Work comes out of work (exh. cat.), Kunsthaus Bregenz (June 14 – September 14, 2008), Bregenz, 2008: p. 40)
In order to “understand” Serra’s drawings and to capture a fragment of the truth that they hide and reveal, one must experience them in a given context. Their autonomic status allows for Richard Serra to use them as destabilizing weights in a harmonic space. Their monumentality and blackness provoke a physical reaction. The viewer is prompted to constantly change position and with every step to become more and more attentive to his environment, which has been distorted. By unbalancing the viewer, Serra makes him become aware of his own corporeality. The viewer is made to physically react to space and to retrieve his own balance, both physically and conceptually. He becomes conscious of the process of perception and is forced to restructure and rethink what is given, instead of taking things for granted and relying solely on secure knowledge. Serra’s drawings open the gates to a knowledge beyond what we already know under a different guise.
With his Wall Drawings, Richard Serra thus encourages the viewer to keep questioning how we perceive ourselves and our environment in order to come closer to true, unfiltered meaning. The experience of perceiving Serra’s drawings is in a way analogous to the experience of drawing itself. Both viewer and artist constantly try to retrieve their balance in physical and conceptual space. For Richard Serra, the definition of the verb ‘to draw’ is much more extensive than ‘the act of putting a line on a piece of paper’. Drawing becomes another way of thinking. It’s is a non-linguistic, experiential way of structuring perceived space.