The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue
Art In Conversation

RICHARD SERRA with Phong Bui

Portrait of Richard Serra, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Richard Serra, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, curated by Bernice Rose, chief curator of the Menil Institute and Study Center; Michelle White, associate curator at the Menil Collection; and Gary Garrels, Elise S. Hass Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the first retrospective of Richard Serra’s drawings. The exhibition, which spans from 1971 to the present, is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 13 – August 28, 2011); from there it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 15 – January 17, 2012) and to the Menil Collection in Houston (March 2 – June 10, 2012). On the occasion of the retrospective, Richard Serra welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to his TriBeCa loft to discuss his work and more.

Phong Bui (Rail): The first thing I saw as I walked in the first room of the retrospective was 24 sheets divided into three rows in “Drawings After Circuit” (1972). I immediately noticed two things. One, all were composed with four marks, save for seven, which were made with three (#1, #6, #7, #10, #11, #12, #17). The marks were drawn with an urgent, defined one-quick-bold stroke, more or less the same speed from top to bottom. Two, the date of the work, 1972, is the same year that you shifted the scale of your work, which led you to meet Ray La Chapelle. That same mark-making was never to be seen again in your drawings, except those that appear in your notebooks.

Richard Serra: The sculpture “Circuit” (four plates out of four corners) was installed in Kassel at Documenta 5, the room was a 36 by 36 foot square and each plate measured 8 by 24 feet. I happened to have a newsprint pad with me and decided to draw the sequential views of the shift from plate to line in different locations. I wanted to see how the space compressed and contracted, and opened and closed, while I was walking around the periphery as well as the center of the room.

I worked with Ray La Chapelle the first time when I installed “Strike” in 1971 (one plate out of one corner) in New York. It was “Strike” which gave me the impetus to expand my work and deal with context.

While Gary Garrels and I were attempting to put together a selection of works for the drawing retrospective, he saw the “Circuit” drawings and suggested that they should be included in the exhibition. I agreed. Although these drawings had never been shown before, they represent the sort of drawing that remains my daily practice as far as hand-eye coordination is concerned. I make notations of what I see in everyday surroundings in a notebook that I carry with me everywhere I go.

Rail: In your interview with Garrels in the exhibition catalogue, you described how, as a kid, you used to draw on butcher paper, which is a material that retains the celluloid, making it stronger than regular non-krafted paper. The paper’s surface is usually waxed in order to prevent leaks when butchers use it to wrap meat. This surface would not allow subtle details or shading, so I would imagine that you may have developed your bold and strong line from drawing on such surfaces early on?

Serra: You’re trying to find clues in order to solve a mystery like Sherlock Holmes [laughs]. I think one can make linkages in hindsight; though they may not, in fact, be true. I don’t remember drawing only on that butcher paper, and it may be that I did have to press down harder with whatever tool I was using at the time, Crayola or conté crayon, but I was drawing on sheets of paper against the hard ground of the street, which was uneven because of the undulation of the asphalt. As a result the lines were all broken, creating a graffiti-like surface.

Rail: That’s not far off from what I was speculating [laughs]. When I discovered that you had taken drawing courses with Howard Warshaw while you were at the University of California in Santa Barbara, as an undergraduate major in English Literature, I began to wonder whether Warshaw’s limited palette—mostly earth colors mixed in with black, due to his admiration of analytical cubist paintings, while his drawings were quite expressive—may have planted an early seed for your aspiring use of bold-black lines.

Serra: Warshaw was primarily a draftsman, and his drawing is fairly similar to that of his mentor, Rico Lebrun. Warshaw became my mentor, but I never made the connection between his work and my black line drawings.

Rail: You did send black charcoal drawings to Yale for graduate school?

Serra: Yes, the drawings that were made under Warshaw/Lebruns’s tutelage were black and white, but it is a stretch to find the impetus to work in black and white in my childhood drawings or in a relationship to the work of Howard Warshaw. It is true that I’ve never worked in color, although I did teach a course on color at Yale under Si Sillman, and I assisted proofing Josef Albers’s book Interaction of Color after I graduated.

Rail: That makes sense, since you were a painter in graduate school.

Serra: Yes. And that experience, in addition to my experiments with painting, made me realize that to structure a painting with color took a kind of visual organization that I didn’t seem to be able to achieve. I recognized that Matisse was a master at it, and other people were quite capable of understanding the interaction of color to make significant statements, but it didn’t seem to be in my purview of capabilities.

Rail: It’s good that you know what and how you can contribute to one medium rather than the other. At any rate, the last time we saw each other I asked whether there was an inherent relationship to Jasper Johns’s untitled drawing of ’64 (“Cut, Tear, Scrape, Erase”) and your 1970 “Verb List,” and you said the “Verb List” had its origin elsewhere: it was during the lecture that Buckminster Fuller gave at— —

Serra: Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the lecture, which may have been called I am a Verb, went on for six hours. He would talk about Magellan circumnavigating the globe and switch to a geodesic dome within two paragraphs, while pulling other things out of thin air, yet he was able to string all his divergent sources together and make sense in a way that filled you with awe. But I didn’t listen to the lecture and go home and draw up a verb list.

Rail: Well, the reason I brought it up again is because you said recently that you felt Matisse, in his late years, made better lines with scissors—what Matisse regarded as, “painting with scissors”—than he ever did with pencil or charcoal.

Serra: It looks like drawing with scissors to me.

Rail: Okay. But it does relate to your “Verb List” in that, in addition to the other verbs such as “to lift,” “to prop,” “to roll,” for example, which seem to come to an end by the late ’70s, the only two verbs that remain active in and indispensible to your work are “to bend” and “to cut.” What do you think?

Serra: I don’t know. There are many things on that verb list that I have applied over the years but I don’t go and look at it everyday like a script that I have to follow in my work.

Rail: Did you write them down many times before ending up with the two sheets that we are now familiar with?

Serra: No, I wrote it straight through from beginning to end. Actually, the first verb list was shown in Italy (in 1969 at Galleria Françoise Lambert) and it was stolen right off the wall. Luckily I had a hand-written copy of it.

 “Taraval Beach,” Paintstick on Belgian linen. 19´6˝ × 114˝. Photo: Rob McKeever.
“Taraval Beach,” Paintstick on Belgian linen. 19´6˝ × 114˝. Photo: Rob McKeever.

 “Drawings after Circuit,” 1972. Paintstick on paper. 24 sheets, each 36 × 231/2˝. Collection of the artist. Photo: Rob McKeever.
“Drawings after Circuit,” 1972. Paintstick on paper. 24 sheets, each 36 × 231/2˝. Collection of the artist. Photo: Rob McKeever.

Rail: What about Morton Feldman? Whom you admire— —

Serra: I still do.

Rail: And whom I had the pleasure of meeting after his lecture at the Studio School in the Spring of 1986; I went off to visit him at his home in Buffalo. It was there that I saw a painting, Rauschenberg’s black painting. My question is: were you aware of Rauchenberg’s Black Paintings of the early ’50s?

Serra: I wasn’t aware of the Rauschenberg black paintings until the mid-’70s, but I was aware that Rauchenberg had said the white paintings were about shadows, but I would not necessarily relate those paintings to my own work or to Feldman’s music. I see Feldman’s music as being more concerned with open field marking. He would lay out a 12 foot long piece of paper on the wall and then treat it like a field. He would make a mark in the center in relationship to a mark to its left and one to its right and so forth, and then indicate the intervals between the marks as silences. Feldman would measure the time passing between the marks by determining how far the mark had to extend into the space of the silence. He was structuring sound as an open score notation. I did not know anyone else dealing with composition like that. I found it extremely impressive and innovative. Feldman had a preoccupation with abstraction. He and Philip Guston were very close friends, but when Guston moved into figuration, they had to part ways.

Rail: In fact, the big painting of Guston with the head turning away, while smoking a cigarette is entitled, “Friend–To M.F.” and it’s definitely a mocking yet painful gesture to Feldman.

Serra: I would think, yes. They were close friends and they would go to Yale together. They would sit in my studio and their exchanges with each other were as interesting as their critiques of my work. It was great for me. I felt like a younger brother listening in to the conversation of his older brothers about their work. What was good about Guston and Feldman was neither of them ever appeared to have an authoritative tone as teachers. They didn’t preach; they tried to listen to you and present work to you that might enforce what they thought your sensibility was, but they didn’t lay down dos and don’ts. They weren’t academics.

Rail: Was Neil Welliver any different?

Serra: Neil Welliver was a brilliant teacher in that he invited people to lecture from all different fields, and the students could ask questions of those people. He brought Jack Gelber, for instance, who had done a famous play, The Connection, which was about the life of drug-addicted jazz musicians. It was an enormous hit in New York, and was soon translated into several languages and produced in several countries around the world. Gelber told us that when he had the play performed at the Apollo Theatre African American actors portrayed black addicts, tying up their arms and shooting heroin on stage. People in the audience would stand up and say, “no brother don’t do that,” or “lay off,” or “pull back,” and the actors would talk back to the people in the audience. And that became— —

Rail: The dialogue of the play.

Serra: Yes. And as Gelber was explaining what the play was about, someone standing right next to me in a long army trench coat—it was only the second day so I didn’t know who he was—said “Meme me sa a gaga ga getgggettt gagaga ga get get,” and Gelber said, “Gelber.” And this fellow continued, “whaaa wha whaaa whaa wha wha,” and Gelber said “What?” and he, “Waaaaould I, wwwaaawould I, Waaaaould I” and Gelber, “Would I?” and the guy said, “Waaaaoouuuld I waaaant a woooould I want woouuuuld I waaaant a” and, mind you, Gelber was being very patient and said, “Would I want to?” Then this same fellow in a very straight voice said, “What I wanna know is: is what I’m doing now the same as what you did in your play?” What that did was completely deconstruct Gelber. He looked embarrassed. It made me think, if I’m going to be a student here, it’s as important to ask questions as it is to listen to people speak, because if you ask intelligent questions, you’re going to be able to deconstruct whatever you’re being taught in an intelligent manner. I thought, “This is going to be terrific.” And that was my second day.

Rail: It’s pretty cool that you appreciate the value of inquiry.

Serra: Well, that’s why Yale was important. Welliver would not just invite painters, but poets and performers, week after week. He also taught a design course, which was like free play. The only instruction he put out was to work with dots. You could use a potato, a cork, whatever, and poster paint to make the dots. But, the dot problems in their simplicity produced a myriad of different forms. Students were highly competitive and would stay up all night working on their dot solutions. Welliver would introduce all different kinds of material but he was insistent that no matter which material you chose, it had to be used in a way where it was clear how matter imposed its own form on whatever you were making. I started pushing cement through a meat grinder and I was thinking of the output as an abstract cannoli [laughs]. I didn’t think it was art, but I thought it was a good, playful experiment.

Everybody in that class, we all applauded each other not for the end products of our experiments but for the investigation into material and the inquiry into form. It was a way of coming to terms with how you can invent form through material. For me it was one of the most important classes I took at Yale.

Rail: What you just said made me think of, well, as far as the subject of drawing is concerned the interview with Lizzie Borden (1977) in which you said, “to draw a line is to have an idea. More than one line is usually construction.” And that got me thinking about very fundamental differences between curvilinear and rectilinear, or simply, a curved line and a straight line. I mean, a curved line by virtue of being curved alludes to form, at least figurative or organic form.

Serra: I think it’s almost impossible to get away from anecdotal ideas or anything that’s figurative if you use a curved line. Any curvilinear line will suggest the figurative or forms in nature, for sure. It’s almost impossible not to imply representation with a curvilinear line, even if it is not intended.

Rail: Right. But a straight line will remain nothing but a straight line unless we are to construct it to create a geometric form, as did the Russian Constructivists, as well as Mondrian, who was able to break from the Cubist space. But on the opposite side of that equation is Pollock, who went a step further in his own way of breaking the Cubist space, which he did via Surrealism’s automatism, skipping Constructivist means altogether. I’m thinking of your “Splash” pieces, which many critics have referred to in relation to Pollock’s dripping technique.

Serra: If you’re casting between the wall and the floor, and you’re filling that space with molten lead, maybe you could say it’s figural in terms of the gesture in that the throw by hand interacts with the gravity of the molten lead. I never thought of the “Splash” pieces as being figural and I never thought of them as being related to Pollock, although people read them that way.

Rail: Good. We have it on the record once and for all. Meanwhile, in your essay “Notes on Drawing” you reveal your affinity to black— —

Serra: As a property. Black absorbs light, and because of its absorption of light it has weight—the opposite of color, which reflects light—and that’s what interests me. There is also its graphicness, which you can trace back as far as Guttenberg and the whole mechanization of the graphic procedures that followed. If you’re interested in the graphicness of drawing, it’s hard to get around lettering or printing. I have always thought, why not accept it as part of our inheritance?

Rail: Which basically repudiates the personal dexterity of the hand’s movement, an activity that so depends on the idea of skill that can be trained.

Serra: A skill which is being lost right now. There’s a lot of de-skilling going on in our time. I don’t know whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate. That’s the way it is.

Rail: How have you thought about the predominant use of black in late Pollock paintings?

Serra: I have always seen Pollock’s paintings, even paintings such as “Autumn Rhythm,” as big drawings, not only his late paintings.

Rail: How about Kline’s paintings or the de Koonings of the late ’40s?

Serra: I always feel that the strength of most artists reveals itself in their black and white work. Colors always seem to refer to metaphor and conjure up emotions and other similar sensibilities, which are outside of the structure of the painting. I think de Kooning reaches an apex in his early black and white works in terms of drawing. He gets there again in some of the very small drawings and paintings leading to the Women series in the early ’50s, although the big break in his work happened with the color paintings of the late ’50s such as “Montauk Highway” (1958) or “Palisade” (1957).

Rail: Which was the time when he began to go to East Hampton for the summer. “Door to the River” (1960) and “Par Rosenberg” (1957) are among my favorites.

Serra: That is his best work.

Rail: I absolutely agree. What about the Rothko Chapel in the Menil?

“Untitled,” 1971. Charcoal on paper, 26 ¼ x 40 inches. Private collection. © Richard Serra. Photo: Savage.
“Untitled,” 1971. Charcoal on paper, 26 ¼ x 40 inches. Private collection. © Richard Serra. Photo: Savage.

“Untitled,” 1972-73. Paintstick on paper. 37 7/8 × 50 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase with funds from Susan Morse Hilles.
“Untitled,” 1972-73. Paintstick on paper. 37 7/8 × 50 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase with funds from Susan Morse Hilles.

Serra: I’ve visited it several times. The first time I saw it, I was a little disappointed in the atmosphere of the space. I thought it was too dark; maybe it was an overcast day, or maybe I wasn’t in the mood to see it, or maybe I was impatient. But I’ve seen it twice since then, and the last time I was in the chapel, I was very moved. What Rothko does is he builds up the surface with probably a combination of sponges, clothes, or brushes, which creates a layering of transparencies that allows the light to build up the surface. And when Rothko said, “emotions have weight,” he meant that he was after particular emotions, and the way in which he could arrive at those emotions was to build up one layer on top of the other. The choice of color and the layering of transparencies was part of that process.

Rail: How do you feel about Reinhardt’s black paintings?

Serra: Reinhardt to me is all about the grid, although he tried to infuse his paintings with his reading of Eastern art. He was one of my teachers at Yale. What interested me at that time as a student was that Reinhardt’s precept was negation, thou shall not. He was a little authoritarian, a demagogue, as a teacher but he was interesting for that same reason because he took a position and held that position. He represented the abstract, pure, definitive, I-am-painting-the-last-painting sort of painter, in the midst of the emergence of Pop artists, including Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Wesselmann, Warhol, Oldenburg, and so on. In other words, Reinhardt was holding down a position of spirituality in the face of secular Popism.

Rail: And a moral one?

Serra: Absolutely moral. The fact that Reinhardt could clearly articulate what he wouldn’t do and what he found superfluous in so much of the work that was going on around him, and how he was able to state his reasons for its lack of relevance cleared the air. It didn’t mean that one wanted to become a disciple of Reinhardt. It just meant that one had to be responsible for what one was doing and what it represented in relationship to the larger issues in the history of painting or the history of form-making. The flip side of Reinhardt’s moral stance was that he had no irony; no sense of humor.

Rail: You also talked about how you came to appreciate Newman’s paintings relatively late, at his 1971 retrospective at MoMA, and you were especially taken by the “Stations of the Cross” series, mostly because you were able to relate to its generative sense of time, movement, and perception.

Serra: Yes, because I read the 14 black and white paintings on raw canvases as one big serial drawing. It was the first time that I was shaken by Newman, that I actually understood that there was a division of space that you could enter into that wasn’t derived from Western art. If what you see doesn’t intersect with an emotion within you then you usually dismiss it. In other words, I could easily trace Pollock back to Monet, or de Kooning to Picasso, for example, but I couldn’t trace Newman back to anyone. Newman for me was impenetrable until that show.

Rail: And you weren’t interested in the issues of spirituality and the sublime?

Serra: No, I’m still not interested.

Rail: Neither is Bob Ryman, at least when I last talked to him about it in 2007.

Serra: As far as I’m concerned, Ryman is the most interesting painter of my generation, if not one of the most interesting painters of the last 50 years. Ryman is a realist in that he’s painting one real brushstroke next to another real brushstroke. In terms of process and logic, I feel closer to him than anyone else working, even though he’s working two-dimensionally. I’ve always had a great admiration for his work.

Rail: Let’s go back to the show: I’ve never seen drawings made for sculpture before among your work, like the two “Untitled” ones in reference to a piece you did in the Bronx, “To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted.” Did you draw them free hand or with a compass? I tried to look for the pinholes with no avail.

Serra: Essentially those two drawings and the others in the front room are drawings that have never or rarely been shown, mostly because at the time I didn’t think I was making drawings that were relevant. I understood that I was still involved with the hand-me-down of figural annotations. What you see in the early drawings are my efforts at trying to deal with and get away from the tradition of figure/ground relationships, which lasted from 1971 to 1974. I didn’t have my first drawing show until 1974, at Leo Castelli’s with the two canvas installations of “Zadikians” and “Shafrazi.” Before that I’d only let out a drawing here and there to be included in different group shows. I did not identify those drawings as a body of work that I could stand behind. And to answer your question, I drew the circles in the two drawings of the sculpture in the Bronx free hand.

Rail: That’s pretty impressive. And when did the shift from charcoal to the combination of charcoal and paintstick occur?

Serra: The “Untitled” (1972-73) drawing in the Whitney collection is drawn with both charcoal and paintstick. I first applied the charcoal, but I didn’t like it so I laid paint stick on top of it. Actually, there were a whole group of similar drawings that were made at the same time. I’ve probably made twice as many drawings as I’ve made sculptures. What has been selected for this survey, about 40 drawings, is a fraction of a much larger body of work.

Rail: You know, I read Richard Shiff’s essay, Drawing Thick: Serra’s Black, in which he described how you melted many paintsticks then molded them into a block of brick-like form, and when it is applied to the surface of the paper, linen, or canvas it has to be pulled downward from the shoulders rather than the wrists, and the deposits of black accumulate into the drawing progressively, in fact incorporating the body’s momentum. Which brings up this notion of labor that Hannah Arendt wrote about in her brilliant book, The Human Condition. She pointed out that it is the labor of our bodies, not the work of our hands, that requires unification between the laboring body and the instruments or tools of labor in perpetual rhythm or repetition. In other words, unlike work, an activity that has a beginning and an end, labor is repetitive and never-ending. Does that thesis resonate in your own activity when you make the drawings? Or you don’t see the distinction between labor and work that sharply?

Serra: All I can say is it’s not about small motor movements. It is physical and repetitive but at the same time it requires focus and concentration. It’s not so much about trying to create a form with each mark; it’s more about putting yourself in a place in which you can make that mark, as we were talking about in relation to Ryman earlier. I was once in Cincinnati, trying to move a plate into the second floor of a museum, and I could see it wasn’t going to get through the window. There was a crane outside, and the plate was hanging in the air, and the riggers were upset, and the police were trying to shut the project down. In the midst of this chaos, Ryman was there installing a work of eight or 10 pieces of cardboard on the wall. He wore a white jumpsuit, set up a platform and started to work. He was using a six- or eight-inch wide brush and he started to paint one line of strokes, and then he painted another line of strokes, and then another line of strokes, until he finished the first panel. And then he would do the same to the next cardboard panel, and so on. It is not unlike the labor of a house painter. I was completely mesmerized by the concentration of the effort and the labor that went into the activity that seemed to be artless, yet produced what we recognize in hindsight as a Ryman painting. My process of working is not that dissimilar from Ryman’s. The aspect of labor and the concentration that go into the making is something I aspire to.

Rail: Could you talk about “Zadikians,” which is reasonably worked yet has a matte surface while “Abstract Slavery” is heavily built-up and has greater density in its blackness?

Serra: “Zadikians” was made with the side of the paintstick, which created a unified, smooth, and matte surface, while “Abstract Slavery” was drawn with the front of the paintstick, therefore it was pushed more with one’s grip and one’s shoulder, and as a result, you get a different gradation of the particles on the surface.

Rail: Do you start the drawing from the top to the bottom, or left to right?

Serra: I usually start from the center and work out to either side. In fact “Abstract Slavery” is the result of the collective effort of Zadik Zadikian, Tony Shafrazi, and myself. We worked on the surface with small paintsticks for a while, until I was able to melt the paintsticks into a brick, then I began to work and finish the piece on my own.

Rail: That must have been a huge discovery for you: to realize that with the brick you were able to cover a wider area of surfaces than you had previously.

“out-of-round X,” 1999. Paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper. 79 1/2 × 79˝. Collection of the artist. Photo: Rob McKeever.
“out-of-round X,” 1999. Paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper. 79 1/2 × 79˝. Collection of the artist. Photo: Rob McKeever.

“No Mandatory Patriotism,” 1989. Paintstick on two sheets of paper, 93 1/8 x 201 1/8˝. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Partial and promised gift of UBS, 2002. “The United States Government Destroys Art,” 1989. Paintstick on two sheets of paper, 113 x 215 1/4˝. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles.
“No Mandatory Patriotism,” 1989. Paintstick on two sheets of paper, 93 1/8 x 201 1/8˝. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Partial and promised gift of UBS, 2002. “The United States Government Destroys Art,” 1989. Paintstick on two sheets of paper, 113 x 215 1/4˝. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles.

Serra: Absolutely, and I immediately recognized it as a potential for making drawings that dealt with different and larger contexts. With the use of paintstick, my drawings evolved from image to installation to dealing with the material in terms of surface.

Rail: I think the shift is quite evident. Meanwhile, given the restrictions of space that the Met offers and the framework of your chronology to the installation as a whole I thought each group of drawings was installed quite effectively.

Serra: Well, we were given an open slate and I decided that I wanted to make it circular and continuous, so that viewers in the middle of the exhibit could be turned around or would lose their directionality, not in terms of where they were, but in terms of how the space was unfolding. For example, in between “Institutionalized Abstract Art” and the “out-of-round” series, is a circular passage. Up to that point you walk more or less straight ahead. As soon as you walk into the room of the “out-of- rounds” you must make an about face to walk into the next room, which is the second to last room. At this juncture your coordinates are somewhat challenged in that you don’t clearly remember the sequence of rooms you have been in. The idea of a linear passage unfolding in a seamless progression seems to be disrupted. I wanted that to happen.

Rail: I can say that the way in which the circular form of “Institutionalized Abstract Art” was installed, on the opposite wall of the “Forge” drawings, off of the center and near the top— —

Serra: That’s purposeful. I wanted the lightness of the circle high up on the wall to contrast the weight of the forged drawings on the opposite wall.

Rail: I take it as such. It does in fact activate the whole space on the right opening that leads into the next room. The feeling is light, transitory, quite a release from the previous room, which is static and full of gravity because of, not only the two sheets of linens of “Pacific Judson Murphy” joining in the corner, but also their bottom edges touching the floor.

Serra: Well, we prepared by making models to determine how to group drawings, the size of space for each group of drawings, the circulation through the exhibition.

Rail: How did the “Forge” drawings come about? And is there significance to the four shapes being circle, rectangle, octagon, and square?

Serra: The forge only makes four shapes: a square, a rectangle, an octagon, and a circle, that is the alphabet, the ABCs of the forge. The four shapes in the “Forged Drawing” are an homage to forging.

Rail: I also noticed one “Untitled” drawing that was made in the same year, 1973, with “Heir,” in which what seems to be the two tilted squares, one on top, the other on the bottom, floating on a vertical format, though they seem to be the same alignment in their diagonal tilt.

Serra: What’s interesting about that piece is that even though the two squares appear to be parallel to each other I intentionally cut the right edge of the paper as an arc. What this does is agitate your perception of the axis between the two squares, and thereby disturb the balance of the drawing’s structure. The squares shift to the right and the left, and do not appear to be aligned although they are.

Rail: With the exception of that group of drawings, which relates to your interest in constructivist structures at the time, and the fact that they all were drawn according to their forms, whether vertical, diagonal, or horizontal, the rest of the drawings, beginning it seems with “Zadikians” onward, were all drawn with vertical marks.

Serra: Except when we get to “Taraval Beach,” where for this installation (not for the Whitney installation in 1977), paintstick was applied first vertically, then horizontally. I discovered that if the paintstick is layered crosswise the grain of the canvas, the weave, is brought to the surface and becomes part of the perception. I used the same procedure for “Union.” I’ll probably do it again.

Rail: And when, in some cases, a drawing implies the dating, let’s say both “Triangle” and “Diamond” pieces dated 1974/2011, does that mean that up to this point you have put on another layer on both of them?

Serra: No, it means that in some cases the canvas might have been destroyed, or I decided to make these shapes with different measurements.

Rail: While retaining the original date when it was made.

Serra: Exactly, because it is the idea that is dated. Let me go back to the idea of the sublime. I’m not interested in the aura of the sublime. I’m interested in the literal fact: this is a piece of canvas which measures the space between floor and ceiling. “Pacific Judson Murphy,” “Union,” or “Taraval Beach,” they each make a space within the architecture that’s differs from the containment of the architecture. They make space palpable in that they absorb the light so that the physicality of the space changes. When you walk into “Union,” you become aware of its compressed and darkened space. When you’re on the outside of that space, watching someone walking into it, that person seems to diminish in scale, disproportionally, because the light is not continuous. The outer edges of the two canvases form the borders of this invisible place. Once you enter into the space contained by the two black planes, your body registers the compression of that space.

Rail: Would it be fair to say that the most densely drawn group among your work seems to have begun with those that have political titles? I also wonder whether the subtle differences between “No Mandatory Patriotism” (1989), in which to the left and smaller form, being completely perpendicular in all of its edges, as opposed to the larger form on the right which covers pretty much all of the half right space, though its left edge is slightly tilted diagonally, therefore creating a sliver of light in the middle, and “The United States Government Destroys Art” (1989), which is nearly identical only in the reverse?

Serra: Those two pieces were made to mirror each other. As far as the political titles are concerned I now regard them as bad propaganda. The construction of these large horizontal drawings refers to something I observed in Machu Picchu in Peru when I went there in 1974. The builders of Machu Picchu cut stones on the site and fit irregular shapes together; oftentimes, the edges only touch on one facet, and then there’s a void between them. It’s not that I went back to look at the notebook notations that I made in Cuzco when I started these drawings, but I’m sure it’s something that seeped into my memory. It is not that these horizontal constructions represent something I’d seen, but it means that there’s something in the reservoir of my understanding of how forms came together that I applied. The “Dead Weight” series, similarly refers to stone structures I saw on to a trip to Egypt that Clara and I took in 1992. We went up the Nile, starting in Luxor and the Valley of Kings, where we saw hugefaçades built of vertically stacked stones; the tectonics of those walls, the mechanics of stacking, of how the stones are leveled and precisely cut probably has something to do with the construction of the “Deadweights.”

Rail: There was a huge shift in the surface— —

Serra: Yes, at some point in the early or mid-’90s, I started to liquefy the paintstick to a point where I could pour the thick liquid onto a hard horizontal surface. I put a window screen on top of the molten paint stick, and the paper on top of the screen. I then pressed down and drew with a steel tool onto the back of the paper. I don’t see what I am doing till I pull the paper off the screen. The process is nearly identical to making monotypes. “A Drawing in Five Parts” (2005) is a good example of that process.

Rail: Are you saying that it’s also a matter of chance? Maybe one or two out of 10 or more will be good, and the rest will be discarded.

Serra: Yes. Often times I would spend a whole day, trying to get the consistency of the fluid paintstick right so that it would penetrate through the screen and respond to the pressure that I was applying to the back of the paper, and nothing would turn out right. Not a single drawing made.

Rail: How do you get such unusual surfaces in the “out-of-round” series?

Serra: They were not worked from the back of the paper but from the front on a horizontal platform, with the pressure of my arm, my forearm, my shoulders; I would even walk on them. They were made with the idea of the abject in mind. How can one pulverize this material to the point where another kind of emotive surface is going to rise from it? Some of them are probably a little excessive, but I was very interested in the process, and I certainly had a great time making them.

CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI & RICHARD SERRA will be on view at Fondation Beyeler May 22, 2011 – August 21, 2011.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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