Que Serra, Serra at Gagosian

I’ve always been a fan of drawings by sculptors. Perhaps more than any category of artist, sculptors have an innate understanding of line, volume and form on paper. Puryear, Shapiro, Balkenhol, Rodin and Kapoor have all been bilingual in sculpture and drawing. Richard Serra belongs to this group in a distinctive manner. Rather than translate one language and vocabulary to another, he imposes the rhythm and cadence of one discipline on the other. In essence, he transforms the different media into two sides of the same coin. He forges interdependence rather than a “separate yet equal” status to the two media.

Double Rift #4, 2011
Paintstick on handmade paper
114 3/8 x 198 7/8 x 3 3/4 inches framed

A great opportunity to witness this interdependence is an exhibition titled Double Rifts at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills through June 1st, 2013.

Of course the cavernous spaces of the gallery are well suited to see large-scale drawings by Serra. Eight Double Rifts fill the gallery’s first floor. At an average of 8 feet tall and 18 feet wide each, these are pieces that one has to confront with a corporeal awe. But the exhibition remains airy and intimate, an uncanny assertion for pieces of this scale and gravitas.

Briefly describing Serra’s drawing strategy is important to begin. Line and volume are all executed with black oil stick on paper. Oil stick is what it sounds like. Oil paint is fabricated in a thick consistency and filled into a soft wax cylinder with a similar hue. So what in essence is a painting medium becomes a draughtsman’s tool. Serra accrues a phenomenal thickness to the paint and whether the result is line or massive field of black, the paint has a raised level that transforms two-dimension into weight and sculpture. The artist’s touch is often absent. Direction of application can be read in the striations of paint but gesture exits stage right.

While the novice may find the large black fields of thickly layered paint cold, non narrative and thereby less than generous, three observations will lead as on ramps to appreciation.


1.) The Double Rifts are actually compositional triptychs. Three large forms and the angled absences between form one and two and again between form two and three make up the slimmed down compositional paradigm. The triangulated absences either at the top or the bottom of these interior edges set the forms in motion. They tilt and lean with a strange vertigo. That such subtle angles of white can activate the eye into motion and three dimension remains uncanny.

Detail of overlap in Richard Serra’s Double Rift with Frame seam behind.

2.) Not only is the composition of each Double Rift a triptych but the physical structure of each work is three pieces. I discovered this by peering down through the glass window from the second floor where one can clearly see the bolts attaching the three framed units. This epiphany is wonderful for several reasons. Immediately you react to these gentle giants as sculpture as well as pictorial planes of painting/drawing. The edge of one paper unit slips over or under another of its cousins. You can see this layering in some more than others. But once recognized, one can never unsee this detail.

Detail of edge in Richard Serra’s Elevational Weights, Equivalents II with edge of oil stick encrusted paper with oil bleed visible.

3.) Lastly the oil stick which Serra has been wielding for several decades now, bleeds its oil content into the paper support. That means that a halo of yellowing can been seen from up close on all the masked out triangles of tilt and lean. It creates a segue between the heavily impastoed rough textured black surface and the smoother white of the hand made paper on which these are drawn. Furthermore it introduces an element of the organic and uncontrollable into a formal and almost mathematical visual exercise. It humanizes these behemoths and activates the space between the forms with an aura almost invisible from a certain distance.


Richard Serra, Double Rift #8, 2013
Paintstick on handmade Paper, 84.25 x 240.75 inches
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The best piece of the exhibition is Double Rift #8, hanging in the south gallery. The asymmetrical tilt moves the unmovable in effective ways. Scale and content and methodology merge in perfect harmony. On the second floor rest a pair of Drawings called Elevational Weights, Equivalents I and II. While listed as two separate pieces, the power and grace of these two comes from a diptych viewing. They force us to Compare and Contrast our optical predilections when it comes to measuring volumetric size.


-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, May 15th, 2013

also by Mario M. Muller

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