Serra and the shadow of a space

It is just a tiny exhibition room, but the artwork in it makes it incredibly bigger. Richard Serra presents some of his recent drawings, thought for the Courtauld Gallery, in London. They look like big black spots, but are result of a much thoughtful technique. First Serra composes a draft in canvas, and then covers it with a transparent sheet painted with thick black litho crayon coverage. Both layers are then superimposed within the single composition. The effect is not only striking, but confuses the eyes. Far away one sees a gigantic fingerprint, but, more than that, Serra reaches the result of a multi-texture piece, homemade, tri-dimensional perspective. A volcanic map seen from the space.

“People don’t know the history of my drawing”, the artist complained in a TV interview wide available on Youtube. Serra was canting about the hard life of fame and success. That an artist such as Richard Serra, who is worldly famous for his monumental sculpture work, should be better-known for tiny sheets painted in black sounds fun. As it does sound that a man like him (whose work has one day blocked people’s path to the subway) happens to be now whining for going unnoticed for some sketches on paper. He can show four big pieces at Gagosian Gallery, in New York, but he can’t run unnoticed with his brief engravings at the Courtauld Gallery in London. That’s much ambition.

A piece of his murmur has a stake of truth. It was only in 2011 that he finally got a major retrospective of his drawing work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Different from this tiny, but wise  exhibition at the Courtauld, that occasion was the time of large, immense works, some of them born from little sketches on his notebook. “He is, in fact, a more austere, abstract, hermetic, ‘difficult’ artist in drawing than in sculpture, and this narrowness sometimes accentuates his penchant for bombast and opacity”, the New York Times superstar art critic Roberta Smith wrote at the time.

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Needless to say that the mainstream belongs to Serra (born 1939, in San Francisco, California) as Serra belongs to the brand of the greatest living artists of the 2000s. Notwithstanding with that acquired fame, he has been much productive the past few years, featuring big exhibitions, like in 2005 at the Guggenheim Bilbao, 2008 at Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria and at the Grand Palais, Paris, earlier this year.

Even in the 2009 episode, when one important piece, Equal Parallel: Guernica Bengasi, went missing from the Reina Sofia Museum deposit in Madrid, he accepted recreating the work without receiving a new commission. That kind of gesture suggests that, beyond the multimillionaire business of art auctions that he represents, Serra really cares for the tiny individual visitor attending any of his shows. Adding to that, we see an effort in communicating in words, not only with his art, as in September 17, 2013, he sat in London to talk about these new drawings.

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Back in this exhibition, we see this humble Serra. As if any Rothko started an eruption, the Drawings for the Courtauld are excellent examples of how “a Serra” doesn’t need to be large to be remarkable. Like blocks of stone hanged in delicate white walls, it’s the raw impact of these black pieces dressed in white frames that turns this work into an intense, but elegant exercise. The absolute way of depicting whatever he decides to is what surprises those expecting to see a drawing as something linear and with a fragile level of detail. Maybe the solution for seeing any Serra drawing lies in imagining what is outside of the blackness and not what is inside.

At first, I even had asked myself where are the drawings, given such blind totality of the litho crayon color, as it was a canvas painting or an engraving work. Then I remember it is just to read Serra to understand Serra: “I don’t draw the image, I draw the space”. Coincidentally or not, this visitor at the Courtauld will also have the chance of confronting Serra’s total drawings with the spectacular work of Albrecht Dürer, whose egocentric self-portraits are in the room nearby. Both will fight hard for your minuscule presence.
Richard Serra: Drawings for the Courtauld. Courtauld Gallery. Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN – By January 12 2014.