New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opens Richard Serra’s first drawing retrospective to the public today — and quite the eye-opening, austere exhibition it is for the Met. Serra expands the definition of modern drawing by using drawing as a system of thinking, while focusing on process, gravity, and weight rather than representation and figuration. The radical exhibition, which runs through August 28 and then travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Collection in Houston, features some 50 dynamic drawings — many of them monumental in scale — and a selection of sketchbooks from the past 40 years. We spoke with the artist at the Met to gain a deeper understanding of his groundbreaking work, to get his opinion on why young people prefer figurative work, and to capture his realistic thoughts on TV and the internet.
How do your drawings relate to your sculpture?
They don’t. It’s an autonomous body of work. I think of them as drawings and I think of them as dealing with an extended definition of drawing; but I don’t think of them having to deal with three-dimensional space in the way that sculpture deals with three-dimensional space. If anything, they deal with the architecture and they re-delineate the architecture and sometimes they make a space within the space of architecture; but I think that’s completely different than the spaces and places that are with the sculpture.
Your work since the 1970s is predominately made with black oil sticks. What does the color black signify to you?
I’m more interested in black as a property. It has limitations as a material and the fact that it absorbs light interests me. I see it as a color, but I’m not interested in its chromatic value. I’m really interested in the fact that you can make a dense weight by the absorption of light with it, and mostly I’m interested in its graphicness.
How do you achieve a textured surface with such flat materials?
Different ways, in some of them that have a more particular grain, I actually pass the paint sticks through a meat grinder; but basically what we do is take paint sticks, which are little crayons and we melt them down into bricks and I use two hands to apply them. I’ve been doing that for years — I make my own materials, so to speak.
How important is it to show your mark?
It depends on the work. The Rounds and the Out-of-rounds are very much about the hand and also A Drawing in Five Parts is very much about the arm and the hand. But a lot of them are more about the plain and about the perception of the process rather than the physicality of the process.
Are the works more about process or subject matter?
If you take the “roller drawings,” they are particularly about process because I just took a piece of paper and I inked up a roller at a print press and rolled seven times on one side of the paper and none on the other and six times and then two and reverse it, which was very much about organizing the process. The drawings before that were about looking at a sculpture and walking all around the room is all about perception in process — so one’s about the physicality of process and the others about perception in process.
How does the scale affect your work?
It has to do with site and context at this point. I try to re-delineate the context, if it’s within the framework of drawing, but if it’s within sculpture I try to re-organize the perception of the site. You either critique it or you find another way of looking at it.
Why do you think young people have less interest in abstraction than figuration these days?
Because figuration opens itself to anecdotes, narrative, critique, and a whole host of things that deal with accessing the moment.
You made a video in the early-‘70s titled Television Delivers People that critiques the relationship between television, advertising and audiences — accompanied by a Muzak soundtrack. It basically says that the product of commercial television is the audience and that television’s function is to deliver people to an advertiser. Do you still believe that to be true?
How does the internet relate to that concept?
Less, because you can interact with it. You are less the product of the internet, particularly for young people that use it as a communications device. You’re not just on the receiving end. I use the internet, but I use it more like an encyclopedia.
Click through a gallery of images from the Met show and view the video Television Delivers People below.
Richard Serra, Taraval Beach, 1977/2011. Paintstick on Belgian linen, Dimensions variable, Shown installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977, Private collection, © Richard Serra, Photo: BeVan Davies