Richard Serra (2012) photo & interview: Paul Middendorf
Set for an encounter with the art and the man I scurried into The Menil Collection to attend the meet and greet press event
Serra Drawing: A Retrospective
. There was already quite the crowd
forming, so I made sure to get a quick glimpse of the show before the rooms
filled up with people. Here is a short description from the Menil Press
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is the first-ever critical
overview of the artists drawings, as well as the first major one-person
exhibition organized under the auspices of the Menil Drawing Institute and Study
Center. The exhibition - which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York, traveled to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and now concludes
at the Menil Collection - traces the crucial role that drawing has played in
Richard Serra's work for more than 40 years.
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective is co-curated by Bernice Rose,
chief curator emerita, the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center; Michelle
White, curator, The Menil Collection; and Gary Garrels, Elise S.Haas senior
curator of painting and sculpture, SFMOMA. Installed in reconfigured galleries
at the Menil, the exhibition opens on March 2nd and will remain on view through
June 10th. This landmark traveling exhibition brings together more than 80 works,
including 41 Installation Drawings, large framed works, and nearly 30 of the
The exhibition begins with a series of sketchbooks filled with his notations
and daily sketches under glass. A record of over thirty years of mark making,
acting as a visual artist statement about Serras practice and ongoing
rituals. The Menil had much more freedom with the presentation of this retrospective
than its previous home, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Unlike
the SFMOMA, the Menil Collection structured the room sequences and flow of the
doorways specifically for Richard Serras drawings. Each drawing either
commands the space around it or bounces the viewers attention from one
wall to the next, connecting the rest of the drawings in harmonious energy.
Abstract Slavery (1974)
I wound through the works of Serras first show at Leo Castelli Gallery
(Abstract Slavery 1974) and to the ending with (Two Corner Cut: High Low 2012)
a magnificent site-specific drawing on both the left and right walls as you
enter the final room. The dueling shapes fill and block your senses at
the same time, as it appears to pull the proceeding floor up to the ceiling.
As my first visit was during this busy press shindig, I aggressively blocked
to the door so I was the only one to experience this room. For as simple
as it first looks, the drawings almost vibrate within the room. My eyes focused
and unfocused, constantly trying to find the balance. The visual weight of the
two drawings appear to be causing the whole room to sag. After a few minutes
with the final set of drawings the crowd was weaseling into my space so I was
back to work.
The show was designed to run you back through the show, as if to give the viewer
a second take on Serras works. A refreshing change from the usual exit-through-the-gift
shop-path. I took in as much as I could and proceeded back to the beginning
to get my spot for the talk and walk through with the curators and Richard Serra
Serra presented his show with great energy and vigor. He shuffled us from
room to room and demanded each of us understand how they were made and how to
view them. It was very crowded with photographers, videographers, and writers,
but Serra made sure everyone got a chance to view the works. If the room
got too cramped, he made half of us leave and move into the next room.
Richard Serra didnt lack in insight and was open to answer questions and
eager for heated debate. With that being said, dont impose religion
or spirituality upon his works. It didnt go so well for the poor woman
that asked him about it. After the show, I was delighted to be hustled off to
the library for a private one-on-one conversation with the man himself.
Although maintaining the frame of a man at his age, he immediately took control
over the room. He is a great speaker, has bold comments, and stands with his
concepts. We sat down and as I was getting my recording devices situated he
took my notebooks to A. Look for drawings and B. perhaps see what sort of traps
I may be setting for him. I reached for them but he slapped my hand away. Its
Richard Serra. If he wants to take a look around, then no search warrant is needed.
After all this is his Drawing Retrospective at The Menil Collection, and me
have a notebook, a stolen pen, and a cheap sports jacket.
Two Corner Cut (FG) 2012 at The Menil Collection
I wanted to chat about your take on drawing. Your philosophy
is greatly different than most. Hearing your talks, interviews, some of
your recent book signing discussions, and your Charlie Rose conversation, I
learned some interesting tidbits. One of the things I wanted to talk to you
about was your practice of carrying sketchbooks around for over 30 years
Probably over 40.
What is your take on those drawings in your daily sketch as to the
drawings that we see in this exhibition today?
The drawings in the sketchbooks are notations and are really done
for my own benefit to record where I have been at a given moment and a given
time. They are like daybooks or diaries, but rather than written text
they are drawings. I have been doing it all my life. Its my way
for me to keep in touch with places, space, and experiences as I go through
my daily life.
Some of them are interesting. Some of them, like when I was in Egypt,
are continuous all the way through, detailing the sites I have been at. Some
of them I actually think of as continuous, made as books to look at, where there
are series of drawings that designate one subject or one theme. More so
than not, they are really like diaries, where there is writing and drawings
and drawings of different kinds. Sometimes there are rigging notations.
Sometimes there are drawings or thoughts about sculptures as they are being
put up. Sometimes there are drawings of paths of sculptures, spaces and
places, topographical drawings. Whatever comes to mind, Notations about
measurements? Things that I have to recall.
Well, these are some of the terms I have heard you use a lot: the
mark-making, the student work, the notations,
the daily notes, and the studies. At what point do these
cross the line into your final drawings or do they?
No, I think the daily notebooks are a resource like a diary to remember
space, place, and time. But they do not signify the way to move into a drawing
that I would think deal with invention in the terms of drawings.
These are more like simple notations that have cartoonish aspects to them or
a traditional drawing notational aspect to them. I do not consider them in the
same way that I consider drawings that I make to exhibitwhich take on
a whole different meaning for me, because as soon as you put a drawing for exhibit
out in the world you have to consider everybody else who has ever made a drawing.
What the meaning of the invention of language of drawing has been. And I am
certainly not going to find that in the notations that I have made.
I have tried to apply a certain kind of idea about the manifestation of drawing
in its most simplest of terms. Mainly that matter imposes itself in form on
form. So if you really pay attention to what the matter is, whether it
is paper or paint stick or charcoal or whatever it is that you use, if you pay
close attention to that material, and the manifestation of the material, it
will lead you to its own invention without having to go to a correlative outside.
Without having to go to a representation of something else.
Out of Round X (2009)
With that being said, do you feel that these drawings in this show
carry more weight than the sculptures or vice-versa? Do you feel that these
drawings are representing a 2D aspect of your sculptural work?
[The drawings] dont have anything to do with my sculpture.
They are an autonomous body of work that deals with the context of where the
drawings are made, and in that sense, they are not three-dimensional. They dont
configure volume like the sculpture does. They dont configure path like
the sculpture does. At best what they do is they re-delineate the space in the
architecture to make a space within the space of the architecture that is different
in kind than the architecture. They are always adhered to the wall, not
in three-dimensional space. Even though in the last room they are on both walls
and they create a space between them. Its not the space of sculpture,
its still the space of architecture. Its a drawing space and the
drawing delineation of architecture. Its about the containment of the
container. Its not about placing somebody inside the container that changes
the volume of the container by its physical manifestation. These are drawings.
These are not sculpture.
Two Corner Cut (2012) and Richard Serra
They still act as installation as well. There is a grey area
They are installation drawings, but I dont think they have
anything to do with sculpture. I made films and people called them sculptural
films. I always thought that was an oxymoron.
Was there a point at which the drawings moved from being drawings
to being installations?
: The first show at Leo Castelli Gallery ( Group Drawing Exhibition,
New York, Feb 23 March 31, 1974 ) was the first body of drawings that
I showed which were, Abstract Slavery and Zadikians. Those where the first installation
drawings that I showed and those are what I considered my first drawings. Up
to that point I was doing what everyone else was doing. I was making charcoal
drawings on paper or paint stick drawings on paper that were figure/ground reversals
that dealt with either plain or shape, but I didnt think, until I got
to the context of the space.
When I started putting linen on the wall and started cutting it in relation
to the architecture [then] the drawings really started to define an area, which
I thought was more progressive than what I was doing. I thought what I was doing,
albeit, I could do well with still dealing with an out more conventional drawing.
Its what most people will do. I have to explain something.
I dont try to make drawings first and then make my sculptures. I
think a lot of artists do but I dont do that.
I am a model builder. I start by making models and then I go from the models
to the sculptures. The drawings are an autonomous body of work. So I dont
make drawings that depict my sculpture. In the notebooks there are notations
of drawings that sometimes after sculptures are made, but I dont consider
them drawings. They are notations.
So those drawings strictly live in those daily notebooks and are
sometimes shown in this setting where they are all laid out?
In these three venues, its the first time I have every showed
notebooks in my life. Ive never shown them before.
Do you feel as though they act as an artist statement for the show
itself or are they being displayed as works?
I thought what they would do, hopefully, was to give the visitor
a grounding on who this person is as he goes through is daily life or as he
goes through the years of the retrospective. What does he do on the side besides
putting these drawings in the room? What are his daily notes? What
is the memory of him recording of his events? You could go from Machu
Picchu, to Von Schantz, to Iceland, to a sawmill, to wherever and you can see
thats what this person is about and his relationship to what his daily
life is about. These are the drawings that he makes other than that. So [I]
can see it as peeking into someones diary. They are not made with the
intention of showing. They are made as private references. I dont sell
them. I will give them to a museum, probably Yale.
Richard Serra's Railroad Turnbridge (1976) on diplay in 2011 at YU in Portland
Changing courses slightly I wanted to talk about your films a bit.
In 1976 you filmed the Railroad Turn Bridge in Portland, OR. I know you were
working with some of the mills there and what else took you to that particular
I wasnt working with the mills there. There was a center there.
PCVA! The Portland Center for Visual Arts, with Mel Katz and
Yes and there was a woman there too. She went to San Diego
and I cant remember her name [Mary Beebe]. She was the main driving
force there along with Mel Katz and Michele Russo. I showed some sculpture there,
but at the same time I got completely fascinated with the fact that Portland
Oregon had more bridges in a ten-mile radius than any other place I had ever
So I started going upstream. I had camera with me, a little Eclair camera.
I had gotten to the railroad turn bridge and it was cloud covered. So
there was no sun at all. And I looked through the viewer of the camera, and
it appeared that I could reduce this turn bridge into a mechanical toy that
would pirouette with in the frame. I thought that there was something fascinating
about being able to the span of this enormous bridge and as it turned and opened
up and looked down that river. To be able to use this frame of the panning at
its edge of this section to be able to pan the landscape as it would swing back
and lock. Then the train would go over and a train would come back and
the bridge would open and close again.
I thought that this had the potential to deal with the movement of the frame
within the frame and I could use the landscape and the bridge to frame itself.
I thought, that because there was limited shadow, that the structure that would
occur within the minutes of the evolution of the film was something that I could
see. I knew that if it came out on film once I got it developed, that
I was sure there was something there. There are very few cuts in the film,
probably about a dozen. I went back to shoot that film in Portland every
time I would go back to the West Coast, and I made reasons to come to the West
Coast so I could come up to Portland and shoot it. I probably shot there about
seven or eight times and edited to a ratio of about ten to one. So a lot of
it was thrown out. I was quite happy with the simplicity of the film.
Did you end up showing that at PCVA or did you just show sculpture?
No I didnt show it at PCVA, but I did show it later and I showed
Unequal Elevations (PCVA 1975, now in the Guggenheim's Panza collection)
Out of curiosity what did you show at PCVA?
: There were two blocks at the end of the room. Very small. Probably
a foot and a half by about ten inches at either ends of the room and it dealt
with the simple elevations within the room. Someone wrote in the paper, It
was beneath contempt. [Richard Serra shakes his head and laughs]
It sounds like a Portland writer. Did you do any drawing while you
were there? Did any drawings come from that experience?
You know I went to this place in Portland. I dont know
what it was for, but there was this enormous pile in this yard of very large
boulders. I dont know what they were for, and I did a lot of drawings
there. I actually hurt my back climbing over them. There was just this field
of enormous boulders. They must have been eight by ten feet and all stacked.
I dont know what they would have been used for. I also remember
I went to this place where they built boxcars. It was called Gunderson.
So I went there and made drawings.
: What a monumental experience this is for you to have finally the
retrospective of your drawings. As I go I have just two final questions for
you. Why is it that drawing tends to be overlooked in art history? Maybe
you dont feel that way at all?
: I do feel that way. I feel that people always think of a drawing
as a subtext to something other. They always feel that the drawing was
before the painting or the drawing was before the sculpture so it was always
something insignificant. It wasnt something in or of itself as an
audience of itself. If you ask me I would rather look at Van Gogh drawings than
his paintings. I would rather look at Seurats drawings than his
paintings. And I would rather look at Cezannes water colors that his paintings.
I feel that you learn more about how one thinks by looking at their drawings
rather than their paintings. In fact, color sort of resists gaze. Drawing does
Ok one final question for you. Should the art world now refer
to you as The Man Of Steel?
[Richard Serra laughs and shakes his head]
: I wish they had never made up that moniker. [More laughter]
I am Superman.
: Thank you so much for you time, and again, congratulations on your
As far as Serra's memories go of his "discovery" of the railroad swingspan bridge that became the locale and subject of the film, they couldn't be more fabricated and false.
I began that film before his arrival in Portland for the PCVA show, and after we met there during the installation, we became friendly and found we had similar visual interests in heavy duty industrial structures. He asked if I had a car and would show him some of the stuff in town that turned both of us on. I took him to the bridge and showed him the cinematic power of the framed rotating images it produced (I had already made friends with the bridge tender). I discussed the film idea and what I had already done in super-8, but lamented the lack of funds to do it right. He responded with enthusiasm and said we should do it together and that he had the financial resources.
I borrowed 16mm equipment from a friend (who can corroborate this) who was a well known news cameraman for KATU and Richard and I went back to the bridge to film. He knew next to nothing about filming, and I set up and ran the camera while we both rejoiced at the unfolding power of the bridge, trains, ships and surrounding landscape in movement and repose.
We were set to meet in NY and begin editing what we had, prior to additional filming back in Portland. I got there on one of my frequent trips hitchiking or hopping freights cross country and had a hard time getting ahold of him...which puzzled me. Eventually I had to climb up his fire escape and come through the window of his loft and wait for him to return. His response: "I'm a famous artist, and this is too good to share with you". An early lesson in how some artists treat others...to be contrasted with those who are generous to a fault. Although furious with his usurpation of my film, there was little I could do to get it back.
It was only some years later when I owned and operated the premier sculpture rigging and transportation service in NYC that I confronted his dealer at the time, Leo Castelli, when he asked me to move something of Serra's. I told him the story and refused to move the piece until I at least got credit for the film and a copy. He promised to try, but pleaded with me not to upset the famously irascible Serra and let him handle it. He managed to do this and the showing at YU last year is that print...
To this day the biggest loss from this episode is that the film that we would have made together never happened, and the bridge (the longest double track swing span in the world at the time) was subsequently destroyed by a ship on its maiden voyage and replaced by the present lift span. While the film that he did make is interesting, all its power derives from the intrinsic reality of the location, and is actually diminished by his relative lack of skill as a filmaker...