The fourth floor of SFMoMA, which was my happy summertime haunt while it housed the reunited Stein collection, now holds a new special exhibit, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective. It was a good idea to put in such a different show. I’ve wandered through the new exhibit twice so far, and I can't help remembering when that wall held Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein or Matisse’s Forest of Fontainebleau was around that corner. Those pictures are now gone, and soon their ghosts will be gone as well. The Serra drawings create their own mood and space. I tend to be indifferent to Serra's sculpture, those giant steel slabs that dominate and defy their environments; the environments I pass through are already so full of massive obnoxious forms and sounds and smells that I can't get too excited or outraged about one more. I think they might be good sculptures to live with on a daily basis, say in your backyard, if you have one, where you can note the slowly changing color of the oxidizing metal, the rain and the rust, the morning and afternoon light glowing and shining on it in their turn, the birds alighting or shitting on it, the squirrels running over the top. Seen in a museum, they’re more like: hey, look, a big slab of metal! What’s in the next gallery?
The first time I went through the exhibit I was accompanied by SFMike. We had gone into the museum during my lunch hour and stumbled onto a member preview, which I could bring him into, since I am a member. I felt like Virgil guiding Dante, except the galleries were very much less crowded than hell. They were also much less crowded than the member preview for the Steins, so that was actually pretty nice, since space is very important to the effect of these drawings, many of which are large enough to cover almost an entire gallery wall. They are black with sometimes some gray (as in a wash or a roller running out of black ink). Mike wanted to know why they are called drawings instead of paintings, since most of them are done with paint stick and what looks like black paint put on thickly enough to create subtle textures. I couldn’t answer him then, and still can’t now even though I’ve since read the Exhibition Guide available in the galleries (a pamphlet which is printed in tiny gray type on white, with Serra’s direct quotations in black – I know I need new glasses, but the guide really does seem designed more for appearance than legibility).
So you can walk into a room and see a wall-sized sheet of hand-made paper, covered with black paint, stapled (with black staples, so they’re barely visible) to the wall. Otherwise the gallery holds nothing but the blonde wood floors, the white walls, and the natural light filtering through the louvers in the ceiling. As you walk through several rooms each containing a similar large black drawing (I will use their nomenclature, but feel free to call them paintings), perhaps differing from the last one in being rectangular rather than square, or on a back rather than a side wall, you can see how the differences change how the space comes through to you. The spareness, the ambiguous black shapes (both graceful and massive), the sense of space, and of space being emptied out and carefully but subtly arranged, and of high-minded if obscure philosophical purposes, all reminded me of the ink drawings of Zen monks. Given the reputation for brutality and sheer mass that Serra’s sculptures have, it’s sort of surprising to find in the drawing exhibit the peace-inducing atmosphere of a Japanese garden. And if, as you and your mind wander through the rooms, your thoughts stray occasionally towards the unseen owners of these works, people who can afford to spend probably the equivalent of my annual salary on a large sheet of hand-made paper entirely covered with black paint, and the murmur of mental streams gives way temporarily to the gentle lapping sound of the Art World sucking up to the Very Rich, well, that too has its purpose, and it's easy enough to move on until the light falls differently.