20 October 2011

Richard Serra Drawings at SFMoMA

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.


Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: Lovely, and though I was laughing through most of our short afternoon ramble through the empty galleries, the exhibit really is a perfect Steins Collect palate cleanser. What I've been enjoying is reading the various local art critics twisting themselves into absurdist shapes while trying to describe the exhibit, with their ArtSpeak about Space and Signifiers and So On, a trap you avoided gracefully.

The only massive steel sculptures I've been awed and impressed by were not actually sculptures but the abandoned, decaying factories along Lake Michigan that I saw while on a train about twenty years ago on the way from Chicago to Saginaw. Now that's brawny, he-man sculpture.

Also like the allusion to Zen monk ink drawings. Of course, this being America, our Zen monk ink drawings need to be supersized. And people who can afford these huge pieces probably paid quite a bit more than your annual salary, unless you are making much more than I thought, in which case you can take me to lunch next time.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That's me, gracefully avoiding things. . . . the thing is, I'm sure the local art critics (I haven't read any of them on this exhibit, by the way) are deliberately seeking out jargon -- if you don't speak the secret decoder-ring lingo, people will realize you don't belong. . . .

I know what you mean about the decaying factories -- another instance in which high art can't quite recreate what popular art (or just chance) can do effortlessly.

I thought I had phrased it to leave open the possibility that the owners were paying much more than my annual salary, but I see that I did not, so I stand corrected though I have no idea what the going price would be for a Serra drawing. I could take you to lunch anyway.