In a 1993 interview, Richard Serra, best known for his series of monumental steel sculptures, laid out the inherent concerns he saw in his medium: “I think I’ve chosen particular aspects in the making of sculpture that locate content in various areas: Balance happens to be one to them. Mass happens to be one of them … weight… placement… context… But to say that those have particular metaphors in terms of my work in a larger aspect would just be untrue” (R. Serra to D. Seidner, “Richard Serra by David Seidner,” Bomb Magazine, Winter 1993, n.p.). These same concerns—balance, mass, weight, placement, context—apply equally to the artist’s works on paper, and are on full display in Artaud, a drawing from Serra’s Greenpoint Round series. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has also drawn comparison between Serra’s drawings and sculptures when she wrote: “In the past Mr. Serra’s large rough-surfaced drawings of thickly applied (black) lithography crayon have waged an unevenly match battle in terms of scale, weight and aggressiveness with his looming sculptures” (R. Smith, “Richard Serra Scales Down With ‘Ramble Drawings,’” The New York Times, October 15, 2015).
Here, the artist applies a dense and heavy layer of paintstick, an oil-based crayon, to the surface of his chosen support—a sheet of handmade paper on an immense scale. At six-and-a-half feet square, Artaud occupies a space larger than human and within this square, Serra has traced the perimeter of a circle. Within that perimeter, the density of the oilstick, which has been heated by the artist to allow for a fluid viscosity of the material, accumulates in a dark blackness that takes on the appearance of coal or stone. As the artist approaches the edge of the circle, his imprint upon the paper becomes less forceful, transforming the circle into a sphere through a perceived dimensionality that is achieved by modeling through different amounts of pressure. Because the medium is oil-based, it seeps into the material of the paper, changing its very nature at the densest places at the center of the image and imbuing it with a mass far beyond that which the paper alone could occupy. At the image’s periphery, from the line that demarcates the circle to the paper’s edge, the artist has lessened the pressure placed by his hand upon the paintstick to the paper even more so, so that more of the paper is visible beneath and that the pigment appears to spray across the corners of the square.
Through these different applications of the same pigment upon the paper, Serra is able to achieve the sense of spatial perception and the phenomenon of gravity. As for texture, Roberta Smith describes the surfaces of Serra’s drawings best: “Few artists have pushed drawing to such sculptural and even architectural extremes as Richard Serra. He has magnified the medium with immense black shapes that sit directly on the wall, their absorptive darkness forcing the space around them to expand or contract. Using black oil paintstick, he has exaggerated drawing’s physical surface, creating expanses of texture that have the rough tactility of bark, or massing dark, roiled spheres as thick as mud pies” (R. Smith, “Sketches from the Man of Steel,” The New York Times, April 14, 2011).
Antonin Artaud, for whom Serra named this print, was a French playwright, director, and theorist, who innovated avant-garde theatre in the 1920s with surrealist tactics. His influence would last long after the artist’s death in the late 1940s. Artaud is best remembered by his groundbreaking, “Theatre of Cruelty,” a type of theatre that stressed the force of sensations upon the audience intended to release trapped emotions held by the unconscious mind. Artaud described the intent of his method: “The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid” (A. Artaud, “The Theatre of Cruelty” E. Bentley, in ed. The theory of the modern stage: from Artaud to Zola, an introduction to modern theatre and drama, London: Penguin, 2008, n.p.). Such ideas certainly influenced the young Serra in the 1970s when he began using steel to construct spaces of physical disorientation and psychic reordering. Other drawings from the Greenpoint Rounds series—each a variation of a circle circumscribed within a square—are similarly named for arts theorists and philosophers, including the Italian novelist Italo Calvino (Calvino), the French writer Michel Butor (Butor), and American novelist Theodore Dreiser (Dreiser). Yet to read too much of these writer’s content into Serra’s drawings is to deny their sheer physical presences. As Michelle White, curator of the retrospective of Richard Serra’s drawings at the Menil Collection of Art in Houston which then traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011 wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue, Serra’s drawings “are not about something, they are something” (M. White, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 2011).