Rich in texture and visual intrigue, Richard Serra’s paintstick-on-paper works fully articulate the performative nature of the artist’s oeuvre. Look into What is a premier example of the sculptor’s practice of exporting material to a surface–whether that surface is paper or a wall. Like the artist’s famed performances and videos in which he threw molten lead against the museum wall, to the effect of accumulating the liquid metal into a dense layer, Richard Serra’s paintstick on paper drawings are similarly built up through a process of repetition and performed action. Look into What takes the elemental form of the circle as its motif because it is a form that consolidates the energy generated from the action of drawing into a vortex on the oversized page. The residue of this process includes the stray smears and a patina of marks that accumulated as the artist moved the solid oil paint in crayon form into a thick impasto of the paper’s center circle. In a 1993 interview, Serra laid the concerns he staked out in his medium: “I think I’ve chosen particular aspects in the making of sculpture that locate content in various areas,” he said. “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 drawn works on paper and are on full display in Look into What.
Serra came of age as an artist in the 1970s after Minimalist artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and others made their earliest contributions, essentially changing the landscape of contemporary art. Grouped with post-Minimalist artists like Lynda Benglis, Serra, and others approached the making of their work through a focus on materiality and process that acknowledged the act of making a work of art as a performance itself. Though the artist is best known for monumental steel sculptures that embody the presence of ships and occupy the entirety of the buildings in which they are installed, drawing has always played a significant role in Serra’s artistic practice, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith articulated the relationship of Serra’s works on paper to his sculptures when she wrote: “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,” New York Times, April 14, 2011). For Serra himself, drawing is a product derived from making sculpture, not a sketch or preliminary study. He has said: “The drawings on paper are mostly…made after a sculpture has been completed. They are the result of trying to ask and define what surprises me in a sculpture, what I could not understand before a work was built. They enable me to understand different aspects of perception as well as the structural potential of a given sculpture. They are distillations of the experience of a sculptural structure” (R. Serra, “Notes on Drawing,” Richard Serra Drawings/Zeichnungen 1969-1990, Bern, 1991).
The paper support of Serra’s drawings is not to be underestimated. Because of its shape, Serra’s act of drawing is one that inscribes one elemental form, a circle, within another, a square. This formulation has preoccupied the artist over many decades, with Look into What, being an early investigation into this configuration. To achieve such dense materiality in his drawings, Serra applies a heavy layer of paint stick to the surface of an oversized sheet of handmade paper. Within the square, Serra traces the perimeter of a circle. Within that perimeter, the density of the oil stick, 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 on 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 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, and at its center, the artist has lessened the pressure placed by his hand upon the paintstick, so that the white of the paper appears as a stark contrast to the black of the oil paint pigment.
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 that are the aims of his sculptures. Whether densely applying lead to a wall or oil paint to handmade paper, “drawing was implied in the activity. The making of the form itself… was implied in the drawing within the physical transformation of material form one state to another.” All of these activities are “all modes of drawing. ...Anything you can project as expressive in terms of drawing–ideas, metaphors, emotions, language structures – results from the act of doing” (R. Serra, “‘About Drawing,’ op. cit., p.77).