‘Drawing to me is a language that allows me to understand the world, an analytical tool. It is a practical means to assign perception to memory. I understand complexities through drawing, it enables me to grasp them.’
‘The light-killing blackness makes for delicate balances of...infinite depth. You don’t look at this art. You give yourself over to it. The payoff...is a sense of being brought fully, tinglingly alive.’
Executed in 2007, Richard Serra’s Stratum 8 defines a formidable expanse of mottled black, contrasted only by radiant traces of occasional egg-shell white, which meet the picture plane in arching formations to the left and right edges. The vast blackness sweeps across the paper surface, subtly embedding an impression of curvature within the pictorial space. This, in turn, becomes echoed by the scant, arcing slopes of speckled white on either side. As its title suggests, Stratum 8 alludes to the layering of rock in the ground, and indeed the grainy surface of the work, so evocative of rock formation and sedimentary matter, conjures something earthy and primal, immediate and raw. Drawing on a foundational moment from his early childhood in which, on his fourth birthday, he ‘[walked] the arc of the hull’ of a ship with his father, who worked as a pipe-fitter in a shipyard with steel, Serra recalls with sharp clarity the abundance of sights, sounds and sensations that left such a lasting impression on him. Acknowledging its profound influence, he continues, ‘All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory, which has become a recurring dream’ (R. Serra, quoted in Richard Serra: Weight and Measure Drawings, New York, 1994, p. 6). Indeed, in spite of its paper materiality, the gritty surface of Stratum 8 is imbued with a sense of weighty, textured heaviness.
This work exemplifies Serra’s universally acclaimed graphic practice, presenting itself as a dramatic interplay of form and material. Serra came to prominence, alongside other Minimalist artists including Donald Judd and Carl Andre, in the 1960s, making his enduring mark in the art world and essentially changing the landscape of contemporary art. Since this time, he has continuously challenged the traditional definition of drawing as a medium of representation and figuration, pushing its boundaries into the conceptual sphere and thereby significantly contributing to its autonomy as an artistic form. Rich in texture and visual intrigue, Serra’s paint stick on paper works fully articulate the performative nature of the artist’s oeuvre. Just as in his renowned 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, Serra’s paint stick on paper drawings are similarly built up through a process of repetition and performed action. Layer by layer, his sculptural drawings emerge, their own materiality poignantly reflecting the very sedimentary implications of their titles. Masterfully extending the practice of sculpture into painting, Serra’s works on paper seem to defy their own limitations, exhibiting a vital sense of solidity and presence reminiscent of his works in steel. In a 1993 interview, Serra expressed the concerns staked out in his medium, explaining, ‘I think I’ve chosen particular aspects in the making of sculpture that locate content in various areas. Balance happens to be one of them. Mass happens to be one of them … weight … placement … context …’ (R. Serra, quoted in ‘Richard Serra by David Seidner,’ Bomb Magazine, Winter 1993). With seamless skill, Serra translates the heavy, hefty physicality of his eminent steel sculptures into a work on paper in Stratum 8.