‘Drawing is a concentration on an essential activity and the credibility of the statement is totally in your hands. It’s the most direct, conscious space in which I work. I can observe my process from beginning to end, and at times sustain a continuous concentration. It’s replenishing. It’s one of the few conditions in which I can understand the source of my work’
Looming over two metres in height and width, Richard Serra’s Specific Density, Horizontal Mass (from the series Elevation Weight) (2010) defines a formidable field of black. A massive, densely textured, almost geological expanse of paintstick consumes the handmade paper to which it has been applied, engulfing the viewer in an awesome spectacle of dark materiality. Serra, who first came to prominence among the Minimalist generation of the 1960s and is renowned for his vast, imposing, near-architectural sculptures in steel, has continuously challenged the traditional definition of drawing as a medium of representation and figuration, pushing its boundaries into the conceptual sphere and significantly contributing to its autonomy as an artistic form. Since the early 1970s Serra has worked with paintstick in situ, creating black fields in site-specific canvas installations as a way ‘to define spaces within a given architectural enclosure’ (R. Serra, ‘Notes on Drawing’ in R. Serra, Writings, Interviews, Chicago & London 1994, p. 178). In works like the present, we find a different permutation of the artist’s cerebral mastery of shape, space and weight, and a remarkable insight into his creative practice: as he explains, ‘The drawings on paper are mostly studies made after a sculpture has been completed. They are the result of trying to define and assess 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’ in R. Serra, Writings, Interviews, Chicago & London 1994, p. 181). In dialogue with the artist’s exploration of his own sculptures, Specific Density, Horizontal Mass presents a visceral cliff-face of raw physical impact.
Rich in texture and visual intrigue, Serra’s acclaimed paintstick drawings not only transgress on the territory of sculpture but also articulate the performative nature of his oeuvre. Just as in his renowned ‘splash’ works – actions in which hot, molten lead is hurled against museum walls, accumulating the liquid metal into dense, painterly accretions – Serra’s paintstick-on-paper works are built up through a process of iterated action. Layer by layer and stroke by stroke, his sculptural drawings emerge, their own gritty, wall-like materiality embodying the literal heaviness implied in their titles; words like ‘weight’, ‘mass’ and ‘density’ foreground Serra’s meditation on the fundamental elements of sculptural experience. Blurring the lines between the practice of sculpture and mark-making, Serra’s works on paper seem to defy their own limitations, exhibiting a vital sense of solidity and presence that rivals that of his works in steel. In a 1993 interview, Serra expressed the concerns staked out in his central 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 D. Seidner, ‘Richard Serra’, Bomb Magazine, Winter 1993). In Specific Density, Horizontal Mass Serra seamlessly translates this poised, momentous physicality into a colossal work of graphic drama.