Painted in 2009, Richard Serra’s Carver belongs to a celebrated series of works on paper known as the Greenpoint Rounds. Measuring six and half feet square, the visual pyrotechnics of Serra’s technique are on full display in Carver, as he stretches the capabilities of two-dimensional mark-making to their utmost extreme. With its thickened strata of opaque black paintstick laboriously applied in concentric, circular strokes, Carver elicits a visceral bodily response, not unlike the sensation of encountering one of Serra’s monolithic corten steel works. With riveting black-hole intensity, Carver compels the viewer’s eye as well as his/her hand, which longs to reach out and investigate the bumpy accretions and subtle undulations of its rich, heavy surface. Typically, works in the Greenpoint Rounds series are named after influential authors and theorists of the 20th century, such as the Italian novelist Italo Calvino (Calvino), American novelist Theodore Dreiser (Dreiser), and French playwright Antonin Artaud (Artaud). Carver is most likely titled after the American writer and poet Raymond Carver, whose short stories and poetry of the 1970s and ‘80s helped revitalize the genre, infusing it with a tough, no-nonsense realism and a pared-down Minimalist approach, all of which encourages similarities with Serra’s own work.
Rather than approach drawing as a preliminary study for a larger work, Serra considers the act of drawing as an independent pursuit. In Carver, Serra’s technique pushes the genre to its limits and beyond. Black paintstick has been impressed, layered, and embedded into the very fibers of the handmade paper sheet, making for a furrowed network of undulating crags and peaks that rises upward and outward from its two-dimensional support. By melting the black paintstick until it reaches a viscous state, Serra is able to impregnate the two-dimensional surface of the sheet on a nearly molecular level, thereby transcending the physical properties of drawing to create an entirely new entity that straddles the line between sculpture, drawing, and painting. Serra’s commitment to the most stringent abstract vernacular imparts a restrained elegance to the piece in which a large black circle has become circumscribed within the paper’s square shape. Much like a poet whose verse is restricted to sonnet form, Serra uses the minimalist geometry of the circle to lay out his attack. In dense layers of melted paintstick, Serra meticulously lays waste to the paper sheet, building up layer after layer of the thick black material, resulting in a fascinating surface texture that mimics charcoal or charred firewood. Serra’s stringent adherence to the color black and the sparest of visual forms has resulted in a spectacular body of work executed on a vast scale. Engulfing the viewer’s body in its monumental expanse, Carver evokes the surface of some distant planet or impenetrable black hole.
The Minimalist principles laid out in Serra’s earliest work have continued to provide the formal framework for his work across all mediums. His considerable restraint only seems to exert ever greater pictorial force. Serra deliberately limits himself to a single material, such as steel, or color, such as black, which he explores and refines over the course of several decades. The Greenpoint series continues Serra’s dialogue with the modernist rhetoric of simple geometric forms. Working within a prescribed format, Serra is able to experiment and improvise within the standards of a set arrangement. For Serra, even the color black—which might be seen as a negation of color itself—embodies many of the same attributes as corten steel. “Black is a property, not a quality,” Serra has said. “In terms of weight, black is heavier, creates a denser volume, holds itself in a more compressed field. It is comparable to forging. Since black is the densest color material, it absorbs and dissipates light to a maximum... To use black is the clearest way of marking against a white field” (R. Serra, quoted in L. Cooke and M. Francis, Carnegie International 1991, New York, 1992, p. 124).
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Serra might consider Raymond Carver when titling the present work, since both artists share a similar bare-bones Minimalist approach that nonetheless elicits a powerful, emotional response. Both Carver and Serra were born to working-class parents in the Pacific Northwest in the same year—1938—and came of age as contemporaries. Carver’s short stories and poetry—like those in Cathedral (1983) and What we Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)—helped revive a languishing genre with their honest portrayal of regular people in scenarios tinged with a melancholic beauty.
Over the past fifty years, Richard Serra has actively engaged the viewer in a bodily, participatory experience that results from the transformative nature of his materials, whether in the gravity-defying effect of his leaning arcs in corten steel or in the formidable quality of his large-scale discs of heavy black pigment. Through these different applications, Serra both highlights and transforms the physical properties of each medium, creating a heightened viewing experience in which the fundamental nature of each--be it sculpture, painting, or drawing—is accentuated, exerting the phenomenon of its making on the viewer in an utterly radical way. “The works deliver physical sensations that engage thought and stir feeling, all with surprising exactitude,” writes New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, in his review of Serra’s drawing retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in 2011. “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” (P. Schjeldahl, “Drawing Room,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2011).