Artist Richard Serra is famous for his gigantic steel sculptures. What he is less known for are his drawings, now the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective,” which opened Saturday, illuminates the creative process of one of the world’s great 20th-century artists. The landmark exhibition includes roughly 70 works, from densely layered geometric shapes to sketchbooks that have never been shown before.
“Drawing for me is a way to keep hand and eye conditioned and to keep my mind nimble,” Serra says in an interview in the catalog.
Serra sticks to black, which absorbs light. He finds incredible depth, often using paintstick (an oil-based crayon) on Belgian linen and stapling the drawings directly to the wall. Without the distraction of a frame or an information card beside the art, the viewer is pulled into the velvety black void.
By the 1970s, Serra began melting paintsticks together to create blocks that he gripped with his hands and pulled across the canvas.
In “Taraval Beach,” the floor-to-ceiling drawing redefines the room, forcing the viewer to engage directly with the work.
The show opens with “Verb List” — four handwritten columns of words such as “to roll” and “to crease” that suggest the ways an artist uses materials.
Highlights include a sculpture called “Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift.” To create the piece, Serra hurtled ladles of molten lead against the wall. Once the lead cooled, the long jagged forms left behind were pulled off and repositioned in the room. The silvery gray splatters on the walls seem fresh, as if the artist had just walked out of the gallery.
Serra fans familiar with the controversial removal of his 1981 sculpture “Tilted Arc” in New York will appreciate the diptychs that followed, with titles such as “No Mandatory Patriotism” and “The United States Government Destroys Art.”
In the 1990s, Serra began pushing black paintstick through a screen, creating drawings such as “out-of-round X.”
“I don’t like skating over the surface of a piece of paper,” Serra says. “I like to feel the paper’s resistance to the material that’s being applied to it.”
Serra, 71, grew up in San Francisco (he surfed at Ocean Beach). At 16, he began working in the East Bay steel mills — an experience that influenced his art. He’s lived in New York since the 1960s.
The exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, which will present it next year. Serra, who was at SFMOMA this week, likes San Francisco but doesn’t get back often.
“Once you move on,” he says, “it’s hard to go home.”
IF YOU GO
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily except closed Wednesdays and open until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit closes Jan. 16
Admission: $18 general, $12 seniors,
$11 students, free for children 12 and under
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org