Serra: Artist’s Opinion

Remember that handprint you made for your Mom for Valentine’s Day back in preschool that had “I love you Mommy” written underneath? Now, imagine prints as tall as you are, made through a process involving photography, a tar-like substance, acid and metal. Those are techniques that were used to create Richard Serra’s prints, on show now at the Addison Gallery. On Sunday at the Addison, Jim Reid, a Master Printer at Gemini G.E.L. (California Art Gallery) spoke about how he and others worked on Serra’s prints. Richard Axsom, Senior Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, focused on Serra’s artistic vision. The two speakers led a tour of the exhibition in chronological order, showing Serra’s quest to create art with presence. Axsom said, “when you listen to music, you’re shaking and jumping; you’re part of the music itself.” He explained that Serra seeks to heighten the senses of the observer, not just to his work, but to the world, by making art that changes its surroundings. Serra, born in California in 1939, began as a sculptor and started printmaking in the early ‘70s, experimenting with techniques to achieve his goal; this goal was to show in the finished print, the steps he took to create it. Serra was revolutionary, creating prints bigger than any artist had attempted before. He made his early prints with lithography, a process which results in a print made from two repellent materials: water and grease. First, the artist draws what he wants the print to look like – using aluminum sheets as paper and a type of thick, sticky grease as a pencil. The grease makes a textured surface. Once his vision is transcribed, the print maker, in many cases Reid himself, takes over. The Print Maker covers the entire “drawing” with gum arabic, the same water-soluble material used on the backs of post-it notes. The drawing is then taken into a dark room, where a photograph captures it texture. The grease is taken off of the plate, and the photograph is shone through a silk screen onto it, which creates a “map” to etch on. Reid recounted how Serra taped a plate up to a stucco wall and etched so vigorously that “the plate looked like it’d been shot with a shot gun.” The plates are then inked (Serra’s were so big that it was a four-person job). The gum arabic that was not removed with the grease acts as an ink repellant so that only the etching part of the plate shows up in the print. Serra’s large lithographic works, such as Du Common (1972) create “presence” as large, solid shapes that crowd the paper, and, as with all his prints, are deep black to generate a feeling of weight. However, Serra wanted more texture than lithography could provide, and moved on to screenprinting. For this technique, Serra melted down great loads of paint sticks, like thick oil-bar lipsticks, to create an ink that takes one layer anywhere from a week to ten days to dry. Multiple layers of ink were applied to create a texture that seemed to call out to be touched. The vertical lines that run down the black of some of his screenprints were actually created by the motion of the printers’ hands running up and down the etch. Even greater texture is present in Serra’s “intaglio” prints – a term coined by the artist to describe a process of layering heavier printed paper over lighter paper. The results are extraordinary pieces, such as Hreppholar (1991), that seem to be made out of volcanic rock and, indeed, are so heavy it takes a team of people to lift them. Serra’s most recent works, those of the late ‘90s, are based on one of his sculpture exhibits, Torqued Ellipses, a human-sized labyrinth. These works break from Serra’s previous solid shaped prints in their interlocking rings. Serra drew inspiration for these prints from drawings he made while standing in a cherry-picker above his maze. Serra’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in Spain, and the Tate Gallery, in London, and many more. When asked what excited him most about his job, Reid said, “[my job] lets me be on first name basis with the greatest artists in the world.”