Serra: Viewer Reflection

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.” In the Addison Gallery of American Art, I climb the marble staircase to the new exhibit: Richard Serra – Large Scale Prints. Facing the first one, I laugh out loud. This is not art. This is a big white piece of paper, painted very black, mounted on white matting. This is a prestigious and pricey scam. Not art. Not this charade, this exhibit with 5 rooms of black shapes on white paper, 40 framed works by you, Richard Serra. My 6 yr old neighbor could have painted this, except she would have added bright colors. Yet she didn’t, and you did. There’s something to that; you made this your life. You painted hundreds of these prints so similar but infuriatingly unique, I want to hate them all, pass them off as a cheap trick, a crime against Michelangelo, against Renoir. A murder of form and figure and shading, the slaughter of the skill of painting light. All light here is negated in this black hole, this ebony infinity of nothing. But there is a figure in your black mess. The glass in the frame reflects my form into your canvas, me and the man behind me with his dark coat and hat. And your other pieces, slabs of geometry reflected back from the opposite wall, selfishly repeating themselves in the piece in front of me. I don’t want to be in your picture, your piece, your black abyss, but I’m fascinated. I only move on to the next print when the soft shuffle of the man behind me shakes me from my trance. The next painting is called Muddy Waters, 1987. You’re not fooling anyone; the painting is a black rectangle like the rest of them. Paris, 1985; you force me to rethink my image of Paris, fit it into this vast black space. How can you presume to sum up even a fraction of all the connotations, history, emotions, and lives caught up in the idea of Paris in your blankly black space? And yet, is there any more reasonable way to try? By showing nothing, you show so much more than we thought we’d see. The joke’s on us. In your stark world, we get what we put in. In Eight by Eight you missed a spot. No one can fall irretrievably into this one, it’s easy to see it’s flat, there’s no long slide down into dark oblivion, but I can’t walk away, my eyes are sucked to that one irritating, haunting cloud of white in a black universe. Du Common. This one’s smudged, black scraped across the white; it’s imperfect, yet you win again. With the smudge comes reality, authenticity, human fragility and it just looks better. The next room holds Rosa Parks, Bessie Smith, and Clara Clara. Each only a dark blotch, but in that blotch a black hole, distorting my world and drawing me into it’s vortex. In the next room you graduate to squiggly lines and the room beyond celebrates your firm grasp of large black circles and squares. Most of the time you keep your paint in the lines, but in Bessie Smith, 1999, you went wild, enveloped in some passion; you sprayed the black everywhere. I don’t know if I like it so I stay for half an hour deciding. My eyes are used to your sloppy free hand, I’ve accepted your splotches, but when I get to the last room, you’ve switched back to more ridged, strict lines. At first, I reject them all over again. But after a while these too grow on me and I can appreciate this room as well. Could you paint something I couldn’t accept, something that truly is not moving or beautiful in anyway? Or would I get used to anything, given the time. I won’t tempt you, or maybe I should. Either way, congratulations, you’ve confused me with your “art”. But I’ll be back.