Richard Serra Drawings: A Retrospective brings together three decades of his drawings for its sole West Coast presentation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Although Richard Serra is mostly known for his large-scale sculptures and use of pliable materials, the visual artist, regarded as a crucial figure in contemporary art, has also amassed a collection of drawings. For the San Francisco native’s first solo exhibit in his hometown, SFMOMA showcases the products of his personal creative processes that led him from sculpting to sketching. San Francisco also has the privilege of hosting sculptures that were not included in the New York exhibition.

The collection is ordered chronologically beginning with Serra’s earliest drawings in the 1970s. His works, many of which remain untitled, are marked by their sophisticated simplicity and, at times, deliberate imperfections. A look at an untitled series of elementary shapes betrays his relationship with angles, placement, positioning and shading.

Serra’s use of only black as his sole color of choice, brings emphasis to what is in front of the viewer: a trapezoid bending and stretching both into the background and toward the viewer, blocks of opaque color from ceiling to floor and other pieces almost too simple to accurately describe. Serra’s work speaks loudly of a man who has no tricks up his sleeves.

As a retrospective, viewers are taken through his evolution and creative thought process. Drawings range from pieces that are completely opaque on Belgian linen attached directly to the wall with precise angles and shapes while other pieces are more free-form: messy spirals surrounded by dobs and speckles of paint, wobbly ovals, precise squares. Some pieces are simply layers upon layers of pigment used to make a frosting of paint with the textures and patterns created by caked-on blackness. These basic pieces draw viewers into Serra’s technique and stokes a curiosity for his process.

Without a bit of background, a quick look at this exhibit may be slightly underwhelming. Understanding Serra’s role as a respected artist relies, in part, on his dedication to exploring how the process of creating of his drawings affects the finished product. It’s the details that give the collection its momentum. Examples of this can be seen in some of his earlier works where he melted down commercial-size paint sticks into large blocks that required two hands and hours of pulling and pushing to produce a seemingly simple all-black drawing. Facts like this transform mildly exciting floor-to-ceiling pieces of complete blackness into fragments of a bigger narrative.

The collection also includes early films, a few simple sculptures and 28 sketchbooks that were selected from hundreds of Serra’s personal notebooks. The exhibit will be on display at SFMOMA until January 16th.

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