The rusty steel in Richard Serra’s towering sculptures undoubtedly contains melted-down steam engines, ocean liners, and other scrap perpetually recycled since the days of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” The sculptor’s remarkable accomplishment over the past few decades has been to transmute such industrial tonnage into the soaring, sinuous curves of man-made nature.
But while Serra achieves a balletic grace in his precariously balanced slabs of steel, the Met’s retrospective of his drawings can at first feel oppressive. Thick, scabrous layers of black paintstick coat the two huge linen panels of Union (2011), which face each other across a dead-end gallery, ensnaring the viewer in a gravitational tug-of-war between their dark, depthless surfaces. These are formal hybrids that force the concept of “drawing” into quotation marks, as if the word itself was a hot steel ingot grasped by tongs. The movement of arm and body remains tangible in the built-up, oily layers, but unlike the gestural vibrance of master drawings from Michelangelo to Terry Winters, Serra creates something akin to a black hole, everything subsumed into a heavy stygian mass.
In a 10-by-18-foot diptych on paper, two black, not-quite-square shapes lean in slightly to connect at their misaligned upper edges, conveying a powerful sense of conflict. The angular wedge between the pair feels claustrophobic, even menacing, and a glance at the title and date—The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989—confirms that it’s Serra’s response to the dismantling of his public sculpture Tilted Arc that same year. Installed in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1981, the gently curving wall of rusty steel was instantly unpopular with some office workers, who complained that it possessed all the charm of an “anti-terrorist barricade.” Fans of the piece experienced a 120-foot-long recessional that enlivened a bland plaza while poignantly welding together vistas of the surrounding architectural melee. The divided drawing hanging on the Met’s wall might be seen as a blunt evocation of both cultural discord and the cut-up remains of the 72-ton sculpture.
But numerous examples of Serra’s sketchbooks convey his iron will more succinctly than such visual polemics. When you consider how many hours he must spend wrangling with patrons, engineers, fabricators, and steel riggers to complete his complex visions, it’s fascinating to see Serra’s massive sculptures expressed as a few quick swipes of charcoal on a blank page. Nothing in this compelling show more eloquently testifies to the unquantifiable power of drawing.
“Somewhere far away where only centaurs and foxes live, I live,” reads an intertitle in Almagul Menlibayeva’s 21-minute video, Transoxiana Dreams (2011), set in the dry, sandy wastes of what was once the Aral Sea, drastically depleted during the Soviet era for ill-considered irrigation projects. Comely women draped in fox pelts sprout extra pairs of legs or gyrate before rusted hulks stranded by the receding water, their breasts and crotches comically censored by Soviet military caps. In other scenes, gangs of men heft abandoned boats onto trucks in search of elusive seashores that prove to be clotted with dead fish. Weaving Greek myth with the tragic environmental catastrophe of her native Kazakhstan, Menlibayeva has created a genuinely surreal and gorgeously multi-textured tale. Priska C. Juschka, 547 W 27th St, priskajuschkafineart.com, 212-244-4320. Through May 14
‘Drawing and Its Double’
Just as Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in heels, master engravers duplicated classical compositions in reverse and scribed into copper. This selection of Italian etching plates (all framed on the wall without prints) includes Giorgio Ghisi’s 1549 take on Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which transforms the original’s rich range of blues into intricately incised lines that would print in variegated grays. Eighteenth-century copies after such High Renaissance giants as Raphael offer surprisingly lithe fidelity, but it is modern original works—such as Giorgio Morandi’s monumental 1930 still life and Pietro Consagra’s wonderfully scraggly 1966 abstraction—that most emphatically reveal the intrinsic beauty of these polished slabs of scratched metal. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, drawingcenter.org, 212-219-2166. Through June 24