The Summer of Richard Serra
Best known for his heroic steel sculptures, the artist's—approachable and accessible—drawings are starring in museums and galleries across Europe and the US this Summer.
This week a surprising exhibition opens at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It’s a tandem show uniting two artists one would rarely utter in the same breath together. But more than that, the show focuses on minor works on paper by these two major artists. And if that weren’t enough, the artists and their work shares fixation and exploration of the weighty and mysterious power of richly textured surfaces of black.
Serra/Seurat. Drawings brings together Georges Seurat’s fascinating black drawings that exist as a body of work in parallel to his paintings. Seurat’s drawings are fascinating in themselves showing his great skill in depicting scenes without anything but modulation of the color black. In the show, Richard Serra’s work—which also relies on repeated and varied use of the color black but entirely in service to abstraction—is represented by a recent series begun in 2015 called the Ramble Drawings.
At the time of their first showing, Roberta Smith described the Ramble Drawings as having an extraordinary “variety of surface, space, light and touch.” Like Seurat, Serra’s use of black crayon and paper was the only constant. Everything else about his drawing practice, which remains separate from and almost unrelated to the massive and sometimes inaccessible sculpture, seems open to experimentation and change. As Smith concludes, “Serra remains, after all these years, the Process artist par excellence.”
This is shaping up to be the Summer of Serra. Mitchell and Emily Rales’s Glenstone museum is slated to open a new pavilion to house a new sculpture by the 83-year-old artist. The work is Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure from 2017. It joins four other works housed at Glenstone either in the main building or on the museum’s wooded grounds.
Cardi Gallery in Milan has a show called 40 BALLS, more black-paintstick-on-paper works, that was curated and designed by the artist. “Serra’s drawings are not sketches, studies or precursors to the sculptures,” writes Joe La Placa, a Senior Director at the gallery. “They are works in their own right, each exuding a singular character and energy while defying any metaphorical or emotive associations.”
Finally, and surely not least, David Zwirner gallery has given over its entire location on West 20th street in Chelsea to work by the artist. There’s a large, round monolith in the main gallery and on the second floor there’s more than two dozen new works on paper on display.
There’s little outward sign from the works that they’re recent. Serra continues his process working on paper. It’s intensely physical befitting the sculptor as he-man who takes a break for casting massive steel structures to melt painstick into blocks that he presses with great force against paper to leave large very, very black marks.
Using a vocabulary of shapes and methods, Serra’s work is endlessly inventive but also recurringly familiar. There have been many different series of works on paper. And, in recent years, there have been more and more museum and gallery shows of the works on paper. Just before the pandemic, there were eight different shows of prints or works on paper. In 2020, one got in at Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco just before the lockdown. With just two this Spring, Serra has some catching up to do to get back on pace with the four-to-six shows of works on paper that seem to have taken place every year for the last 40 years or more.
Richard Serra works on paper auction prices by style
Although Serra has been hard at it for nearly half a century, the secondary market for his drawings has only recently picked up steam. Beginning in 2004, a few of the drawings started to make six-figure prices at auction. In 2007, the first work on paper made a price above $500,000. In 2015, the Serra market experienced another breakout year as one work approached $1.5 million at auction and another reached nearly $1 million. Over the next two years, those prices would be matched and then beaten twice.
Four of the top five prices for Serra’s drawings are for the works known as the rounds. These are planet-like discs on paper with Seurat-like shadings of black to delineate—barely—the edges of the orbs. The surfaces are as mottled and uneven the forged iron Serra works with. Carver from 2009 sold for nearly $2.2 million in November of 2017. That’s the high-water mark for Serra’s work on paper.
Since then, some of the other types of Serra’s work have also achieved prices above $1 million. An early work from 1973 sold for nearly $1.4 million at Artcurial in Paris in December of 2019. At the second Macklowe sale in May and three years ago at Phillips in London, two works similar to the Rift series Periodic Table (1991) and Sioux (1990) sold for $1.07 million and $1.12 million.
Perhaps more striking in the accompanying chart is the 15 works sold between 2015 and the present that made prices above $500,000 but below $1 million. Unlike the rounds which dominate the top of the price spectrum, these lots include helix works, tracks and some of the many varieties of solid works.
May’s sales four works were offered and only one failed to find a buyer; it was more closely related to the sculptures. So far this year, $3.15 million in Serra drawings were sold at auction rebuilding some of the momentum lost due to the pandemic closures. With more than half the year left, it is looking like Serra will get more attention in the second half of the year as the Summer of Serra cements his stature in collectors minds.
LiveArt has a private listing for a Richard Serra work on paper. For more information, inquire here.