Reflections on Richard Serra’s Works on Paper

At once heavy, inviting, bold, and unbalancing, Richard Serra’s “Works on Paper” at the John Berggruen Gallery have a similar effect to his well-known steel sculptures.  While his larger-than-life sculptures welcome viewers through their vast curvatures, strange passages, and interactive fields, his works on paper do something similar, though on a much smaller and subtler scale. - Read and see more from LA Contributor, Ellen Caldwell, after the jump!

Installation view of Paths and Edges #12 & 13. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Installation view of John Berggruen Gallery: view of Double Transversal (2 panel diptych), Level III, and Trajectory #1 & #2.

Between the Torus and the Sphere IV, 2006, 1 color etching, 30 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, Proof/45. Courtesy of John Berggruen Gallery.

Bight #6, 2011, 1 color direct gravure, 27 x 22 inches, Proof/45. Courtesy of John Berggruen Gallery.

Entering the gallery space, the room at first feels empty and vast.  Glossy wooden floors and stark white walls encapsulate the large black and white etchings on paper that seem to hover and break the tan and white field.

Serra’s prints feature shapes we are used to seeing with his work: seemingly endless circular patterns, playful twisting lines, large imposing rectangles and squares with such slight variations, overhangs, disproportions, and curvatures that one only notices these warps as one steps closer in or farther back to rebalance and recalculate the mis-sizings.

Double Transversal (2 panel diptych), 2004, 1 color etching, 90 x 96 inches, 90 x 48 inches each, Proof/22. Courtesy of John Berggruen Gallery.

Installation view of Double Weight I, 2010, 1 color etching, 85 1/2 x 44 inches, 15/22. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Besides the shapes, Serra’s prints also mimic his sculptures in their heaviness, tone, and three-dimensionality.  Serra prints from copper plates whose surfaces have been “deeply bitten” and corroded, creating three-dimensional ink reliefs on paper with a texture that is itself monumental.  Stepping closer to the prints, I was continuously drawn in by the deep ridges, mountains, and gorges formed within the black, blacks of the ink.

Paths and Edges #11, 2007, 1 color etching, 23 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches, 30/60. Courtesy of John Berggruen Gallery.

DETAIL: Paths and Edges #11, 2007, 1 color etching, 23 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches, 30/60. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Another interesting play of lights, darks, and shadows occurs in the gallery space as well.  Because of the reflective nature of the floors, elongated and looming shadows form on the ground, mimicking the large and vast shapes of the prints, and creating another space viewers can walk through, penetrate, and become part of.

Gallery reflections: installation views. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Bottom line: are Serra’s works on paper as overwhelming or as encapsulating as the sculptural experience?  No. They are less tangible and grandiose in both size and material.  But the space created at the John Berggruen Gallery is more directly mentally engaging.  It encourages you to ponder the works and the space created by the light-plays and interactivity between angled walls, across floors, and throughout the space.  Aesthetically and experientially, this felt like a nod to the sculptural experience and intellectually, it kicked it up a level.  And it is not to be missed.

Gallery reflections: Promenade Notebook Drawing V, 2009, 1 color etching, 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches, 31/50 with reflection of Bight #6. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.


Richard Serra’s “Works on Paper” is showing at the John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, now through December 3rd.  The gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 9:30 – 5:30 and Saturday 10:30-5:00.  This show coincides with “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” at SFMOMA, running through January 16, 2012.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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