That a sculptor might use the medium of drawing as something analogous to sculpture, rather than as a preliminary study, is hardly to be taken for granted. Some sculptors, such as David Smith, have created painterly drawings, while others have developed and weighed up the contours and tectonics of their sculptures in linear ways. For a sculptor who does not regard sculpture in terms of a figure, but rather in terms of mass placed in space, and whose focus is therefore not on the perception of the pictorial aspect of the sculpture, but rather on the relationship between observer and work, and on the effect of the sculpture’s mass on the perception of the surrounding space, a drawing has to encapsulate this experience in adequate form. That is the case with Richard Serra, who can look back on a substantial output of drawings. He was quick to move from his first works on paper, rendering sculptures or elements of sculpture, toward works in which he formulated a fundamentally new concept of drawing. That happened in the course of the 1970s, and this changing view of drawing went hand in hand with a transition from tabletop to wallsized works: drawing meant covering a vast surface with black paintstick so densely that the resulting form took on a sculptural presence on the wall.
In this work, the genres of drawing and printmaking converge, with Serra developing an unconventional printing technique that closely resembles the execution and effect of his drawings, albeit with the difference that only a small edition of 15 was produced. What distinguishes this work, which is one of the very first of its kind, from conventional prints is primarily the oversized paper format. First, a screen print of the surface figure was printed in matte black. Serra then added two further layers of black by applying black paintstick over the black print to add both physical density and structural tactility. The end result is not so much a picture as a clearly outlined figure that gains its significance in the moment at which the observer views it on the wall, for it does not portray any representation, but is in itself part of the situation it creates. The viewer is overwhelmed by the work, because the figure is so huge that it can be perceived only in terms of its position and weighting. This effect is further compounded by the vast swathe of black, uninterrupted by any drawing, which appears as pure mass.
In Serra’s oeuvre, the two drawings “Spine I” and “Spine II”, both 1983, may play a role as precursors to “Robeson;” their titles indicate the vertical disposition of a human figure whose subtle sideways tilt is directly perceptible. “Robeson” alludes to the black singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul LeRoy Robeson (1898–1976)—but this purely factual aspect of the work is merely a reference, rather than an illustration.