If you're going to the exhibit of Richard Serra's "Weight and Measure Drawings" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it's well to take two remarks with you.
Serra himself has said: "I'm more interested in people experiencing these things than looking at them. I don't really care if people go away remembering how the pieces were configured. I want them to go away with some kinesthetic equivalent of a hollow in your stomach."
And critic Richard Schiff, writing in the show's catalog, notes: "Serra's drawings hold our attention precisely because they fail to resolve themselves in any familiar manner. . . . They lack a lineage or a code. They do not tell a story. They are substances, not images."
In other words, forget about looking at them in an art-historical context. Forget about reading them as pictures, for meaning. Forget about thinking of them as gestures of the hand.
Instead, think of these 10 enormous presences -- black rectangles on white paper, measuring up to about 13 by 7 feet -- as physical entities, just as "weight and measure" in the title suggests. Think of how they relate to the space they're in. And -- since "kinesthetic" refers to the position and movement of the body -- think of how they relate to you.
Because of the heaviness of the material (the black is paintstick, oil paint in solid form) and the thickness with which it's applied, these drawings really impart the feel of weight and mass. They feel more like wall sculptures than drawings or paintings.
And they do make you think about space. They were previously exhibited at the Drawing Center in New York, and a photograph of the installation there shows that they were spaced far apart and probably had the effect of visually expanding the room. Here, placed close together in a smaller space, they have a curious push-pull effect. Because of their size and their closeness to one another, they make the gallery seem to close in on you if you're in the middle of it. But go to one end and look down a row of four of the drawings along one wall and toward the drawing at the far end, and the opposite wall appears to recede, making the room look longer.
There is definitely a physical relation between oneself and these presences. You're not so conscious of it as long as you're alone in the room with them, but when someone else enters there's the sense of a connection broken. And that makes you realize that as long as you're alone in a space it seems empty to you, because you don't observe yourself inhabiting it.
It is easier to leave these drawings after two minutes than after an hour. They establish a relationship that grows with time. After two minutes you may think you've got everything out of them there is to get. After an hour, you realize you've only just begun.
Being with them is not, however, a religious or spiritual experience; you don't feel as if you're probing some deep mystery. It's a refreshing experience of space and time, and of feeling in contact.
What: "Richard Serra: Weight and Measure Drawings"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Jan. 29
Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18
Call: (410) 396-7100