Stephen O’Malley

Serra in Paris

Posted: May 30, 2008

Serra in Paris

Richard Serra in Paris

From his first visit in 1965, to MONUMENTA 2008, Paris has played an important part in Richard Serra's life and career, with shows of work at the Centre Pompidou, and in public spaces at the Tuileries gardens and La Défense. Next, the Grand Palais. As Serra himself says: 'This return to Paris means a great deal to me.'

Richard Serra discovered the French capital as a young man in 1965, on his first transatlantic trip. A recent graduate of Yale University, he encountered a city basking in its long-held reputation as a major capital of the arts. Some of the greatest modern artists (Picasso, Giacometti…) were still living and working in France, although just a year earlier, Serra's fellow American Robert Rauschenberg had won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, marking the beginning of a shift in the epicentre of the modern art world, from Paris to the United States. Richard Serra met his friend the composer Philip Glass on the same trip, and saw Giacometti at La Coupole: 'Around midnight, Alberto Giacommetti would arrive, covered in plaster. One evening, after seeing us watch him night after night, he invited us to come to his studio. I went along, he wasn't there.' Serra also visited Brancusi's reconstructed studio at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, on an almost daily basis. 'It was there that my transition to sculpture took place,' he said later. It was indeed during this stay in Paris, and the subsequent journey to Italy, that he discovered his definitive vocation as a sculptor, the starting-point for the development of his later work, rooted in the phenomenon of gravity.

Richard Serra returned to Paris in 1983 for his first solo exhibition at one of the city's public art institutions, the Centre Pompidou. In addition to the selected major works at the Musée National d'Art Moderne – from Belts and House of Cards to Circuit – Serra also created an imposing public sculpture, Clara Clara. Together with the exhibition's curator Alfred Pacquement and the director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Dominique Bozo, Serra decided to install the work's two immense steel 'parentheses' in the Tuileries gardens. The two curved steel sheets faced each other without touching, enacting a radical spatial modification of the extraordinary site, originally designed by Louis XIV's landscape architect Le Nôtre. The axis of the Champs-Elysées provided a striking perspective for this major work, one of the very first in which Serra chose to work with curves and oblique lines.

In 1984, another work by Richard Serra was installed on the plaza at La Défense. Slat comprises five steel sheets, balanced one on top of the other like a gigantic house of cards. Only four sheets are visible from 'outside' the sculpture: only by penetrating the space of artwork itself can we see the fifth sheet, separating it into two unequal halves. The viewer's gradual discovery of this work is inextricably linked to his or her movement around and within the sculpture: we are never in a position to apprehend the piece in its entirety.

Shortly after this, Serra was invited to create a number of other artworks in France: Philibert et Marguerite in the cloister of the Musée de Brou at Bourg-en-Bresse (1985), Octagon for Saint Eloi (1991) in the village of Chagny in Burgundy, and Threats of Hell at the CAPC (Musée d'Art Contemporain) in Bordeaux. Later, he went on the receive a number of private commissions from patrons based in France.

Recently, however, Serra has been absent from the French scene. Now he is returning to Paris to present a new work conceived specifically for one of Paris's most prestigious sites: the Grand Palais. The new sculpture will not be seen out of doors, but will engage with this eminently Parisian work of architecture: an immense, light-filled space, a formidable challenge for a truly exceptional artist.

Slodeshow of Serra's more recognized works of the past 40 years:,en/