Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

Richard Serra’s Paris Moment

Richard Serra’s Paris Moment 

May 7, 2008

Serra’s Monumental Vision, Vertical Edition

PARIS — France is making a fuss this week over Richard Serra, the 68-year-old American bantamweight who fashions elegant, gargantuan art out of steel.

On Wednesday Mr. Serra opens the annual solo show called Monumenta in the echoing Grand Palais; the city of Paris has restored one of his earlier works to its proper place in the garden of the Tuileries; and he has been made a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Academy — a two-rank leap from his previous knighthood, the starter kind usually given to singers like Kylie Minogue, who recently received hers.

France has always welcomed Mr. Serra, even before he became iconic, in the days when some of his work in America was dismantled for scrap. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla, are expected to attend the opening of “Monumenta,” prompting Mr. Serra to ask, “What U.S. president would do that?”

But the sheer scale of Mr. Serra’s work has always created difficulties, to which Paris has found two creative solutions — for now, at least.

Monumenta started last year under the French Culture Ministry as a way of filling the enormous Grand Palais, built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, after a long and expensive restoration.

A cruciform crystal palace of filigreed iron and glass, the Grand Palais rises 197 feet at the nave and covers 775,000 square feet, and filling it is a monumental task. The German sculptor Anselm Kiefer did it last year with seven stand-alone houses, or galleries, each about 50 feet high, and concrete towers.

Mr. Serra began struggling with the problem two years ago. “First, you have to figure out scale,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the space and wasn’t exactly sure what to do. But I realized you have to deal with the entirety of the space — to think otherwise was to kid myself.”

He couldn’t just deal with the floor plan, he said. “I had to go vertical here.”

His answer is a sculpture called “Promenade,” five enormous slabs of Cor-Ten steel set along the central axis of the floor. The steel slabs are each 56 feet high, 13 feet wide and 5 ½ inches thick, and each weighs some 73 tons. Yet they are precisely placed and angled, leaning 20 inches in or away from their axis, creating shifting lines of sight. As the sun moves over the course of the day, casting different latticed shadows from the building, the plates appear at times to bend toward or away from the viewer. At night, with the ceiling dark, the sculpture becomes “more somber, more of a sanctuary,” Mr. Serra said.

Formalism seems to require words, and Mr. Serra complies. “You have to set up a formal structure; it makes sculpture interesting,” he said, wandering among the slabs in the otherwise empty hall. “If we hang new material on old forms, it’s boring.”

His generation, he said, “wanted to open the entire field — to see something in time and place,” and take sculpture off its pedestal, which “makes it seem like furniture or commodities,” he said.

“People don’t perceive the art but the surplus value of art — art as photographs, as J-PEGs. People talk of art and ask: ‘How much does it cost? What’s its pedigree?’ But people don’t go to see the work in place.”

He wants people to experience the art in a particular time and setting: “It’s about apprehension, how you apprehend the space and the piece,” he said. “It’s part of the experience of walking around the space in which the art appears — you implicate yourself in the space, and the experience is in you, not in the frame or on the wall.”

It’s a democratic thought in an elitist field. But it can be troubling too, as his experience with “Clara-Clara” demonstrates.

Mr. Serra met his wife, Clara Weyergraf-Serra, in 1977. In 1983 he created “Clara-Clara,” a sculpture commissioned for the pit, or forum, of the Pompidou Center as part of a Serra retrospective show. Two large, inclined steel C’s, each roughly 12 feet high by 108 feet long and weighing 105 tons, curve away from each other at the ends and nearly meet in the middle, but allow a viewer to walk through.

But the weight was considered too much for the site, and Dominique Bozo, then the Pompidou Center’s director, suggested placing the sculpture at one end of the Tuileries garden, so it would frame the Louvre Museum at one end and the large obelisk from the Temple of Luxor in the Place de la Concorde at the other.

As Michael Brenson wrote in The New York Times in 1985, “The sculpture seems both to open like magical doors and to squeeze inward like a trap, both to expose itself like a flower hungry for the sun and to curl up like a sunflower at dusk.”

The city of Paris bought the sculpture and later found a place for it in the park of Choisy, in the 13th arrondissement. But the piece was badly scratched, covered with graffiti and used by the homeless for a shelter, and in 1993 the city took it down and put it in storage. Since then Mr. Serra and his wife have rejected various other suggestions for a permanent installation.

Now, under the auspices of the Louvre, “Clara-Clara” is back in the Tuileries, at least until November. But much to Mr. Serra’s chagrin, those who visit it, on dusty ground, have decided in a kind of collective fancy to put their footprints on the steel.

The soles of sneakers and athletic shoes may have their own formal design, but the prints look tacky on the orangey patina of the steel. As much as one may admire the dexterity of those who have put their footprints high up on the sculpture, Mr. Serra is not pleased at the way these particular viewers have chosen to “implicate” themselves and “apprehend the space and the piece.”

He hopes the city will at least put up a sign. “It bothers me a lot the way they put their feet on it,” he said. “But I haven’t gone up to anyone to pull them away.”

His wife is more philosophical. “Well,” Ms. Weyergraf-Serra said, “I prefer that people not step on me!”

The Monumenta show runs through June 15 and will include a variety of evenings with critics, philosophers and filmmakers like Chantal Akerman. On June 7 Mr. Serra’s old friend Philip Glass will perform at a solo piano concert in the Grand Palais.

The two men met here in 1965, when Mr. Serra came to Paris on a Yale traveling fellowship. “We used to go to La Coupole and watch Giacometti come in, plaster dust in his hair, like two groupies,” Mr. Serra said. Later Mr. Serra and Mr. Glass returned to New York and worked together as truck drivers and furniture delivery men as they began to fashion their extraordinary careers in the fickle world of art.

Mr. Serra, who lives in TriBeCa, was there on Sept. 11, 2001, and in its aftermath. He was horrified by his own voyeurism, he said, as he and others watched people in the burning towers throw themselves to their deaths, hand in hand.

“People were silent, other people jumped, and people on the ground moaned in unison, like a Greek chorus,” he said.

It had a great impact on him, he said, talking of the random quickness of life, a new desire to be considerate. “You need to keep your wits about you, and you have to acknowledge everyone around you,” he said. “Before, maybe I didn’t. But we’re all here and here together. It made me a stronger person. But also I think a little more open and generous one.”

Mr. Serra, who owns “Promenade,” invested close to $1 million for its development and construction. But he says he has no idea what will happen to it after Monumenta — or what Paris will decide to do with “Clara-Clara.”

“You have to let it go,” he said. “You have to move on. Otherwise it’s a dog with a bone. Like this piece, ‘Promenade.’ There’s no guarantee of perpetuity. Who can know?”

Richard Serra’s Paris Moment

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 1 comment