The Richard Serra Sculpture That Was Just Too Much for Paris

When Richard Serra’s monumental installation “Clara-Clara” was unveiled to the public in 1983 in the Tuileries Garden in Paris, locals revolted as they are wont to do. Petitions circulated for its removal. “Ugh, what is this horror, a new construction site!” a visitor said at the time. Others contended it “disfigured” one of the most famous historical sites in the city.

Serra, who passed away in March at the age of 85, was no stranger to controversy. Another one of his works, “Tilted Arc” (1981) on view in New York City’s Federal Plaza, was also subject to vehement protest. In the end, both were removed. “Tilted Arc” was dismantled by the United States government’s General Services Agency, which had commissioned it in the first place, and put into storage in a suburb of Washington, DC. Only six months after its installation at the Tuileries, “Clara-Clara” embarked on an Odyssean journey that ended unceremoniously in the backlot of a water plant in Ivry-sur-Seine, an industrial town southeast of Paris. Very few people, Parisians included, are aware of its afterlife compacted in the corner of the lot, but I have seen it with my own eyes.

Before we get to that, however, a little primer on “Clara-Clara. It was originally commissioned as part of a 1983 retrospective show on Richard Serra at the Centre Pompidou, but it was deemed too heavy for the floors of the modern art museum. In total, the identical curved corten steel sheets weighed 210 tons.

Instead, it was installed in the public Tuileries Garden between the Jeu de Paume museum and the Musée de l’Orangerie. The two 10-foot-high panels were placed with the vertex of their parabolic curves nearly conjoined, save for a six-foot opening between them. Peering through this gap were the Egyptian Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in one direction and the Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel and the Louvre in the distance. (I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front of the Louvre was not completed until six years later).

The Luxor Obelisk peeking through the gap in Richard Serra’s “Clara-Clara” at Paris’s Tuileries Garden in June 2008 (photo by Tybo via Flickr)

As an outdoor installation, “Clara-Clara” took on a powerful configuration. It became a new modern gateway in a line punctuated by the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc du Carrousel, years before the construction of the Grand Arch at La Defense. Serra’s sculpture both complemented the historical axis laid out by Napoleon and subverted the classical garden design of the Tuileries by André Le Nôtre. But this proved to be its undoing. The destabilization of Paris’s famous landmarks, as evidenced by the visceral reaction to “Clara-Clara,” was too much for the French.

Geneviève Breerette, an art critic at Le Monde, put out a warning despite fundamentally liking the sculpture. “Clara-Clara,” she wrote, “is an invitation to take a walk, which makes you see the world differently.”  But then she added, “Maybe that’s what’s worrying … above the rusty gray line, the pinnacle of the Grand Palais becomes weirdly sharp, the obelisk suddenly unstable. The blue and calm sky, bluer and calmer, the ‘Seine and the Marne’ by Coustou, a pile of white bodies unusually softened, like a Dalí, the urban furniture, including the basin, weak. ‘Clara-Clara’ sometimes doesn’t forgive.” This last sentence became the featured quote of the article.

In 1985, the City of Paris acquired “Clara-Clara” and relocated it to a small park in the thirteenth arrondissement. Inside Parc de Choisy, the sculpture sat squashed inside a rectangular patch of grass. It was surrounded by rows of manicured trees and bookended by a reddish Art Moderne building, originally constructed in the 1930s as a dental school by the American inventor George Eastman. It was as far away as possible from the grand avenues of the Right Bank and its esteemed institutions, in a neighborhood starved for art.

There, the sculpture took on a function utterly unintended by Serra. Street artists tagged it with graffiti. Its walls were turned into a functional surface for sports, becoming scratched up and nicked over the years. It was also a convenient shelter for unhoused people. Locals, once again, were disgruntled by its aesthetics. In 1990, it was removed from the park and put back into storage.

But “Clara-Clara” was predestined for resurrection. Serra called out then-Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë for inaction. “Henri Loyrette (then president of the Louvre) agrees to reinstall it at the Tuileries,” Serra said, “I wrote to the mayor of Paris a year ago, but he never replied to me.” In 2008, “Clara-Clara” was restored and reinstalled in its original location for the second annual Monumenta exhibition with the financial support of the Broad Art Foundation and Gagosian Gallery. Another one of Serra’s works, “Promenade,” rose from inside the Grand Palais and the artist was bestowed France’s highest national order of merit, the Legion d’Honneur.

Perhaps after spending years in limbo, “Clara-Clara” left something to be desired to Serra himself. The grounds of the Tuileries are covered in stabilisé, a mixture of sand, gravel, and whitewash that was invented by the garden’s designer, and visitors imprinted their dusty shoeprints and handprints on the sculpture. Serra told the New York Times, “It bothers me a lot the way they put their feet on it, but I haven’t gone up to anyone to pull them away.” His wife, for whom the sculpture is named, expressed the same sentiment with a sense of humor: “Well, I prefer that people not step on me!”

In the summer of 2008, the magazine Connaissance des Arts provided two opposing positions on the sculpture in an article entitled “Should Clara-Clara remain in the Tuileries for good?” Serge Lemoine, the former president of the Musée D’Orsay and a professor of art history at Sorbonne University, argued that it should stay permanently, calling it “a masterful work and perfectly integrated into the site.” The public, however, remained largely unconvinced. Arguing the opposite, one reader, David Jean, wrote forcefully that the artwork distorted the historical axis, “traps the field of vision,” and that “leaving it permanently is a mistake for Parisian heritage, an aesthetic heresy which contradicts the legacy of time and history.” He concluded that modern installations were “too dangerous in the immediate vicinity of the masters of the past.” A writer for La Tribune de l’Art reported that “Clara-Clara” was “spoiling one of the most famous places in Paris” and an “infraction to the law on historical monuments.”

In spring 2009, the sculpture was once again dismantled and moved back into storage. A year later, in May of 2010, I discovered “Clara-Clara” in the yard of a former water treatment facility in Ivry-sur-Seine.

Ivry Sur Seine Building
The former water treatment facility run by FMAC in Ivry-sur-Seine, where “Clara-Clara” is stored, May 2010 (photo Michelle Young/Hyperallergic)

I was on a semester abroad as a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, where I am now a professor of architecture. Our urban studies cohort, as part of the Shape of Two Cities: New York/Paris program, was researching Ivry-sur-Seine and the nearby Vitry-sur-Seine. One of my classmates, David Vanderhoff, first came across the building, which had been repurposed by the city of Paris as an art storage and restoration facility run by the Fonds Municipaux d’Art Contemporain (FMAC), which manages the city’s collection of over 23,000 works of art, and the Atelier d’Ivry, which performs art restoration work and builds sets for new exhibitions. Located along the Seine about three and a half miles from the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, the building was surrounded by high walls and fences and monitored by CCTV.

My classmate spoke to the security guard and was given the address of a government office in Paris where we could find out more. About a month later, we simply walked into this office where a kind and helpful civil servant listened to the reasons why we wanted to visit and agreed to arrange a tour.

About a week later, we arrived at the facility at Ivry-sur-Seine. Eric Landauer, the director of the FMAC, gave us a fantastic tour of the premises. While we were on the second floor of the facility, he pointed outside. There, he mentioned, was the Richard Serra sculpture that was once installed in the Tuileries. It was a controversial installation, he said, as we looked down at six rusted metal sheets tucked into the corner of the yard.

Clara Clara in Background Ivry sur Seine
“Clara-Clara” tucked away in the background during my visit to Ivry-sur-Seine in May 2010 (photo Michelle Young/Hyperallergic)

In the 14 years since my visit, Ivry-sur-Seine has changed drastically. Large swaths of buildings next to and around the art facility have been demolished and the re-development of the industrial area, predicted when we were students, is now fully underway. The city and its suburbs are preparing for the biggest cultural event in decades: the 2024 Olympics. Yet, “Clara-Clara” remains at the water plant, rusting as the years go by. It sits exposed to the elements next to construction materials and a dumpster. Based on Google satellite imagery from 2024, it has not moved since I caught a glimpse of it as a graduate student.

“The City of Paris is very attached to the ‘Clara Clara’ sculpture by Richard Serra which is currently stored in one of the City’s reserves, which is actively working on its relocation,” press officer Augustin Hassoux told me when I reached out about the sculpture’s status. “This is a large-scale job due to the numerous technical considerations to take into account, in addition to its dimensions, for its successful reinstallation in public spaces.”

Google Earth Screenshot Clara Clara
A screenshot of Google Earth satellite imagery from 2024 view showing six sheets of metal comprising “Clara-Clara” behind the facility run by FMAC (screenshot Michelle Young/Hyperallergic)

In 2012, Serra told Le Monde on the occasion of a new show of his drawings at Gagosian gallery in Paris, “Coming to France, I would like them to find a shelter for Clara Clara, one of my works which has been abandoned. But I believe that this requires determination and an economic situation that is not in the air at the moment.”

Could this be the moment to bring “Clara-Clara” back from artistic purgatory? Time is a great healer of artistic and architectural indignities. In Paris, modern art interventions are now mundane. With Serra’s passing, “Clara-Clara” could have a fourth chapter in Paris, perhaps in time for the Olympics, but first and foremost as a posthumous tribute to an artist whom France belatedly learned to admire.

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