Museum of Modern Art/Kunsthaus Zürich/Abrams, 296 pp., $65.00
The chief reason for the Museum of Modern Art’s Alberto Giacometti retrospective seems to be that 2001 is the centenary of the artist’s birth. This is a blandly official cause for a show, and since the sculptor’s characteristic stick- figure pieces—the men striding forth; the women stock still, their long arms stuck tight against their hips—have been a fixture of modern art since the Tate Gallery and the Modern put together their large shows in the middle Sixties, you might find yourself reluctant to go look. It surely doesn’t help that the present show, undertaken with the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in that city, presents no radically new material or point of view on the artist.
Yet the Giacometti we encounter in the Modern’s straightforwardly installed exhibition is, as might be expected, not exactly the textbook classic. It comes as a surprise, to start with, that far from all of his work has worn well. Then, too, we are confronted with a large issue that has never been satisfactorily resolved: the fact that the artist had two separate careers, that of a Surrealist object-maker, in the early Thirties, and that of the postwar creator of the wiry figures—careers that both don’t and do mesh. Most significant, though, is that what is lovable about Giacometti’s work has a different note than standard accounts (including the writing in the handsomely designed catalog for the current show) lead us to expect. An atmosphere of stoic striving, or, perhaps, a sense that we look at figures withered by sheer ambient space, may come to mind at the mere mention of the artist’s name. Ingeniousness, on the other hand, and a feeling for character, and a sly and cheeky sense of comedy aren’t qualities we associate with him, or that commentators tell us his sculpture is about—but they may be what we most take away from this show.
Getting a true sense of Giacometti’s work means disentangling it from the man’s life story, one of the more fablelike in twentieth-century art. It’s a tale, in part, of a backwoods prince who comes to the metropolis and, by dint of tremendous labor and his innate aristocratic behavior, takes the crown. He was from Stampa, in an unusually remote and rural part of Italian-speaking Switzerland; yet he had been trained to think seriously about art since his childhood. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, a distant cousin, Augusto Giacometti, and his godfather, Cuno Amiet, were among the foremost Swiss modernists of their day, and Ferdinand Hodler, their country’s best-known painter of the time, was a family friend. When Alberto arrived in Paris, in 1922, at twenty, he swiftly made his mark by showing how deeply he understood the modernist art of the generation that preceded his. Seamlessly, he went on to join the advanced art of his own generation, which was Surrealism.
Surrealism was part of an atmosphere where “the new” no longer constituted discoveries about color or form, which had animated Matisse, Picasso, and their contemporaries, but, rather, one’s inner life—one’s dreams, tics, sexual drives. Over a period of a few years, Giacometti added his voice to that of Miró, Dalí, and other artists, and many writers, who, with various degrees of subservience, took the autocratic André Breton as their leader and guide. Giacometti presented to his Parisian audiences a series of sculptures that, novel in appearance, portrayed or embodied the themes of sexual warfare, dream states, and sheer nervous tension. The art of sculpture was being completely recharged. But then, with little notice, the artist, barely thirty-five, pulled out from the Surrealist fold to go, as it were, back to basics.
For over a decade, Giacometti removed himself from the art scene, conducting a kind of private self-tutorial in pre-modern skills. His aim was to make representational sculpture—and painting—based on how he actually saw the model before him, and the goal, which he had made stabs at even in his days as an up-and-coming second-generation modernist, was grindingly hard to achieve. Not able to produce any saleable pieces, and not showing any of his old ones, he was supported by family money and by the decorative items he and his brother Diego, essentially Alberto’s lifelong right-hand man, made for the decorator Jean-Michel Frank. Giacometti had been a rising star of the avant-garde and an artist who undemonstratively radiated authority—Picasso himself sought out the younger man for advice; but now he was, in effect, struggling to reinvent the wheel.
When he emerged some thirteen years later, in a show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, in New York, in 1948, Giacometti brought with him the beginnings of a saintly aura. He had always been voluble about his trials. Throughout his career he turned out fairly polished pieces of writing about his work, his phobias and visions, and certain older artists; and he eventually counted among his friends, some of whom wrote about his effort, Sartre, Beckett, Beauvoir (whose sculptural portrait he made), and Genet (the subject of one of his best paintings). Maybe more significantly, photographers were also drawn to Giacometti. Cartier-Bresson, Herbert Matter, and Ernst Scheidegger were among those who took arresting photos of the man—images that, like those of Pollock, became increasingly hard to separate from our experience of the work.
Very often wearing a tie and a tweed jacket, even while working in his studio, and possessing an abundant amount of frizzy hair which was a piece of sculpture in itself, the strikingly handsome Giacometti was at once rumpled, professorial, and sleepily sensuous, rather like Jean-Paul Belmondo playing an Oxford don. It may have been Scheidegger who best captured the artist’s plaster-bestrewn studio, with every wall pitted and drawn on. The romantically rude and seemingly small space (in turn, part of a larger dwelling) was where Giacometti lived for nearly all the years he was in Paris. It was completed by his wife and frequent model, Annette Arm, who might be seen sweeping up, and by the invaluable Diego. Their studio world was a bit like a cell, and making his new art, the artist implied, had turned him into a bit of a prisoner.
And for some time Giacometti’s pipe-cleaner men and women, with their uniformly prodded, weathered, twittering surfaces, seemed inseparable from the pervasive anxiety about existence that informed the new European writing of the time. Certainly it felt natural to take in these figures, too thin even to be called emaciated, as the very embodiment of a depleted yet somehow resilient mankind. Maybe only Bacon’s contemporaneous paintings were equally powerful representations of the half-century that had experienced totalitarianism, two world wars, concentration camps, and the bomb. The sculptor’s sunken-cheeked, tortured-looking Head on a Rod or the stark Man Falling surely stood for the climate that Faulkner was referring to when he famously asserted in his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that mankind would “prevail,” not merely “endure.”
Yet Giacometti’s original point, of course, had to do with his quest to pin down the reality before his eyes. The artist was only loosely a political person, and the plight or courage of his fellow man wasn’t really on his program; and he made clear in interviews (if less so in his writings, which could veer into a not-of-this-earth dreaminess) that the point of his work was the struggle to catch accurately, whether in his sculpture, painting, or drawing—all three were of equal concern to him—how we truly see. His proper subject was phenomenology. His position, endorsed by many of those who wrote about him over the years, including Reinhold Hohl, David Sylvester, and Peter Selz, was that what we are given in most representational sculpture, whether by Rodin or the Greeks, is a kind of convention and that what Giacometti was doing, with his incredibly thin figures, was recording, as if for the first time, the way people actually appear at a given distance.
Researcher of representation as he was, though, Giacometti was no detached, equable observer. To begin with, he had not set out to make figures so scrawny or elongated—they wound up this way, he confessed (with some distress), because otherwise they didn’t look “right” to his eye. And as he was also at pains to make clear, accurately capturing the face or figure before him was well-nigh impossible. His every sculpture, painting, or drawing was, as he told it, virtually an abandoned work. To take him at his word, his art was the embodiment of helplessness and futility. So in some way the artist who maintained that his subjects were perception and rendering—and, really, the impossibility of rendering—wasn’t so different from the artist who was popularly thought to mirror a stricken, alienated mankind. This is why the idea of an “existential” Giacometti has never lost its currency.
Yet without discounting the Giacometti who saw his work as so much doomed striving, we can say that the artist who carries us along for much of the Modern’s retrospective is the opposite of a frustrated creator. Certainly, the Giacometti we see in his early works, whether they recall primitive art or touch on Cubism, or are full-fledged Surrealist sculptures, is a witty, dextrous, problem-solving sculptural genius. He couldn’t be less like the Giacometti of legend, the poet of difficulty. The young Giacometti neatly resolved one issue after the next, and perhaps the real pleasure to be derived from his “first” career is in getting a tour de force demonstration of what the art of sculpture is capable of.
Here, in so many compact pieces in wood, plaster, and marble, dating from roughly 1926 to 1934, are works that encapsulate much that twentieth-century sculpture could, or would later, do. We pass by a wittily abbreviated stone carving of the face of the artist’s father; a charming takeoff of primitive art called Small Crouching Man; pieces that resemble game boards and nonchalantly dispense with the age-old sculptural need for pedestals; little cage-like constructions with swinging parts that suggest the factor of time (what has just taken place? what will happen next?); pieces such as Man and Woman, which show, as seemingly no sculpture did before, the violence and tension inherent in sexual contact; and works that, with their alluring titles—Disagreeable Object; No More Play; Reclining Woman Who Dreams—draw us into deciphering the pieces in ways that prefigure how we now try making sense of, say, installations by Bruce Nauman.
Works of the early Thirties such as The Palace at 4 AM demonstrated that a major sculpture could take the form of a model for a stage set. Woman with Her Throat Cut, a piece made up of a number of connected parts and best comprehended when placed directly on the floor, where it looks like a large, mangled yet still potent scorpion, miraculously never loses its capacity to be lurid, creepy, and fun all at once. With all these inventions, so to speak, Giacometti opened up a new way to think about the art object, one that was significantly different from Brancusi, whose pieces were about a physical and formal perfection, and from Duchamp, the point of whose Readymades was that art need be no more than an ironic intention.