"The Best Art In The World"
The Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
June 8th – September 12th, 2018
By DAVID AMBROSE August, 2018
“Here is the list of sculptures that I promised you, but I could not make it without including, though very briefly, a certain chain of events, without which it would make no sense.”
From a letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse, 1947
First published in New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery
Exhibition of Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings
New York, January 19- February 14, 1948
Reproduced by Permission of Pierre Matisse
The slenderest of fingers manage to slip on the rings of the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York this summer completing a life’s chain of events. The fingers and the life attached to them belong to none other than Alberto Giacometti (b.1901 – d.1966), an artist born in Switzerland and given an Italian sounding surname who spent the majority of his career in a 15 by 16 foot monastic cell of a space in the Montparnasse section of Paris, France.And when considering Giacometti, the first word one should consider is fingers,since few artists have ever been more reliant on them for the act of seeing. One cannot imagine him without a stylus of one form or another (pencil, pen, brush or pocket knife to name a few) gripped in his hand; the stylus merely an extension of his probing eye, fingers or penis as he fumbles for some semblance of a connection to reality.
The exhibition is a product of collaboration between the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Fondation Giacometti in Paris.It has been organized by Megan Fontanella, Curator of Modern Art and Provenance at the Guggenheim Museum, and Catherine Grenier, Director of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris. It includes nearly 200 works-the bulk of which have been loaned from the Fondation Giacometti. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog with essays by Karole P.B. Vail and Valerie J. Fletcher along with one by Grenier.
While it is far from a perfect union, the Giacometti Retrospective is an incredibly handsome affair. It is a meticulously planned event where great care has been taken in the slightest detail of presentation from its immaculately spaced sculptural bases and vitrines to well balanced gallery bays bathed in light. The Giacometti Fondation loan helps to provide freshness to our general knowledge of Giacometti, but it also hinders the exhibition as the approach can work with editions of bronze sculpture and a spectacular selection of the artist’s lesser known plasters. It is through those plasters we truly get a chance to see Giacometti anew, as they represent both finish and foil. Giacometti crafted his plasters as standalone or as models for his bronzes or as stand-in models for his paintings. Unfortunately, when it comes to painting and especially drawing, the exhibition leaves the cupboard, apples and all, a little bare.
One senses the curators may have felt the same way; as many of the drawings are exhibited in ramp stations that hover back in the shadows. I found myself wishing for a more immersive experience with the works on paper in a separate gallery stacked floor to the ceiling, since with Giacometti, art begins, and ends with a line. The line commences the journey to define form and space or finishes off the search by locking a captured plaster head in place. Giacometti’s drawings are the graphic equivalent of lightning strikes put to paper. And when paper was not immediately available he drew directly on the walls of his studio where scattered marks clung like lichen. He is an artist who never met a surface he didn’t want to draw on or across no matter how or pristine or distressed.
An early example of his addiction to line can be found on the cast bronze, Cube (1934), a polyhedron “head” carved out of the Albrecht Durer print, Melencolia I (ca. 1514). The cube’s smoothly polished top plane is rather rudely interrupted by an incised, sgraffito self-portrait that emerges from a hazy pale green patina peering at us like one of the Marx Brothers through the door slot of a speakeasy.
Nor does one find that any drawing surface was beneath him as attested to by the ink drawing on an open napkin, Annette Naked Standing and Standing Women in Perspective in Eight Examples (1955) ,where an infinite colonnade of caryatids recede to a vanishing point located on the napkin’s centerfold. Below the fold, rows of cursive writing stack one on top of another like steps leading our thoughts back up to the colonnade, as a nude, frontal bust study of Annette both confronts us and evaporates before our eyes at the hip.
The retrospective begins its climb up the ramp in and just outside the High Gallery with a primer of painting, sculpture and drawing. Giacometti the painter is represented with Black Annette (1962), a grisaille portrait of the artist’s wife bound in place with a series of long, thin, arching brushstrikes (as opposed to brushstrokes) of black and white pigment like chain links. Annette’s head floats above a thin layer of turpentine wash and is tamped down in place by a daily collection of failure; the erosion of certainty. The result looks like a secular Veil of Veronica as Giacometti has graduated from napkin to handkerchief or sudarium; his wife taking her place as a “true icon” within his creative practice. If Giacometti serves us color it is in demitasse cups, not by the bucketful. His figures, whether in two dimensions or in the round, tend to rise like smoke from the end of a lit cigarette resting on an ashtray base. Yet there is majesty in Giacometti’s wide range of blacks, whites and grays, as marching up the ramp is the equivalent of walking under a grayscale rainbow. Giacometti’s ashen palette is like a pit of smoldering charcoals; poke at them with your eyes and eventually they reveal their hidden warmth in oranges and yellows or reds.
Inside the High Gallery, three larger than life-size bronze sculptures pivot like chess pieces across a semicircular base. The configuration is meant to represent the three sculptures Giacometti planned to use in his unrealized Chase Manhattan Plaza project begun in 1958. They also encapsulate Giacometti’s most prominent late sculptural motifs: the portrait head (Monumental Head, 1961), walking man (Walking Man I, 1960) and standing woman (Tall Woman IV, 1960-61). Unfortunately, the base also acts as barrier by not allowing us to experience these sculptures in the round. We can approach and greet them, but we cannot truly move past and depart them. In a vitrine to the left, thinking with line is presented in a series of sketchbooks and drawings that act as much as a treatise on optics and space as they do to the Chase Manhattan Plaza project.
The remainder of the exhibition uncoils mostly in chronological order with much of the color settling at the bottom of the ramp. Giacometti embarks on his career under the trained eye of his father Giovanni, a Post-Impressionist painter. In 1922, at his father’s urging, Giacometti moved from Switzerland to Paris and enrolled in the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere and began studying with the sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, for the next three years. Giacometti’s completion of studies at the Academie also coincides with the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris where Bourdelle was a major contributor both as a sculptor (La France) and graphic designer. However, as his mentor Bourdelle made sculpture in service of architecture, Giacometti would soon commence to making sculpture in search of space.
Much has been made of Giacometti’s early fascination with the Cubists (especially the works of Brancusi, Lipchitz and Laurens) and his association with the Surrealists (1930-35) coupled with the influence of non-Western art (Cycladic, Greek, Egyptian, Oceanic and African) that he had begun to encounter and copy in the museums of Paris. To my eye, a quieter influence may be the distant echo of Art Deco and its equally international reach. By moving to Paris in the 1920’s, Giacometti was surrounded by the influence of Art Deco daily - he couldn’t escape it. A group of early, low relief plaster heads and steles seems to both attest to and memorialize this influence. In the plaster Head of a Woman (Flora Mayo) from 1926, the flat, aerodynamic portrait head is scrapped back and incised with features and given hints of local color. The surface along with its ragged edges gives it the appearance of a fresco that has been carved out of a wall.The color submerges into the plaster, tinting the features like a hand-colored engraving rather than mimicking life. While in Crouching Figure (ca. 1926), slabs of plaster are pitted, scratched and coated with a brown wash creating the effect of earthen terracotta in stark contrast to its sleek, streamlined forms. A pair of Spoon Women, one cast in bronze (Spoon Woman, 1926-27) and one in plaster (Spoon Woman, 1927) dangle their concave oval bodies like Art Deco earrings separated from some enormous head as the ovals act as both a receptacle for life and a receptacle for thought. It is the receptacle for thought -the human head – that will captivate the artist throughout his lifetime.
A wonderful dichotomy begins to emerge in Giacometti’s work where dreams and the unconscious (The Surrealist Years) are assured and concrete. In the years to follow, up to the end of his life, the search to render physical reality is constantly shifting and changing before our eyes. The Surrealist sculptures dating from 1930-35 clearly define their forms and sources; yet at the same time denying them their specific meaning. The making of these sculptures shifts from his fingertips to his palms as line is now the result of the smoothed edge of a shape or the meeting of two planes by pinching and cupping. In Man (Apollo) (1929), symmetry rises with the sun god, the whole having the feel of a different kind of chariot; the radiator grill of an automobile. Apollo’s head doubles as a ladle and sundial, as the central, vertical body shaft intersects the cup. In Reclining Woman Who Dreams (1929), the ladle now leans against a post while two waves flutter like the sheets off a bed. Her body shaft surrenders its purpose as it no longer intersects the sphere; functionality is given over to the more feminine form.
A group of Giacometti’s Surrealist “plaques” seem to announce a renewed interest in painting with their rectilinear, four-sided shapes propped on small bases like easel shelves. The plaques are made in burnished, low relief as if Giacometti has used his pocket knife to score, peel, carve and core. An eye socket or belly is made by applying pressure to the blade and rotating the knife like a clock hand. In Suspended Ball (1930-31), a transparent container of sexual desire and denial has been assembled from a series of rectangular iron bars like a shark cage. A plaster ball is hung by a string that straddles a crescent shaped wedge but their union is never consummated. The whole looking a little like the Apple logo rendered in three-dimensions from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
In The Mountain (1930), a painting made on one of Giacometti’s frequent return trips to Switzerland, the body shifts out of doors as a flesh colored mountain is warmed by a salmon sky cut with a series of hatch marks in a nod to the figure and modeled flesh. A nose form is defined by a triangular patch of snow running down its central vertical axis. The chiseled mountain surface acts as homage to the planes of Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and the human face.
After a decade of working almost extensively from his imagination in 1936, Giacometti begins to work again from life and specifically the figure. His voice is at first more a whisper than a scream, attested to by a vitrine of marvelous, shrunken heads with the likenesses of his brother Diego, his mother’s cook, Rita, and artist Isabel Rawsthorne. These portrait heads like Janus appear to look simultaneously forward and back, as an incised line parts the hair of each model like a comb. The coif of the group evokes the slice in Suspended Ball. In Head of Isabel (The Egyptian) from 1936, the delicacy and scale coupled with a smoothness of touch calls to mind the plumage of a pigeon as Giacometti caresses it like a small bird in his hands.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Giacometti was denied return to his Paris studio and forced to move his practice to a hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland. The effect was one of concentration through distillation. Giacometti begins to whittle his figures down to the size of matchsticks managing to still somehow maintain the presence of likeness. In the tinted plaster, Silvio Standing, Hands in Pockets (1943), a petulant, earthbound child with an angular jaw line and an eruption of hair attempts to slip the bonds of childhood. He sports a deep phallic notch and air bubble holes in his slacks, but for all the implied effort of his wrinkled clothing, his feet and shoes remain submerged below the surface.
With his return to Paris following the war in 1945, Giacometti begins to work on larger scale figures. His passageway to these figures remains drawing. Many of Giacometti’s sculptures carry the weight of the scarred incisions of a collective consciousness and a shared commonality; as if he were transferring them from culture to culture through his study of the ancient or the distant. After the war, the lines begin to grow fainter with the acceptance of man’s true nature. The tool of bonding becomes the burden of eyesight; bound and chained to a new shared history forged in distrust, discord and inhumanity. Giacometti’s vision adapts like an inverted form of macular degeneration; a partial blindness. His postwar work is not about what he perceives but how the eye navigates back and forth to perceive it. He allows space the ability to both be filled and devoured. In Man Pointing (1947), a lone tall figure cups that space with his left hand while directing with his right index finger. His right foot hugs the edge of his base while his left inches its toes over the edge creating tension. The cupping for friendship is now the grasping of air - Giacometti had removed and destroyed a second figure made for this composition- the lone, remaining sentinel looking like the Christ of the Last Judgment, but one faced with an invisible flock. It is here that Giacometti best symbolizes the embodiment of anxiety in postwar society.
In the totemic Head on a Rod (1947), a head is impaled on a spike with its mouth agape. It calls to mind A. M. Cassandre’s poster design for the newspaper L’Intransigeant from 1925. In the Giacometti, the head no longer announces the news but is instead a petrified scream encased in the solidified magma and ash of postwar Europe. In The Nose (1949), an unsteady peace is achieved through a life in balance with sexual desire. A pistol-shaped head with a long, erect, phallic nose is suspended by a rope extends beyond the boundary of the cage invading our space and penetrating our psyche.
In 1947, after a hiatus, Giacometti returns to painting. While his efforts remain principally the figure and the pursuit of a likeness, he also painted still lifes and the occasional landscape. A delicate group of small apple paintings from the late forties and early fifties, each with four apples hovering on tabletops, are as energized as any head - hurtling like particles around a supercollider. In Landscape with Houses in Stampa (1959), the crackle of energy moves out of doors up utility poles and trees that are bundled like twigs before a pastel colored background that shimmers like the Northern Lights.
Much like his desire to draw on any surface, Giacometti’s sitters could come from any walk of life - knights, philosophers, prostitutes and playwrights. Giacometti considered their contribution as vital as his own. A pair of bays is dedicated to two of them; the philosopher, Isaku Yanaihara and a prostitute turned Giacometti's mistress, Caroline, proves to be two of the highlights of the exhibition. The concentrated groupings marry his obsessive nature with his desperate attempts to capture likeness of a head. In the Yanaihara bay, Giacometti darts around his sitter like a hummingbird before a flowering tree or bush. He paints the philosopher from multiple distances and angles, even in profile. The culmination of this forest of figures is a clay-colored plaster tree stump Bust of Yanaihara I, 1960) with a cross carved into the bark of his forehead and eyes and a mouth that protrude like knots. In the bay dedicated to Caroline, Giacometti paints her portraits at a more guarded distance. In Caroline (1965), the model’s head is framed by a warm gray halo of paint; the shape calling to mind one of Giacometti’s Spoon Woman. The paint seems to cluster or coalesce with merely a hint of space depicted by the thin black lines on bare canvas. The lines are more marks for measuring than studio walls or furniture.
If this Giacometti Retrospective were to have a mascot, it might appear in the form of Dog (1951), his emaciated cast bronze hound that has escaped its cage and slipped free of its chains to lope up the ramp to the very top of the museum. The dog’s nose hovers just above the ground, as if on the scent of humanity while appearing to shoulder the heaviest of earthly burdens. The rings of the Guggenheim rotunda acting as the sound waves of an electronic fence; a fence that was put in place by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to keep people like the dog’s maker within the categorical boundaries of art forms. Giacometti, much like his stray dog, challenged these boundaries to artistic tradition and in the process forged his retrospective in spite of a certain chain of events that included surviving two World Wars and a mountain range worth of self-doubt. His work acts as a reminder that this history is one we would be best not to repeat. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.
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