SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | JUNE8 – SEPTEMBER 12, 2018
The two hundred or so objects assembled in this superb show—sculptures, paintings, and drawings, many of which have never been shown before—enable us finally to set aside the monstrous obfuscation of Giacometti’s oeuvre by philosophers and critics (Jean-Paul Sartre especially) who projected their ideology or self-image onto him and his work, and see him in the company of Egyptian, Greek, and African painting and sculpture, as well as the work of Brâncusi, de Chirico, and Cézanne.
Giacometti’s career was strongly shaped by the New York gallery and museum world. It was his 1948 show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, with a catalogue essay by Sartre, that put his work in the international spotlight. It is also true that there is no overt political message in his art, which must also have made it appealing in the politically hysterical United States of the fifties. There were museum shows at the Guggenheim in 1955 and at MoMA in 1965 and again, to coincide with the centennial of his birth, in 2001. New York consistently loved Giacometti even as interest in European art waned here during the 1960s.
This show not only confirms the rationale for that affection, but also provides a narrative that explains the process whereby he attains his true artistic identity, one we associate somewhat unfairly with his gaunt figures, but which both includes and transcends them.
Four small paintings (six by eight) executed between 1948 and 1953 may illustrate this. After 1948, Giacometti’s signature style was well known, but here we see him reconsidering the lessons of Cézanne. Four Apples on a Table (1949), with its flattening of perspective—the table barely stretches back into the pictorial depth—shows how Giacometti analyzed Cézanne’s technique, then made it his own. The execution is all Giacometti: he translates the past into his own painterly idiom. The four works take us by surprise, but make us understand that no matter how many sculptures he executed Giacometti never stopped being a painter and draughtsman.
As we ascend the Guggenheim’s spiral and begin in the nineteen twenties, we find Giacometti on the cusp of abstraction. The two versions of the massive Spoon Woman (1927), one plaster, the other bronze, recall Brancusi, as does Gazing Head, a plaster work from 1929. It would seem that Giacometti could easily have passed into a proto-minimalist idiom, but there are naturalistic pieces from the same decade that link him to a realistic portrait-bust tradition.
This same oscillation between or among styles continues in the thirties. On the one hand, Le Cube (1934, cast in 1959) is, like Spoon Woman, abstract, expressing mass and weight. But Giacometti's Surrealist work of the thirties, beginning with Suspended Ball (1930–31) which translates de Chirico’s “metaphysical painting” into three-dimensional sculpture, is often light-hearted and funny. The Disagreeable Object of 1931 is a nasty looking wooden phallus (complete with spikes), which includes a male figure as a handle. Woman with Her Throat Cut, a splayed floor sculpture in bronze from 1932, may indeed allude to sexual violence, but that violence may derive more from the title than the work itself, which vaguely suggests the remains of a lobster dinner.
It is during the postwar forties that the “classic” Giacometti emerges with the standing or striding figures that enabled the Existentialists, beginning with Sartre, to amass so much speculation on Giacometti between “being and nothingness.” It is also the case that with his hallmark figures Giacometti found his own style—the style he would relentlessly pursue for the rest of his career. His relationship with the Japanese Existentialist philosopher Isaku Yanaihara reveals his obsessive nature. Between 1956 and 1961, Yanaihara posed on two hundred and thirty different occasions for Giacometti, often five to eight hours at a time. The result is a series of works in which Yanaihara is transformed into one of Giacometti's characters. The “Yanaihara Crisis,” as this feverish period is termed, does not end in a likeness of the philosophy professor as he was, but as Giacometti conceived him. The same is true with Giacometti’s wonderful 1954–1955 portrait of the homosexual author-thief-outlaw Jean Genet. If you compare the portrait with a photograph, you may be able to tell that this is actually a representation of Genet, but again, it is not Genet as he was in fact but as he was in Giacometti's mind. The philosophers, from Sartre to Arthur Danto, may well be right: Giacometti transcends phenomena in order to grant us access to a platonic idea, an essence we can only glimpse thanks to this great artist.
The exhibition concludes with a video of Giacometti working on a portrait in his studio. After all the work we’ve seen, this is meant to ground us, to remind us that this artist—who is so easy to think of in metaphysical, existential terms—was a working class guy who didn’t concern himself with theories so much as he concerned himself with the banal difficulties of making things…in the same cramped studio for forty years!
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.