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Alberto Giacometti

Kunsthaus Zurich

May 18 to September 2, 2001

Museum of Modern Art, New York

October 11, 2001 to January 8, 2002

Man Ray photograph of Giacometti's "The Palace at 4 A.M."

Photograph by Man Ray of plaster version, which is lost, of "The Palace at 4 A.M.," by Alberto Giacometti, 1932.
Photograph appeared in Cahiers d'art, nos. 2-3, 1932. The wood, glass and string version was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

By Carter B. Horsley

When I was writing a college paper on "King Lear" in 1961, I decided to use a reproduction of one of Alberto Giacometti's tall, wiry sculptures of a man as its frontispiece with the caption "Poor Tom's A-Cold."

I was not terribly familiar or enamoured with Giacometti's work, but the solitary figure's mournfulness, or angst, struck me as appropriate for my interpretation of the tragedy.

"Walking Man II"

Photograph of unpainted "Walking Man II," by Giacometti, painted bronze, 73 3/8 inches high, 1960, Foundation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence

For many years thereafter, I would see many other such slender "stick" figures by Giacometti and tended to regard him as a one-note artist and because they were all "bumpy" and appeared rather unfinished I never put him in my pantheon of favorites. They did convey something of the fragility of life and also seemed to assert individuality, but they were not especially beautiful and seemed to have been produced in a slap-dash fashion. Subsequently, however, I saw some of his drawings and paintings and found them much more appealing for their squiggly depth and limited but rather cool palettes of pale blues and blacks and whites and browns.

A six-foot-high "Walking Man" sculpture by Giacometti sold at Sotheby's in London in February 2010 for $104.3 million including commissions, setting a new record for an art work sold at auction. It was bought over the telephone by an anonymous bidder. It had been cast by the artist as part of a commission for the large plaza at One Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan. The price just barely surpassed the previous auction record of $104.2 million set in 2004 for "Boy with a Pipe" by Picasso. (2/6/10)

"Landscape Maloja" by Giacometti

"Landscape, Maloja," by Giacometti, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 21 11/16 inches, 1953, private collection

This major retrospective, then, comes as a great surprise for it reveals that Giacometti had been a very important Surrealist sculptor in the early part of his long career and his sculptures from that period are outstanding. Indeed, they are very strong and while some have the simple beauty of Noguchi's work others are very assertive and dynamic, aggressive and "dangerous." It is curious that the artist's best work, his early abstract and Surrealist sculptures, are overshadowned in the public's mind by the popularity of his more formulaic, later, "mature" work that has long been associated with an Existentialist temperament.

This exhibition, the first full-scale museum retrospective on the artist in New York in almost three decades, celebrates the centennial of the artist's birth. He died in 1966. The 296-page catalogue is written by Christian Klemm, the curator of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation and deputy director of the Kunsthaus Zurich. The catalogue also includes essays by Tobia Bezzola, the curator of the Kunsthaus Zurich, and Carolyn Lancher, former curator, and Anne Unland, asociate curator, of MOMA's Department of Painting and Sculpture.

In their preface to the catalogue, the authors provided the following commentary:

"Today, one hundred years after his birth and a generation after his death, Alberto Giacometti is recognized as one of the small group of modern masters who dominated the making of art history during much of the twentieth century. Over the years, Giacometti's art has engendered much critical and popular commentary. The predominant interpretationstend to be those fostered by his early association with Surrealism and his postwar involvement with Existentialism. While these movements strongly affected Giacometti's work, their influence has sometimes been seen as more pervasive than was actually the case. The effect of this has been twofold on the one hand to diminish the expressive scope of the work, and, on the other, to lead commentators to excessive considerations of the artist's psychological makeup. It is our hope that this exhibition and catalogue will contribute to a more focused concentration on the art itself."

These works are much less consistent in style than his mature sculptures, but in some of them he used the motif of a cage, which he would return to later on and these are very effective, conjuring the difficulties and mysterious of life as well as the goods and evils of containment, if not confinement, and the theme of intense focusing.

While his distorted and elongated "stick" figures can be striking, they tend to be more interested in groupings and this show includes some examples that also are more animated than his better known sculptures.

His Surrealist sculptures are generally quite beautiful and some could be mistaken for Noguchi's in their simple abstractions and others for Lipschitz or Zadkine in their aggressive ensnarling of their spaces.

"Annette with Chariot"

"Annette with Chariot," by Giacometti, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 by 19 11/16 inches, 1950, private collection

Historically, the Giacometti Surrealist sculptures are more important than his mature work and aesthetically his paintings hold up much better than his mature sculptures and their sketchy nature and swirling delicate lines put to Cy Twombly to shame and are very strong works, particularly the streetscapes. All of the paintings, and many of the drawings for them, have a marvelous sense of depth and energy.

In 1925, at the age of 24, Giacometti began to realize he was dissatisfied with figurative sculpture and began studying Cubism.

"By the mid-1920s," Mr. Klemm wrote in the catalogue, "the new forms had largely been reduced to an empty vocabulary that lent itself to purposes of decoration in the style called Art Deco. With his characteristic concentration and persistence, Giacometti applied the new style to the main themes of the classical tradition. In 1925, he made his debut in the Salon d'Autoumne with Torso, which echoes Brancusi's torso of a youth without, however, attempting to emulate its predecessor's almost overly elegant, in comic simplicity. The three elements of Torso's form are recognizable as human body and legs, but that are altered in the direction of geometric clarity. Its taut forms and up-striving conterpposto radiate an organic vitality that derives from years of life drawing. The preparatory drawings for Torso point to Fernand Léger as a further source of inspiration; his work may also have informed the solid Cubist Composition Two Heads, in which a misshapen cube and a half-cylinder are set against each other on a number of levels. Here central concerns of Giacometti's sculpture, such as the act of seeing and the presence of voids, emerge for the first time. Just as Giacometti was addressing the polarity of geometric forms and organic vitality, he was also deliberating on another problem: how to isolate and clarify individual elements so that each could become a succinct sign, while at the same time making each dynamically indispensable to the configuration as a whole. In a succession of different ways these seemingly irresolvable issues would define his entire oeuvre. The contradictions intrinsic to Giacometti's work mean that emotional impulses do not flow freely outward nor do they work together as a unit. Rather, they remain as thought caught within the sculptures - giving them a tormented quality and imbuing them with the unattainable quality of magic....In Composition (Reclining) Couple Giacometti made a breakthrough by dissolving the solid, plastic form and allowing space to penetrate it. While it still has an almost mechanical, superficial feel, it is the first work to realize an integrated dynamic. The form of the piece may well be indebted to Raymond Duchamp-Villon's great sculpture The Horse of 1914, while the influence of Lipschitz is especially evident in other of its aspects."

Like many artists of his generation, Giacometti was fascinated with Tribal and Oceanic sculpture and many of his early pieces reflect his "search both for hieratic design forms free of individual whimsy and for a language of signs for elemental human situations," Mr. Klemm argued. "Giacometti's striving for a symbolic representation of reality is evident in the early sculpture The Couple, where, isolated and raised up on individual pedestals, two figures appear as symbols of their gender. The women's open form is indicated by the frame, while the overall shape of the man recalls the Self-Portrait of 1925. The details, applied or incised signs, may be read as elements of the face or of the whole body, and thus, like the chiasmic transposition of the sexual features of one into the eyes of the other, indicate other dimensions of the figures' sexuality. This pair of figures - utterly static yet with that latent dynamism in their challenging and complementary plasticity - introduced the dialogue of the sexes that Giacometti depicts on many of his subsequent sculptures.

"Gazing Head"

"Gazing Head," by Giacometti, 15 3/8 by 14 9/16 by 2 3/16 inches, 1928, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich

According to Mr. Kleem, Giacometti worked in realistic idioms as well as with Cubist and ethnological forms and "it was this interchange of ideas that led to Giacometti's first truly original work, the Gazing Head." Three small sculpted heads of the artist's father made in 1927 well illustrate his experimentation and are all quite wonderful, as is a painting of his father's head he did in 1932.

"With Gazing Head, Giacometti succeeded in making an elusive nocorporeal sculpture, as plain and obvious as it is bewildering: this work is the completely innovative starting point for future developments. The flattened face of the head of his fatherand the foreshortened head of his motherare here carried to an extreme, resulting in a sequence of flat figures with applied or incised signs for facial features and bodily parts. Decades later Giacometti descried how, having failed to achieve what he wanted by working from life, he had started to work from memory, and said it was not until he made Gazing Head that he felt he had achieved a proper likeness. His recollection was, in fact, a form of forgetting, where the subject is reduced to the ultimate core of its being, to the horizontals and verticals that seemed to the artist to define all bodily forms. What is left is the overall form with organic overtones in the highly convex tension of the outline, the line of the neck from The Artist's Mother and the two large indentations. These cavities relieve the sculpture of a sense of solidity, allowing it to vibrate like a membrane in space. The three-dimensional elements applied to the back, which were still in evidence on the small model, have since disappeared. Gazing Head is no longer an idol, but a vision, a thing, and yet not a thing. Here, he sculpted the ungraspable, a self-contradictory undertaking which was to become obsessive in the postwar years. Furthermore, the theme of this sculpture - the act of seeing - also points to his future work. The fascination that surrounds the phenomenon of the gaze emanates from the work's flat surface; at the same time the viewer is struck by the penetrating gaze of the deep-set eye, and is confronted with the presence that issues from this vision....With these ambiguities Gazing Head marked the threshold where an admittedly highly abstract, yet ultimately statuary, art blends with a realm of autonomous objects, whose richly associates constructs are models of psychic states.."

Photograph of plaster version of "Man (Apollo)"

Photograph of plaster version of "Man (Apollo)," by Giacometti, the 15 3/4-inch-high bronze version of which is in the collection of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Gift of Robert H. Hirschhorn, 1966

In such works as "Reclining Woman Who Dreams, Man (Apollo)" and "Three Figures Outdoors, all executed in 1929, Giacometti began to "perforate" many of his sculptures, to open them up and to shift to a horizontal motifs. These lattice-like works also display, Mr. Kleem argued, "a heightening of erotic aggression that points toward the Surrealist works," adding that "Above all, these works also lay the groundwork for the principle of the cage."

"When Gazing Head and another Plaque sculpture were shown in June 1929 in the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris, along with works by Massimo Campigli," the catalogue noted, "they immediately caught the attention of the Surrealists. André Masson reportedly told Michel Leiris of his discovery of Giacometti. A subsequent visit to the artist's studio more than fulfilled Leiris's expectations, and in September he published the first article about Giacometti. Crucial to the reception of his work, Leiris's article was also important to Alberto's self-image and further production. According to Leiris, this young, unknown sculptor could create 'true fetishes,' 'objective forms of our desire, of our wishful thinking.' Until that point Giacometti had moved in a peripheral circle of young Italians; thereafter he found himself associated with the leading avant-garde circles of literati and art connoisseurs. His newest works, particularly the Plaques and especially the 'transparent' sculptures, seemed to meet Max Ernst's requirement that the sculptor bring to light genuine finds from the subconscious which, linked together, could be described as irrational cognition or poetic objectivity. The dreamlike matter-of-factness and the sexual aggression in Giacometti's work appealed to the surrealists equally with the ethnological and archaic bearing of works such as the idol-like Spoon Woman. The motif of the space-cage outlined with bars, which - like a picture frame - defines the location of the plastic event, making it visible to the outside and holding it captive as a mental process, was to be of great consequence in sculpture. Here he took the dissolution of the sculptural block to its logical conclusion."

Photograph of plaster version of "Spoon Woman"

Plaster version of "Spoon Woman," bronze, by Giacometti, 57 inches high, 1926-7, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, acquired though the Mrs. Rita Silver Fund in honor of her husband Leo Silver and in memory of her son Stanley R. Silver, and the Mr. and Mrs. Walter Hochschild Fund, 1986

In 1930, the Galerie Pierre in Paris exhibited Giacometti's "Suspended Ball," which attracted great attention, particularly among the Surrealists. That same year, he began work on Figure in a Garden, a monolithic sculpture whose "undeniable presence combines with an intangible elusiveness," according to the catalogue. Although it has subtle angles to suggest a swayed hip, it could also be seen as a forerunner of his later "stick figures" although it is much more monumental.

In 1931, Giacometti published an article with seven drawings, two of which he called "Disagreeable Objects." "Without pedestals and sometimes designated by the artist ŕ jeter (to be town away), these groundless, suggestively sinister small sculptures seem to have no purposed other than to brasped and durled into space," the catalogue remarked, add that they deformed the Gazing Head "into something low, crooked, and directionless with obscene, aggressive protuberances." At around the same time, Giacometti came into contact with the sinuous work of Arp and Miró and the catalogue reproduces a picture of a very fine but lost work, "L'Heure des traces," that shows their influences.

Photograph of lost steel version of "L'Heure des traces"

"L'Heure des traces," steel version, lost. The painted model (plaster and metal, 26 15/16 by 14 3/16 by 11 1/4 inches) that belonged to Diego Giacometti, appeared at auction in 1975 and was purchased by the Tate Gallery, London, according to the exhibition catalogue

In 1932, Giacometti created The Palace at 4 A.M., shown at the top of this article, which is described in the catalogue as "the most magical Surrealist object made by Giacometti." It was acquired four years later by MOMA. The artist's works would soon take on a more somber character, leading, the catalogue maintained, "to objects that speak only of death, most prominently Head - Skull and Cube. The artist had not yet found a fully satisfactory expression for the interconnectedness he saw between sexuality and violence. Certainly his most violent work is "Woman with Her Throat Cut," which was executed in 1932. "As puzzling as the combination of the leaflike, jagged shell shape and its thinly extending insect limbs may be, it is compelling in the impression it gives of an animated being - terrifying either as a giant spider with energy-laden extremities or as a woman with her throat cut, writing in death throes. It was the artist's wish that the sculpture should lie on the floor without a pedestal, not separated from the territory of the viewer," the catalogue noted. Some of the artist's most powerful works, such as "Point to the Eye," which the catalogue describes as "an image of combat on a Mexican ritual site with a channel for sacrificial blood," came from this period in which he experimented with a "theater of cruelty."

Photograph of plaster version of "Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)"

Photograph of original plaster version of "Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) with "Man" at the right, bronze of "Hands Holding The Void (Invisible Object) is a 1934 work that is 59 7/8 inches high and is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest, 1995

Giacometti had by this time become the leading Surrealist sculptor. His father passed away in 1933 and one of the artist's finest works, "Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)," is a monument to his father, the catalogue stated, adding the following commentary:

"Although a rejection of Surrealism might said to be present in the title Hands Holding the void (Invisible Object), it was precisely this sculpture that so fascinated the Surrealists: instead of taking it as a critique, they regarded it as the ultimate in wit..A clue to this intentionally enigmatic piece may be the search for the meaning of invisible in the literature that was important to Giacometti at the time. In the first issue of Documents there is a ground-breaking article of Carl Einstein, who may be regarded a the person who actually discovered Giacometti, and he was certainly the critic who did the most to foster his critical acclaim.At one point Einstein wrote: 'The religious work of art is, so to speak, a product of the invisible, caused by the disappearance the nonexistence of a being.' In his view, art serves the cult of the dead and confronts death. In exotic and archaic art he found a kind of metaphysical realism, which attempted to grasp the indestructible of the Egyptians, the 'shaded soul' of the dead. This is the 'invisible' and, for an agnostic like Giacometti, the 'void' was nevertheless a presence, an operative force, a fantasme, and his aim was to graph it, to halt it, to hold it captive."

When he returned to Paris in 1945 to the studio that had been maintained by his brother Diego, Alberto Giacometti brought with him some matchboxes that contained tiny figures in he had made in Geneva and the catalogue maintained that "they were soon regarded as the ultimate expression of the sparsity of the era and of indefatigable, self-imposed, lonely striving for the impossible. Giacometti began to meet with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. "As long as he was under the spell of his tiny figures, there was scant hope of income from his work," the catalogue observed, adding that the artist began to have hallucinatory experiences [that] gradually began to release his artistic fixations." In the late 1940s, Giacometti produced a group of rather grotesque but potent sculptures of body fragments as he began to move toward life-size figures. One of the most startling is "The Nose," a 1947 work in which a head with a very, very long noise is hung inside a box frame. That same year, he also did "The Hand," which has splayed fingers at the end of a very long and thin arm.

Giacometti's famous elongated figures began in drawings in 1946. "The lofty verticality of Giacometti's figures, combined with their exquisite fragility, creates a tension with the base materiality of their composition that works to reflect the human condition caught between dignity, vulnerability and ultimate fallibility," the catalogue maintained.

While the tall figures are often perceived as "lonely," Giacometti executed numerous groups of them and the groups tend to be more satisfying works and also belie the independence of self-centeredness of Existentialism and are communal, urban works. On the other hand, his drawings and paintings of the post-war period are studies in space and distance and are very focused on the individual subject, though it is very surprising how different they are stylistically from his knobby, emaciated and almost clumsy sculptures with their elegant flurry of energetic, pulsating thin lines, white highlights and pale blue or gray or brown palettes.

"Man Falling"

"Man Falling," by Giacometti, bronze, 23 5/8 inches high, 1950, signed, 4/6, Kunsthaus Zurich, Vereinigung Zürcher Kunstfreunde

The catalogue correctly notes that Giacometti's post-war sculptures were seen by Existentialists as an antidote to abstraction and that they were considered the raw, basic, core, essential stuff of the human condition. The catalogue provides the following commentary about "Man Falling," an unusually dynamic work of 1950:

"Giacometti's Man Falling was in fact to become a central icon in the Existentialist view of his work. This sculpture, one of his slenderest, most fragile figures, seems about to topple from its small, cylindrical pedestal. Yet it holds it position by throwing the head back esctatically; it seems to emerge straight out of Sartre's Nausea or Camus's The Stranger in an extreme moment when the ground seems to open to the choice of life or death. Man Falling is human being in precisely the extreme situation in which his transcendental destiny becomes apparent."

In 1956, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architect of the planned new headquarters in Lower Manhattan of the Chase Manhattan Bank, invited Giacometti to design a sculptural group for the project's large plaza on Pine Street. Bunshaft suggested that the figures be 60 feet high and Giacometti, described in the catalogue as "a manic worker, never without a cigarette," ultimately decided on a 25-foot height, but in early 1966 after returning to Europe after a retrospective of his career at MOMA in 1965 he died and his project for the plaza was not realized.

Credit Suisse Prvate Banking contributed to the exhibition and catalogue in Zurich and the Banana Republic provide major corporate sponsorship of the exhibition and MOMA stated in the catalogue that Joan Tisch made "the New York showing possible."

Click here to order the hardcover catalogue for the exhibition from A paperback edition of the catalogue is available from the Museum's bookstore for $35.


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