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
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.
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.
"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)
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.
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.
preface to the catalogue, the authors provided the following commentary:
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
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.
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 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.
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
at the age of 24, Giacometti began to realize he was dissatisfied
with figurative sculpture and began studying Cubism.
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
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
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.
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.."
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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:
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 kâ 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."
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.
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.
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.
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:
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."
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.
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."