Figure One

Giacometti's late work is very much an art born of war, but it is also an art of emancipation—a break from what he called his "Babylonian captivity." Although André Breton had officially "excommunicated" him from the surrealist circle in 1934 (for making a realistic sculpture of a head), by 1946 Giacometti must have found surrealism pretty ridiculous anyway. Two masterpieces from 1947 attest to the deepening that occurred in his work. Head on a Rod and The Nose—the former an impaled head, the latter a jarring, clownlike skull with a long, conical nose hanging in a cage—find Giacometti no longer telling stories, nor being clever or literary. Instead, he circumvents the intellect and goes directly for the nervous system.

Circumventing the intellect and going directly for the nervous system: The Hand and The Nose (both 1947) at MoMA
photo: Robin Holland
Circumventing the intellect and going directly for the nervous system: The Hand and The Nose (both 1947) at MoMA

Details

Alberto Giacometti
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 8

Giacometti's great achievement in the late work is that he found one way to represent all people. He successfully reduced humanity to a sign. His figures are like fashion models—all the same, but different. Scary, skinny, they exist in another, very specific atmosphere. We stare at them not in a sexual way, but in a way that acknowledges their otherness. Giacometti said, "Let me know how to make only one and I will be able to make a thousand." By his death, it seemed as if he had done exactly that. To him they were all probably one. Great artists often do this. Frank Stella is at work on a galaxy of space junk; Richard Serra is creating a family of slabs for the ages. That's the powerfully primitive way artists render themselves important and marginal at the same time.

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