At the moment, visitors to the Museum of Modern Art can enter the realm of one of the stranger sculptural psyches of the 20th century, that of Alberto Giacometti. Working from an aesthetic matrix formed by archaeology, physicality, and desire, he created an art that is at once archaic and modern, accessible and enigmatic.
Giacometti is the preeminent sculptor of postwar European figuration, which is to say that he is simultaneously important and marginal. His race of emaciated men and women, craggy giants, tiny figures, and shrunken heads define the popular idea of modern sculpture in the same way Pollock’s drips define the idea of modern painting. They have become such a cliché of artistic angst that it’s difficult not to see them as parodies. Yet, while narrow in scope and limited in subject, Giacometti’s figures are vivid in impact. They’re better than they’re often given credit for, and less pessimistic than many of their admirers insist.
If Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t make you wince at Giacometti’s work, nothing will. In Sartre’s overblown 1948 catalog essay on the artist, he compares Giacometti to Diogenes and Zeno, writes portentous things like “Space is a cancer on being,” and likens the sculpture to the “fleshless martyrs of Buchenwald.” Gaudy statements like these have done much to turn Giacometti into what Hilton Kramer, in 1963, rightly and derisively called an “existential saint.” Unfortunately, Sartre’s verbiage was contagious. Subsequently, Giacometti’s figures were equated with “fugitives from Dachau,” and seen to “represent all that is joyless in the human lot.” Jean Genet judged them “despairing statues to delight the dead.” This is like saying Bruce Nauman is only about aggression. Some Giacometti figures are despairing, others are funny, some are expectant, many just look doltish.
It didn’t help that Giacometti did existential things like sitting in Paris cafés chain-smoking and staring at people across the boulevard. He rarely ate his first meal until after midnight, referred to himself as “a blind man feeling his way in the night,” was prone to talking about “immeasurable chasms of emptiness,” claimed he “trembled with terror . . . and screamed with fear” at the sight of his sculptures, and said things like “The days pass and I delude myself.”
At the time of his death in 1966, at the age of 65, art-world opinion had it that only Giacometti’s early, quasi-abstract, cubo-surrealist-primitive phase was important. The late work was rejected as formulaic shtick. Donald Judd thought it “not sufficiently complex and novel.” Clement Greenberg said Giacometti was “one of the most important inventors in 20th-century art,” but branded his late work “perfunctory,” “a retreat,” and “a sad falling off.” Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s praise of the early work was invariably followed by a dismissal of the late. To these people, Giacometti’s figurative sculpture is cheap-thrills, middlebrow Francis Bacon.
In the 1980s, the tables turned. Giacometti’s late work suddenly seemed relevant. This is attributable to the return of expressionism and figuration, and to the rediscovery of European postwar art. Reconsiderations of Wols, Fautrier, and Philip Guston—who also changed from abstraction to figuration—made a reevaluation of Giacometti’s mature work inevitable.
At MOMA’s superb, 190-work Giacometti show, both positions seem justified. Giacometti’s career was somehow incomplete: First he had form, then he had feeling, but the two rarely came together. He is significant and peripheral: Kirk Varnedoe’s excellent history of modernism, A Fine Disregard, never mentions Giacometti. At MOMA, none of this matters. Giacometti’s singular sensibility transcends all the rhetoric. Among the many amazing moments in the early section of this show, Project for a Passageway (1930)—an abstract plaster vivisection of a female body, complete with stylized womb and genitals—shows how adept Giacometti is at imbuing material with psychology. Passageway sports what is either a clitoris or a penis on a little spring so it can wiggle around. Torso (1925) exhibits Giacometti’s early interest in the distortions of Matisse and Picasso, as well as the simplification of Brancusi. Don’t miss the incubus that is Woman With Her Throat Cut (1932), or anything from 1928 through 1932 for that matter. But look only at any one painting; it’s enough. (I recommend a later piece, the 1960 Portrait of David Sylvester.) The amazing miniature world that is The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) has, as Jed Perl observed, “the clarity of Florentine art,” and an astounding vastness. And two 1927 busts of Giacometti’s father are as haunted as anything he would do after the war.
The curators brilliantly turn a twist of timing into a blessing. Due to construction, the show is installed on two floors. Predictably, the work from 1918 to 1940 is on one floor, the late work on the other. This split turns marvelous on MOMA’s wonderful, curving staircase. Here, as you take a breath and savor what you’ve seen, you can get ready for one of the weirder shocks in art history.
Just off the staircase are two tiny figures, barely an inch high, and as narrow as needles. You can almost miss them, yet they command the space around them, disappear into it, and create a perceptual vortex. Where these things came from is anyone’s guess. After spending the war in his native Switzerland, Giacometti returned to Paris with the results of almost five years’ work—a number of sculptural figures—tucked into six matchboxes. Gazing at these otherworldly essences, you can understand why Giacometti said they “horrified” him. They’d horrify anyone. Here was this acknowledged master in the prime of his career, a ruler of the Parisian roost, returning to the art capital with a bunch of matchstick men and mini-mummies.
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.
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.