Giacometti: Beguiled by Thin Men and Women

Posted June 7, 2018 5:33 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — His studio was more of a shed, really: a leaky, unheated ground-floor room of just 240 square feet in working-class southern Paris. His American biographer James Lord called it “a dump.” Toward the end of his life, a tree branch started growing through one of the walls. But Alberto Giacometti found he liked the place, which he first occupied in 1926 and held onto for the rest of his life, rushing back to his Montparnasse garret after wartime exile. Its close, plaster-thickened air was like perfume; its damp gray walls framed an art of grim exactitude.

Remember the squalor of Giacometti’s studio as you wend through the retrospective that opens Friday at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular white temple, the art of this Swiss polymath — above all his emaciated humans in bronze or plaster, but also his earlier surrealist compositions and his ghostly painted portraits in mucky grays and browns — look even more austere than usual. But getting to that stern, drastic style took arduous, day-by-day work, and the results never satisfied him, though they never stopped him either. “The more you fail the more you succeed,” Giacometti said. He did both every day in his filthy studio, driven with a tenacity you might also call love.

The Guggenheim exhibition, which runs through September, is the first big outing for Giacometti here since the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective in 2001, and it’s been organized by Megan Fontanella, a curator at the Guggenheim, and Catherine Grenier, a veteran of the Centre Pompidou who now directs the Fondation Giacometti in Paris. A majority of the works here come from the holdings of the foundation, created in 2003 and at first mired in legal disputes with rival heirs. (It is opening a permanent public home this month, around the corner from the master’s studio.) The Guggenheim has supplemented them with judicious loans — including his inscrutable gameboard “No More Play,” from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the spindly woman-and-vehicle pair “The Chariot,” from a private collection.

The show is handsome, consistent and more than a little timid. It unfolds chronologically up the Guggenheim’s quarter-mile spiral, and his frail anthropoids have generous breathing room in the museum’s bays. It offers a biographically driven account of his artistic development, recounting his embrace and rejection of surrealism in the 1930s and his later turn to existentialist philosophy. The curators have included a few nice bits of ephemera (copies he drew of Egyptian sculpture, and three sketches of eyeballs done with a blue ballpoint pen), but no real surprises. Nor are expectations overturned in the catalog, which is nearly as thin as one of Giacometti’s gaunt humanoids, with just three essays.

This is definitely not an exhibition that deconstructs Giacometti, and any revisionism will have to await a sequel. Yet this clean-cut show deserves your attention all the same, with more than 170 works, and a broad selection from Giacometti’s earlier sculpture, before the thin men took hold.

He left his home in Italian-speaking Switzerland in 1922, and in Paris the 20-year-old Giacometti found himself more inspired by Brancusi and Picasso than by his classical instructors at art school. By 1926, having fully imbibed the avant-garde Kool-Aid (or absinthe), he created his breakthrough “Spoon Woman”: a 5-foot totem with a concave oval for a belly, topped by a boxy abstract head. This show has one “Spoon Woman” in bronze and another in plaster. They were directly inspired by the sculpture of the Dan people of West Africa, and many other works here, including a 1929 drawing of Oceanic statues he copied from the magazine Cahiers d’Art, express Giacometti’s lifelong admiration for non-Western sculpture (in the aestheticized, ahistoric manner common to the 1920s avant-garde). He also drew on the example of Cycladic statuary, whose stylized, planar surfaces informed his own abstracted heads and bodies.

Soon Giacometti fell in with the surrealists, and his sculpture and drawings of the early 1930s are witty, off-kilter and sometimes dripping with sex. In “Suspended Ball” (1930-31), perhaps the greatest of Giacometti’s early sculptures, a sphere with a cleft in its backside dangles from a string in a cage — teasing but never touching a tumescent curve below. It’s the first of many cages Giacometti would design, and its abstract prisoners are trapped in an endlessly unconsummated dance, not unlike the sequestered bride and bachelors in Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass.” (New Giacometti fans, by contrast, may see the forms as a peach and an eggplant, the two most august emoji of youthful desire.) “Suspended Ball” is followed by two versions, in wood and bronze, of the still scandalous “Disagreeable Object” (1931), a phallic torture device with a spiked business end.

Giacometti’s surrealist phase comes to a close with “Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object),” made in 1934 and lent from MoMA, in which a woman with raised hands and pursed lips stays pinned to an armature. Her chevron head takes its shape from an iron mask Giacometti found at a flea market: an archetypical surrealist translation of machine into flesh. The next year he returned to sculpting from life — which got him thrown out of the surrealist confraternity, which was outraged that he would not draw strictly from his unconscious. (“Everyone knows what a head looks like,” surrealist ringmaster André Breton sniffed. “Not me,” Giacometti retorted.)

Ideas, though, were not enough for Giacometti, and the heads in this show, created in the late 1930s and including three of his brother and regular model Diego, testify to a hunger inside the artist to imbue abstract form with the thrill and the anxiety that comes from looking at others.

It might have been gratifying to see Giacometti’s surrealist works with comparative pieces by Parisian colleagues or non-Western artists, or to look across the timeline to find common themes (the cage, the gameboard) or enduring formal techniques (his emphasis on the horizontal, or his absorption of the pedestal into the sculpture itself). As it is, this show all too neatly cleaves Giacometti’s career into two separate parts, interrupted and wholly transformed by World War II. He was stuck in Geneva during the fighting, where he crafted itsy-bitsy figures standing on relatively large boxes, and when he got back to Paris the figures grew taller, flimsier, more cadaverous. Most of them stand alone. Some walk or point (the men), others are ramrod still (the women). Some have recognizable faces, even painted ones; others appear to be deliquescing into formlessness, their arms and torsos stuck together like tallow. These most famous Giacomettis have become symbols of a postwar generation, not to mention prime art market assets: his “Man Pointing,” an edition of which is on view here, went for $141 million a few years back. And seeing so many at once, especially the less familiar plaster ones, helps to dissolve their auction-house familiarity. Their parallels to existential philosophy are long-standing. Giacometti and Jean-Paul Sartre met at the Café de Flore in 1939 and were friends for decades; a stern pencil drawing here of the philosopher, and a small Roman-style plaster bust of Simone de Beauvoir, attest to their influence.

Yet there’s more in these later, more skeletal sculptures than humanity looking into the abyss. One could explore, for example, the endurance of Christian motifs of suffering, which the atheistic Giacometti and numerous other Europeans drew from to express the horror of the Holocaust. Nor is sex absent in these later works; Giacometti was a lifelong worshipper of prostitutes, and a quartet of savagely slathered paintings of his last mistress, Caroline, suggest the carnal urges beneath the late art’s stark surfaces. And then there is the life and work of the studio in Montparnasse where Giacometti made his sitters pose for days at a time: a terrain of sadism, despair, but also total commitment. He worked almost right up to his death in 1966.

In the last few decades, it’s been fashionable to favor the early Giacometti, with its sex and humor, and to huff that the lanky postwar sculptures merely reiterate that we are doomed to isolation. By my second visit to the Guggenheim, though, I found myself unexpectedly beguiled by the humaneness of the mature Giacometti, whose thin men and women appeared to me more optimistic than I’ve ever found them before. Funny that existentialism doesn’t seem such a downer anymore, now that the omnipresent threat to our humanity is not material privation but informational excess. When all of us are trailed by inescapable terabytes of data, we can almost envy Giacometti’s slender bronze wraiths: stripped to the bone but still human, stripped of their names but still free.

Event Information:


Through Sept. 12 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan; 212-423-3800, guggenheim.org.