Critics’ Picks

Alberto Giacometti, Diego au manteau (Diego with a Windbreaker), 1954, painted plaster, 15 x 13 1/2 x 9 1/2".

New York

Alberto Giacometti

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York
1071 Fifth Avenue
June 8–September 12

“Giacometti” is no blockbuster, but this retrospective succeeds thanks to its modesty—much like the artist’s own. The sculptor found no mood, idea, or quandary that he could not render from a chunk of white plaster. No other modern relied so heavily on the old-fashioned stuff. One senses the art’s inner world of white, even before seeing the show’s photomurals of his famously disheveled and astonishingly narrow studio, where he also slept. He moved into the place at twenty-five and never left. He said, “It gets bigger every year.”

As vivacious, pervy, and necessary as Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist pieces are to us today, he dismissed them entirely shortly after World War II, when he dedicated himself to working from life. The tide of recent Giacometti exhibitions and publications, and the 2017 biopic, also favor his work from sitters, in addition to the artist’s tales of “failure.” He likely would have been content to destroy everything he made, but his watchful brother Diego, his essential model (and his only mold-maker), saved some of the artist’s best pieces. A typical work modeled after his sibling—Diego au manteau (Diego with a Windbreaker), 1954, for instance—has a fist-size head with scored features, more scratched-in drawing than sculpture. Giacometti called his busts failures. They are ravaged, but for us they are miracles of presence.

The camera certainly loved Giacometti. But looking at any picture of him at work, one notices that his models are frequently poor substitutes for the objects themselves. His sculptures are more of everything: articulate, present, alive. Gaze into a figure’s eyes: the thing is too true. A portrait from life? Perhaps the unblinking demon of life itself.