PRINT December 1995

Arthur C. Danto


The retrospective exhibition of CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art accomplishes in its own right one of the artist’s most distinctive achievements: it soars like a bird in flight. And to whatever degree Bird in Space is an emblem of spiritual aspiration, the design of the exhibition itself, an ascending curve, emblematizes the triumphant ascent of the artist’s vision, as if on wings. The early work, in which Brancusi’s signature style is almost immediately recognizable—pale or polished egg forms that become detached heads hatching dreams—is displayed under low ceilings, but the exhibition space becomes higher, wider, and lighter as one progresses among the progressing works, grouped in sets of five on either side, and mounted on the amazing hewn bases Brancusi invented. In the final installation, an Endless Column appears to breathe itself up through the coffered vault, into the empyrean. It was curator Ann Temkin’s insight, worked out in architectural collaboration with Richard Gluckman, that a Mademoiselle Pogany of 1919, say, had more in common with a bird of that moment than with a Mademoiselle Pogany of a decade later. The repeated motifs grow together in depth and beauty until the final apotheoses, which point to a beyond beyond the beyond. It is an exhibition that gives us Brancusi whole and new and that awakens what is best in us through what is best in art. It is, barring the tremendous display of wooden models of Renaissance churches at the National Gallery in March, the best exhibition of the year.


The exhibition of BRUCE NAUMAN at the Museum of Modern Art embodied what is worst in contemporary humanity through what is worst in contemporary art. The show was arrogant, gigantesque, contemptuous of its audience, pretentious in its metaphors, sadistic in its manipulations, aggressive in its clatter and its clutter. It was Clown Torture, writ large. Perhaps Nauman’s work ought not to be assembled but encountered one piece at a time, with great intervals in between. Encountering it all at once, however, revealed an unsuspected hollowness and meanness, so the show may have taught an inadvertent lesson not only about Nauman’s art but about human nature: I hated it because it hated me.

Arthur C. Danto is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation. His most recent book is Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe.