New York

Giacomo Manzu

Paul Rosenberg & Co.

At Paul Rosenberg and Co. an important exhibition of works by Giacomo Manzu features what the catalog confusingly terms “preparatory or final realizations” of the great bronze door of St. Peter’s at present installed in the Basilica. As only the Roman door itself can be the “final realization,” the reliefs on view must be studies or variants, since all of Manzu’s bronzes are unique casts from his waxes. These variants deal in similar form with the subjects on the door proper. Though Manzu had been at work on the project since receiving the commission in 1947, the final version displays an iconographical program worked out between the artist and Pope John XXIII. The theme is death.

Two large panels (one atop each valve of the door) deal with the “Death of Mary” and the “Death of Christ.” Beneath them are the Eucharistic symbols of vine branches and sheaves of wheat, forming the door handles. The lower section of each valve contains four panels of death in various manifestations: on the left the “Death of Abel,” “The Death of Joseph,” “Death by Violence,” and the “Death of John XXIII.” The right-hand valve shows the “Deaths of St. Stephen and Gregory VII,” “Death in the Air,” and “Death on Earth.” Underneath all, across the bottom, is a row of six emblematic animals, all creatures of the night and of prey. The exposition is concerned with various attitudes toward death—those of Christ and Mary are “doors to salvation” and the other panels treat of the meaninglessness of death, death as a new life, the cruelty of death, and the like. The straightforwardness of the conception is an admirable framework for the genuine religiosity of the artist; there is no odor of spray-can sanctity about this moving complex.

Manzu has been most careful to make statements of as much dignity as possible within his hypersensitive style. All his familiar touches are present, the pushing and smearing of the material into forms both subtle and complex in an approximation of “sfumato” in painting, but given clarity and definition at each crucial point with incised contours which are really drawn. The drawing provides an essential demarcation of the figure from the background and prevents Manzu’s pictorialism from “painting away” the plane of the door. Restricting himself to but one, two, or three figures per panel, Manzu imbues each figure with maximum expressive value through articulation and pose, seldom allowing the figures even to overlap. Each figure is presented in large simple forms, enriched here and there with worked passages of great complexity. Control of the actual and apparent depth in the panels presents no problem to Manzu. With great finesse he forces the light to pour slowly over each delectable surface. This careful working with the light in a restricted range of volumetric projection is perhaps the greatest tour de force in the execution of the project. Judicious choices as to the color and patination of the bronzes are important factors in these extremely refined effects and further set a tone of serious richness that extirpates any threat of prettiness. The ensemble establishes once and for all Manzu’s position as a great figurative sculptor, and one of the few living artists capable of mastering a project so thorny artistically and philosophically. His triumph is a very rare phenomenon, rarer even than a worthy failure in such a grand attempt.

Besides the great door, the show includes several of the overfamiliar small and medium size cardinal figures, a number of pleasingly pneumatic dancers with bodies like sleek seals, and several busts of Inge, whose imperfectly classical features distinguish each of her likenesses. There is a real surprise in the group of about fifteen oils shown in the upper gallery. Clear and agreeable in palette, the style is somewhere between Balthus and the classicizing Picassos of 1918–23. The compositions ring dangerously close changes on the patented Picasso artist-and-his-model-theme, down to the bearded philosopher type who wields the brush in each case. The most pleasing ones deal tenderly with the contrast of the nude model and the clothed painter; sometimes it’s the other way around. Ranging over five years (1957–62) there is no stylistic development at all, revealing that Manzu is content to be a good cut above competent as a painter, and that’s it. A group of predictably seductive drawings in various media round out the show.

Dennis Adrian