New York

Alberto Giacometti

Sidney Janis Gallery

This was a major show of works by an artist who, although dead 20 years, is very relevant today in context of the return of figuration and calculated angst. In Alberto Giacometti’s classic paintings of his wife Annette and his brother Diego, the figures are sharply attenuated. They melt into their backgrounds, hidden in swirling lines that do not quite coalesce into faces or postures, their identities uncertain; yet their presence as living realities in the artist’s mind—and in the viewer’s—is nevertheless undeniable. The work expresses a kind of elementary existential questioning of human identity and purpose that has caused comparison of Giacometti’s oeuvre to those of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. (Giacometti and Beckett collaborated on the stage design for a revival of Waiting for Godot in Paris in 1961.)

The sculpture, of course, drips with this content of questioning, a questioning of the meaning or purpose of life without a belief in its essence. The thin, roughly modeled men and women walk on to nowhere; like Beckettian characters on a constricted stage, they continually pass each other, looking for what they cannot define. These works readdress the issues of human identity and purpose with a kind of pre-Socratic openness and remind us that Giacometti was influenced by classical sculpture. The great Walking Man I, 1961, strides forward with his arms at his sides, recalling the early Greek statues of naked males called kouroi, which are classical examples of the portrayal of man as pure, questing intelligence: stripped of all extraneous attributes, they confront the world clothed only in their curiosity. In the works exhibited there were other gestural echoes of that period, during which (as in our century) the true nature of man was being redefined; for example, Pointing Man, 1947, in the stark simplicity of his primal act of perceiving a world out there and gesturing toward it, is quite similar to the archaic Greek bronze sometimes called the Poseidon of Artemisium, a naked male figure gazing at the world over his extended left arm, his right arm drawn back in preparation to strike. Giacometti’s figure is less oriented toward mastery of the world through action and more toward a mastery of seeing, of coming to know.

What seems pressingly relevant about this work for our time is its ability to retain its content through years of somewhat repetitive, almost formulaic production. Although Giacometti did the same thing over and over—both as painter and as sculptor—his work did not lose its grip on meaning and become empty design. On the contrary the artist’s characteristic images gained intensity through one’s awareness of his refusal to abandon them; that is, his refusal to be distracted from the basic human questions he was relentlessly confronting by questions of design variation. The obsessive concern with the iconography of the figure in recent art indicates, atone level, a return to a kind of existential questioning like Giacometti’s. But the enterprise today has different circumstances and meanings. Duplication, for example, no longer represents, as it did in Giacometti’s work, the intensity of singlemindedness but rather a diminished reality, like the shadow life of a simulacrum. Angst, at the same time, has become in much work an element of design rather than an honest content. Attempts to confront the figure directly rather than through semiotic mediation—as for example in the work that presents the figure in a context of cine-semiotics—are nowadays primarily regarded as naive. Yet Giacometti’s work is not naive, and it does not flinch in its limited yet direct realization of human nature as a question mark that is, in its honesty and openness, its own answer.

Thomas McEvilley