New York

Alberto Giacometti

In this curious exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s “Études,” ca. 1934–48—a virtual case history of fetishization—the great artist’s most casual production was treated as an object of commercial veneration. Nonetheless, Giacometti’s study-drawings—largely of sculptures, ranging from Michelangelo’s works in the Medici Chapel to ancient Egyptian statuary—afford great insight into his working method. Art about art, they not only tell us a good deal about his attitude to sculpture, his primary medium, but they also reflect his later obsession with the two-dimensional. In fact, one drawing is of a Rembrandt painting and another is of a mosaic.

Neither acts of homage nor academic copies, these studies represent aggressive attempts to “reoriginate” the originals abstractly. Giacometti strips his sources down to their abstract fundamentals, as if to rebuild them uncompromised by descriptive demands. He ruthlessly blocks out the main planar divisions of the sculptures, turning incidental lines of separation between the planes into decisive ruptures. The figures in the painting and the mosaic are dissolved into an atmospheric filigree, but the effect is equally rigorous: we witness an anatomy lesson in which the parts of a past corpus are cruelly discarded after being weighed and found wanting.

For the early avant-gardists, self-consciously breaking with the past, this seems to have been what it meant to modernize. It is as if Giacometti’s harsh justice reflects his determination to show that the apparent harmony of these works masks an occult chaos. By exaggerating the geometry of the sculptures, he renders the static density of the volumes transparent, while to bring out the poetry of the non-sculptural works he emphasizes the spatial dynamics within and between the figures. Demystifying and anarchic, the drawings imply that something was seriously wrong with the original figure, which can be set right by turning it into an abstract construction (sculpture) or expression (painting).

Though Giacometti redirects the original toward its abstract destiny, his appropriation is neither radical nor reductive. The impiety remains incomplete. The works leave us in limbo, somewhere between the original, traditional representation and the disintegrative “analysis” of it, as if they were hesitating before taking the final plunge toward purity, toward the complete liquidation of the historical masterpiece. This is not only because they are in fact drawings, and can be tentative and suggestive, but because they reveal Giacometti’s ambivalence regarding modern abstraction, and his feeling that traditional representation has much to teach, both formally and in terms of its attitude, about the humanity of the figure. As in his sculptures and paintings, he turns figures into token presences—almost empty signs. Without completely abandoning the originals, he makes them more directly expressive than they were. Indeed, Giacometti seems to have invested his own anxiety in these works of the past, as if fulfilling an intention invisible yet immanent in them.

Thus, the works he draws from are not arbitrary, but reflect his yearning for the artistic certainty and emotional composure of the old masters—for their seamless integration of social and artistic purpose. Giacometti’s drawings show him stuck on the horns of a dilemma from which he never freed himself: while they reflect the tragic modern position of reducing publicly viable works of art to private cogitations, they also reveal his envy of the traditional works’ effectiveness in the world, of the extraordinariness of their art. This double-edged relationship to the past is the source of his compulsively experimental creativity.

Donald Kuspit