New York

Igor Mitoraj

Marisa Del Re Gallery

In an age when Modernist values have become art-historical clichés, or at least seem less convincing and consequential than they once did, Igor Mitoraj’s classically based sculpture raises a number of intriguing issues. Reaching beyond the anti-classical reductivism of Brancusi, which has itself become classical—so much so that artists such as Carl Andre and Richard Serra have rendered its ideal of radical simplicity decadent and hollow—Mitoraj returns to the sublimity of the Laocoön.

As the Laocoön makes clear, beauty does not mean loss of passion or agony, but rather its distillation. Ironically, Mitoraj’s sculpture achieves the same effect through Modernist means: in Adriano, 1993, a little Suprematist square functions as a tear, perforating the cheek of this hermaphroditic figure. Bandaging a face to convey a sense of mystery, hurt, and danger is a technique that artists as different as Max Beckmann and Philip Guston have used. In this work as in others, Mitoraj demonstrates that much of what we regard as modern is rooted in antiquity: there are, in other words, certain constant “formal” and expressive values in Western art, whatever the difference between the contexts in which they appear, and however irreducible that difference is. Just as hiding the face of a figure to suggest the depth of its feeling is hardly a contemporary invention, so the use of geometry as an esthetic instrument is hardly a Modernist discovery. In keeping with Adorno’s view that radical incompleteness is fundamental to the work of art, every one of Mitoraj’s pieces looks like a fragment of a larger sculpture, recalling that this fundamental trope of Modernity originated in Romanticism’s obsession with the classical fragment.

Mitoraj’s sculptures achieve a certain resonance by appealing to what is basic to the Western experience of art. This is more at issue in his work than the question of whether or not he is naively quoting ancient sculpture, and thus art historically regressive. As Massinisa, 1983, an ennobled black figure—who for all the signs of a troubled history on his face appears inwardly calm and self-possessed—suggests, Mitoraj gives the classical contemporary urgency: it once again becomes a sign of “grace under pressure.” Whatever the place of Mitoraj’s work in the post-Modern revival of the figure and the historicist challenge to Modernism, its importance has to do with the fact that it conveys an attitude and mood that have become all too rare in contemporary art, yet are necessary to give meaning to contemporary experience. After all, art used to be a moral criticism of life.

Donald Kuspit