New York

the Nasher Collection

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Touted as the greatest collection of twentieth-century sculpture in private hands, the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, now playing at the uptown Guggenheim, has everything from masterpieces of the medium to “chocolate bunnies.” (For those out of the loop, chocolate bunny is an expression of contempt for a work that is not only cast posthumously but drawn from a sur-moulage, a mold taken from the outside of an existing, finished work rather than from a plaster matrix intended for the purpose. The Julio González Woman with a Mirror, handily cast in bronze by the artist’s estate in 1980 from a welded iron work ca. 1936–37, stands proudly in the Guggenheim, although it was edited out when the Nasher Collection was installed in 1987 at the National Gallery in Washington.)

The great strengths of the collection are in several impressive groups of works—those by Medardo Rosso (particularly the heart-stopping waxes), Matisse, Giacometti in the postwar period, David Smith (including an outstanding Voltri work from 1962 and the breakthrough House in a Landscape, 1945), and Anthony Caro (with Carriage, 1966, one of his best sculptures)—and several extraordinary single examples: an amazing Gauguin, Tahitian Girl, ca. 1896, which collages two differently scaled figures to form a staggering fetish object; the original plaster for Picasso’s 1909 Head (Fernande), and Calder’s dazzling 1940 Spider. There are other strengths on view but they have a peculiar status since, though neither the wall labels nor the catalogue gives any indication of this (where is truth in labeling when you need it?), they no longer in a strict sense belong to “the collection.” One of these is Giacometti’s greatest Surrealist sculpture, the amazing No More Play of 1932, which Nasher has partially given and totally promised to the National Gallery. Another is Brancusi’s wooden Nancy Cunard (Sophisticated Young Lady), 1925–27, which is part of a group of four works sold to the Hall Foundation and destined for Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Institute of Art. This group also includes a great Chariot from 1950 by Giacometti, and two other works that, though they no longer—legally speaking—belong to the collection, are indicative of its defects: Ernst’s Capricorn and Andre’s Plane.

The latter, a dinky (by Andre’s standards) steel-plate piece of 1969, is representative of the level of the Nashers’ commitment to Minimalism, since the small piece is an insignificant example of his work. With a minor Donald Judd wall relief and a minor Sol LeWitt, no Robert Morris, no Dan Flavin, and only the very large, bathetic Tony Smith Ten Elements, Minimalism joins Pop art as a sculptural experience that never seemed to have impassioned the Nashers (the latter movement checks in with two Oldenburgs—the large cast Typewriter Eraser from 1976 and a tiny papier-mâché bathing suit—two insignificant Lichtensteins, and the truly horrible George Segal Rush Hour, a late work cast in bronze in 1985–86). Furthermore, post-Minimalism barely exists at all: there are no Naumans, no Hesses, no arte povera. The only exceptions to this would be the two Richard Serra works, neither one of them strong examples of his oeuvre (I for one am unsympathetic with Serra’s remakes of his lead prop pieces in steel plates), and a Richard Long circle piece.

Ernst’s 1948 Capricorn stands for a question of an entirely different order. And this relates to the very status of sculpture, suspended as it so often is (and this through many centuries) between “original” and reproduction. Casting and enlarging are procedures built into the very heart of the sculptural process, a process that had not only involved its masters in the creation of editions but prepared them for the promulgation of their work through the manipulations necessary to the decorative arts. It was this ethos of reproduction, however, that drove many of the decisions made by twentieth-century practitioners: either to challenge this ethos by turning to direct carving or the use of found materials or to rationalize it by turning their work toward specifically modern (industrial) methods of fabrication. (That it more recently also drove a celebration of sculpture-as-reproduction—the chocolate bunny reflecting upon itself as the very precondition of the “sculptural”—is material to a critical discussion of the medium, but not to the claims being made for the strengths or weaknesses of this particular group of objects.) Thus a collection top-heavy not only with bronze versions of originals conceived in other materials (such as Noguchi’s Gregory, which was made in marble in 1945, and cast in bronze in 1969) but with posthumous casts (Rodin’s ca. 1897 Study for the Monument to Balzac, cast 1974; Aristide Maillol’s 1902–9 Night, cast 1960) that in the bargain are often massive enlargements (Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s Large Horse, conceived in 1914, aggrandized and fabricated 1966) is a collection with a powerful sense of déjà vu, since so much of this material, from Ernst’s 1944 The King Playing with the Queen to Giacometti’s 1926 Spoon Woman to the large, late Henry Moores, can be seen in other, public collections.

What, then, is all the hullabaloo? For at least three museums are actively courting Nasher for his art: the Dallas Museum, which had energetically participated in the building of the collection; the National Gallery, which needs the work to fill its projected but weirdly pointless sculpture garden facing the Hirshhorn’s own, right across the Mall in Washington; and the Guggenheim. The answer is probably that déjà vu or not, absentee works or not, what you get here is a textbook presentation of this century’s sculptural thinking, particularly if that textbook had been written, say, in the ’60s, before anyone realized how definitively the whole idea of “sculptural thinking” was about to be altered. And furthermore, if you are Tom Krens and you are holding warehouses full of the Panza Collection, you have the results of this alteration, as they say, covered.

Rosalind E. Krauss is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University.