New York

Alberto Giacometti

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

For those who have never been to the Giacometti Foundations in either Zurich or Basel, the current retrospective at the Museum of Modem Art is filled with riches: Many of the plaster works never translated into wood or bronze, nor ever seen outside Switzerland because of their extreme fragility, are now assembled with the Modern’s walls. By insisting on these works, which are shown in force, the exhibition seems intent on righting the wrong done so consistently to Giacometti when scholars and critics extract the artist from the milieu of his contemporaries (such as Brancusi or André Breton) to anoint him as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existential acolyte, the sculptor of “man in a situation,” about which more below. Indeed, the bipartite division of the oeuvre, articulated by its arrangement on two separate floors of the museum, reinforces the category of a “Surrealist” Giacometti, a figure marked indelibly by the most active artistic movement of the ’20s and ’30s. On the second floor of the presentation, the “Sartrean” Giacometti comes to life, with the bladelike standing figures of the sculptor’s last decade.

Although this double hanging pays obeisance to the findings of recent scholarship with its emphasis on the impact of Surrealism, it must be said that the micromanagement of the MoMA installation does everything possible to take away with one hand what it is offering with the other. The Sartrean Giacometti is obsessed with vision as it encounters the spatial divide that separates viewer and viewed, producing effects of isolation and “alienation.” The Surrealist Giacometti is concerned, rather, with sculpture’s withdrawal from the frame of vision, which is couched in the verticality of both the image seen and the uprightness of the viewing subject, whose “imaginary” is also deployed along a vertical axis. The horizontal field assumed by Giacometti’s work in the ’30s organizes these objects more in the kinetic than the optical axis: the bodily trajectories of walking and touching and sleeping. That Giacometti explored this axis (in Woman with Her Throat Cut, No More Play, and the erotically charged Project for a Passageway) puts him more in touch with the radical sculpture of the ’70s (think of Smithson, Serra, Andre, Morris) than the constructivist work of the late ’60s (Caro, here).

Opticality, however, is the organizing principle of the installation. From the first gallery, where the sculptor’s 1921 crouching self-portrait greets the viewer, defiantly staring out from his studio interior, to the last, culminating gallery, where two large 1952 studies of apples nod to Cézanne, the theme of Giacometti as obsessional observer of a visual field he could never fully master is paramount. Thus the MoMA exhibition mounts Giacometti’s as a unified artistic project even while it implicitly acknowledges the historical break in that career marked by the artist’s excommunication from the Surrealist circle in 1934 due to his return to making life studies. As Breton expressed this, contemptuously, “Everyone knows what a head looks like.”

In 1948, the year in which Sartre wrote “The Search for the Absolute,” his catalogue essay for Giacometti’s first exhibition since abandoning him), the sculptor had transformed his work into the emaciated bronze sheaths that fill the upper galleries at MoMA and that speak to what is thought of as his Existentialist project. Since the term existentialist is so gaily and imprecisely tossed around with regard to these works, it is perhaps worth examining it a bit more closely that is customary in most Giacometti criticism.

Ironically, Sartre’s own early philosophical writing had opened in the very domain of Giacometti’s Surrealist practice, which is to say in an investigation of the realm of mental images: dreams, fantasies, memories, hallucinations. But in that early book, L’Imaginaire (1940; English trans. The Psychology of the Imagination), Sartre’s interest is definitely not to celebrate the imaginary world as the product of an unconscious welling up within the subject, as Surrealism had done. Indeed, Sartre’s philosophical position is that there is no “unconscious,” since there are no contents of consciousness lying inside it of which it could be either aware or, as in the case of the unconscious, unaware.

Sartre begins with the perception, adopted from Husserl’s phenomenology, that consciousness is always conscious of something other than itself. It is what Husserl had called “intentional consciousness,” which means that consciousness comes into being only in the act of perceiving, grasping, directing itself toward an object. It is thus always a movement beyond itself, a projection that empties itself out, leaving no “contents” behind. Consciousness is thus “nonreflexive”: I do not hear myself speaking any more than I see myself seeing. Empty and transparent, consciousness traverses itself without ever finding anything in its path to stop it on the way to its object. And that object is marked by its own transcendence, its outsideness to consciousness itself.

The result of this exteriorization is that man becomes one with his projects, unified with the world that both motivates him and is the site for the exercise of his freedom. This act of synthesis, this unity with the world, stands opposed in Sartre’s thinking to the philosophy of immanence in which consciousness is always attempting to capture itself in its own mirror: seeing itself seeing, touching itself touching. This attempt at analysis, Sartre argues, merely doubles the subject. As Denis Hollier explains in The Politics of Prose (1982), his study of Sartre: “From that impossibility for the subject to catch up with himself comes his necessity to double up every time he approaches himself. . . . So that a subject who touches himself, divides himself by touching himself, becomes contiguous to himself, finds (and loses) himself alongside himself, being his own neighbor, having taken his own place.”

Reflexive consciousness, analytic thinking, the attempt to grasp myself in the act of being myself, is thus always serial, repetitive, productive only of a sum of contiguous parts. Instead, the synthesis Sartre speaks of strips man of his very properties: making him only what he does, only his deeds, only what unites him to his situation in the world.

Sartre’s two models of this totalizing synthesis were the unity of the work of art and, reflecting both the Resistance and the heady days of the Liberation, what he would call the “group in fusion,” a real, even if ephemeral collectivity. And in Giacometti’s postwar sculpture Sartre was able to celebrate both at once. On the one hand Giacometti had fashioned his sculptures as figures always seen at a distance, as being twenty or thirty or however many feet away from their viewer no matter how close he or she came to them. “Giacometti,” Sartre wrote, “has restored an imaginary and indivisible space to statues. He was the first to take it into his head to sculpt man as he appears, that is to say, from a distance.” And because this is man as he is perceived, it is fitting that these sculptures should all be vertical, since Sartre equates perception with walking, traversing space, doing things, just as he links imagining with the body’s repose. If one dreams lying down—as in the sculptor’s earlier, Surrealist, sleeping women—one perceives standing up.

And man so sculpted, so imbricated with the perceptual field in which he is caught, is never anything but a synthesis in which the body is one with its projects. The figures are like the cave paintings, in which the silhouettes “outlined an airy future; to understand these motions, it was necessary to start from their goals—this berry to be picked, that thorn to be removed—and not from their causes.” Giacometti’s sculpture, Sartre writes, “has suppressed multiplicity. It is the plaster or the bronze which can be divided: but this woman who moves within the indivisibility of an idea or of a sentiment, has no parts, she appears totally and at once.”

Further, to this effect of perceptual unity there is added, in Giacometti’s work, the effect of the “group in fusion.” For the triumph of this sculpture is that each figure reveals man “as he appears in an intersubjective world . . . [and] at a proper human distance; each shows us.” Sartre insists. “that man is not there first and to be seen afterwards, but that he is the being whose essence is to exist for others.”

The title of Sartre’s essay, “The Search for the Absolute,” points in a different direction from the “group in fusion.” Giacometti’s absolute, an absolute smallness, is also an absolute distance that no physical closeness can erase. This pessimism is to be found in other Existentialist writers as well. For Francis Ponge, the isolation and immobility of Giacometti’s figures, some of them even presented in cagelike structures, defined “intersubjectivity” itself as a condition of unbreachable separation, loneliness, and dread. In 1951 Ponge offered his own interpretation of Giacometti: “Man—and man alone— reduced to a thread—in the ruinous condition, the misery of the world—who looks for himself—starting from nothing. Thin, naked, emaciated, all skin and bone. Coming and going with no reason in the crowd.”

Indeed, this idea of scarring and caging would be the hallmark of an Existentialist position less optimistic than Sartre’s, less focused on commitment’s projects geared toward a future and more on dread, on what Friedrich Nietzsche had called the “wounds of existence” or on what Martin Heidegger would speak of as anxiety, namely, a fear of “the nothing” or the nonbeing that -lies behind existence. In the early ’30s, when Heidegger’s What Is Metaphysics? appeared in France, the literary avant-garde found the idea of nonbeing liberating, exciting. Raymond Queneau, a former Surrealist, had a character in his first novel, The Bark Tree (1933), speak “Hiedeggerian” even though he is a building superintendent. Musing on a piece of butter, he says: “The lump of butter isn’t everything it isn’t, . . . it hasn’t always been and won’t always be, ekcetera, ekcetera. . . . So that we can say that this lump of butter is up to its eyes in an infinity of nonbeing . . . It’s as simple as Hello. What is, is what isn’t; but it’s what is that isn’t. The point is that nonbeing isn’t on one side and being on the other. There’s nonbeing, and that’s all, seeing that being isn’t.”

Giacometti’s figures might have projected nonbeing for Sartre as a function of the mottled, pitted surfaces that could emit the flash of an expression or the lift of a breast as seen from a distance but which would never yield any more solidly wrought details of surface or shape when seen up close, thus making nonbeing function as the motivation of perception. But this same work could signal nonbeing for Ponge as “the ruinous condition” starting from nothing.“ For him the cage pinned man as ”at once executioner and victim,“ or the flayed surface produced him as ”at once the hunter and the game."

Between the opening self-portrait with its riveting stare and the closing Cézanne-esque drawings with their insistence on the constant renewals of vision, the museum’s focus on an opticalist Giacometti leaves half its presentation lying uselessly on its back like a beached whale. Giacometti’s sculptural breakthrough—his decision to make works that were nothing but their own pedestals, sometimes referred to as his “gameboard sculptures”—makes no sense within this presentation, which does indeed end up retracting the considerable gift it at first seems to offer.