New York

Constantin Brancusi, La Muse Endormie II (Sleeping Muse II), 1923/2010, polished bronze, 6 5/8 x 11 3/8 x 6 7/8".

Constantin Brancusi, La Muse Endormie II (Sleeping Muse II), 1923/2010, polished bronze, 6 5/8 x 11 3/8 x 6 7/8".

Constantin Brancusi

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

Constantin Brancusi, La Muse Endormie II (Sleeping Muse II), 1923/2010, polished bronze, 6 5/8 x 11 3/8 x 6 7/8".

In the wake of the excitement generated by the Armory Show centennial comes an exhibition of five polished bronzes by Constantin Brancusi that were cast between 1992 and 2006. This show, tasteful to a fault, both reminds and distracts. It reminds us anew of the Armory brouhaha in 1913; of a fracas occasioned by the 1926 arrival on these shores of several Brancusi sculptures (the works were seen by American customs officials as industrial products, hence subject to the import duties from which artworks were exempt); of Brancusi’s connection to the Arensberg circle and the New York beau monde of the day; of the stylistic connection between Brancusi’s work of the ’20s and New York skyscraper Deco. But the show also distracts, pointing to problems inherent in posthumously cast works (even if legally authorized), only a few of which can be signaled in a brief review.

“Brancusi in New York, 1913–2013,” organized by Jérôme Neutres, former cultural attaché at the French Consulate in New York, is, for all its elegance, a rather airless installation of brassy perfection—assembled as if in rehearsal for similar presentations in other cities. The accompanying catalogue, published by Assouline, could not be more stylish. Question: On whose authority were these recent casts produced? Answer: Theodor Nicol, a Canadian of Romanian origin, nephew and heir to the late Natalia Dumitresco and Alexander Istrati. The couple were artist-refugees from Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania who found their way to Brancusi’s famed Paris studio, seriously befriending the great sculptor in his later years (he died in 1957 at the age of 81). In appreciation, Brancusi designated them his testamentary heirs, and the French Court of Cassation recognized them as the sole owners of Brancusi’s copyrights. Possession of these rights entitled the pair to issue enlargements, reductions, and new editions of works and allowed them other privileges regarding intellectual property. On the death of Dumitresco in 1997, the restricted right with regard to works absolutely essential to the modernist canon passed on.

An encounter with posthumous castings reliably raises the issues surrounding fetishization of the “lifetime cast.” At the very least, the lifetime cast assumes that the artists in question had the opportunity to approve what was produced in his name. That cannot, of course, be the case of work cast posthumously—however smart or credible its appearance. While taking in the Kasmin show, one struggles to overcome that needling fact. Of the five works included in the presentation, four of them are canonic: Le Nouveau Né (The Newborn), 1920/2003; Le Poisson (Fish), 1926/1992; Mademoiselle Pogany II, 1925/2006; and La Muse Endormie II (Sleeping Muse II), 1923/2010. Added to these famed sculptures is an all-but-unknown piece, Tete (Head), 1920/1992, a work that, in its original wood version and upright display, remains recognizably a head much influenced by African tribal models. As presented here, in glaring polished bronze and arranged laterally, Tete becomes, in the redirection of its axis, a rather peculiar, cuboid chunk of metal. Still, this manner of presentation recalls other pieces by Brancusi, including Le Muse Endormie II, one of several “horizontalizing” works so expressive of the quiddity of raw matter, whether stone, wood, or bronze. Here, the artist’s peculiarly acute sense of the density and weight of sheer mass is countered by the sense of luminous, liquefied surface provided by the polished bronze, which relocates the haptic faculty away from the hand to the eye: The eye touches, not the hand.

Let us admit that, with the passage of time, punctilious distinctions between original and posthumous reproduction come to seem almost beside the point, certainly insofar as they engage the acquisitive class. Eventually, the differences are only vaguely visible, mere connoisseur pedantry. The result: Another body of work by a great artist has been attainted.

Robert Pincus-Witten