Sunday, January 12, 2014

Look Me in the Profile: Feeling Tall and Skinny like a Giacometti

by Drew Martin
There is a special place in my heart for Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), who is most famous for his super tall and impossibly skinny statues with wedged faces, because that is exactly my body type, and that is how I feel when I am walking around town. Another simple reason is because I went to the end-of-year 2001 exhibition at MoMA, one of their last shows before they shut down in 2002 for more than four years of renovation and rebuilding. There was something epic about that show. I saw it at night and his walking man statues had an end-of-the-era look, walking out before the museum closed its doors, and turned off the lights. I recently stood before one of his walking man sculptures at MoMA, and not many other people took notice so it had another mood: a stalwart giant marching on as new generations of museum goers walk on by.

On Friday I was looking at myself in a live video feed and realized how weird I look. If you look at the heads of successful actors and newscasters, they have a big full jaw and round heads so that when they turn their heads there is a nice, natural rotation and transition between their frontal view and their profile. My head, by contrast is long and thin and looks like a rudder when it turns. The swing from frontal view to profile is jarring. And this is exactly what Giacometti struggled with. There was a disconnect for him between the frontal face view and the profile. His solution was to eliminate the frontal view and create two profiles that converged to form a wedge of a head. (as pictured in Bust of Diego, second from top)

I just finished Looking at Giacometti by David Sylvester and what I quickly understand was that perception drove a lot of his forms. Often I could not tell if he actually had sensory issues or incredible insight. Here are two telling passages:

The piece (Spoon-woman, pictured third from top) was inspired by African sculpture, and Giacometti often said to me that the proportions of African figures, with their large heads and short legs, were generally misunderstood in being assumed to be conceptual, that on the contrary they were perceptual, representing what we actually see when we stand opposite another person as in conversation and their head is enlarged by its facing ours while their legs are diminished by foreshortening.

I like how this second bit discusses an emotional override to our navigation of depth and perspective...

Sometimes, in a café, I watch the people going by on the opposite pavement and I see them very small, like tiny little statuettes, which I find marvelous. But it’s impossible for me to imagine that they’re life-size; at that distance they simply become appearances. If they come nearer, they become a different person. But if they come too close, say two meters away, then I simply don’t see them anymore. They’re no longer life-size, they have usurped your whole visual field and you see them as a blur. And if they get closer still, then you can’t see anything at all. You’ve gone from one domain to another. If I look at a woman on the opposite pavement and I see her as very small, I marvel at the little figure walking in space, and then, seeing her still smaller, my field of vision becomes much larger. I see a vast space above and around, which is almost limitless. If I go into a café my field of vision is almost the whole of the café; it becomes immense. I marvel every time I see this space because I can no longer believe in – how can I put it? a material, absolute reality. Everything is only appearance, isn’t it? And if the person comes nearer, I stop looking at her, but she almost stops existing, too. Or else one’s emotions become involved: I want to touch her, don’t I? Looking has lost all interest.

And fueled with lust, the vision narrows...

“When I’m walking in the street,’ Giacometti has said, ‘and see a whore from a distance with her clothes on, I see a whore. When she’s in the room and naked in front of me, I see a goddess.”

This bordello aspect of his life, like many artists in that era, conjures an uninhibited and carefree character but Giacometti restrained himself in his work…

For the last thirty years of his life, Giacometti’s work in sculpture was virtually restricted to the three themes of the bust of a man, a walking man and a standing woman, invariably looking straight ahead. Endowed with all the freedom of the modern artist to do whatever he pleases, Giacometti chose to work as if under the kind of restrictions imposed upon artists by civilizations such as Egypt and Byzantium – not only the demand for adherence to stereotypes, but insistence that the pose be formal, compact, impassive, frontal.

And Sylvester also digs deeper into the contemplation in the artwork...

And there is much that reminds me of the greatest of such philosophers, Wittgenstein, in Giacometti’s approach to his work. There is similar consuming dedication to an activity, and a similar refusal to take for granted accepted assumptions about the purpose and possibilities of that activity. There is a similar feeling that this activity is not a means of producing works of philosophy or works of art, but a search that can never lead to a final solution. There is a similar passion for economy, a passion which in Giacometti shows in the narrowness of his themes and which also exercise itself in his instinct to attenuate, to eliminate. There is a similar reluctance to make their work public.

The final solution that Sylvester writes about here is part of the puzzle. Giacometti plays with the idea of what is a finished work. He was constantly building up then stripping down his sculptures. Not only was he never finished with them but it became a statement that there would be no point in achieving a finished look because it he had no pretension for the work to be a finished statement.

The question of the unfinished and the unfinishable is, of course, one of the things that modern art is about. The traditional distinction between an unfinished and a finished work ceased to be clear a hundred years ago, having already been blurred in the late styles of such masters as Michelangelo, Titian and Rembrandt: it is, indeed, this very factor that governs our concept of ‘late style’. With the coming of Impressionism, loosely executed works began to claim the same rights as carefully executed works: whereas a study by Delacroix is a preparation for a definitive picture, a study by Boudin is intended to be seen as complete in itself; the case of Whistler vs. Ruskin was a debate on the validity of this claim. Once it was no longer possible to be certain whether a work was finished or not by looking at its degree of ‘finish,’ it followed that, not only could artists declare unfinished-looking works to be finished, they could declare finished-looking works to be unfinished. There is not radical difference between a ‘finished’ and an ‘unfinished’ Cezanne, because a Cezanne is unfinishable.

With the contemplation of completion, scale, and perception of proximity was also a difficult relationship with movement.

…movement was one of the aspects of reality that he wanted to put into his work but that he kept finding that he couldn’t bring himself to realize sculptures giving an illusion of movement, a leg advanced, an arm raised, a head looking sideways. This inhibition had led him to introduce movement by making objects in which there was a capacity for actual movement that could be fulfilled by provoking movement in the spectator, and that he had also sought to provoke movement in the spectator by creating environments, or models for them , with objects meant to be walked on, sat on, leant on.

Sylvester is a thorough writer, and I was too impatient through much of his book to be a thorough reader.  Some passages are real nuggets of art history such as:

In Cubism the logic of painting, the demands of the language itself, are discussed in terms of painting. With Dada, the very status of art, its moral validity, its cultural role, become part of the subject-matter of art, and Duchamp goes to the root of the question of what is valid as material with which to make a work of art. In one branch of Surrealism, Magritte, sets a series of semantic puzzles examining the difference between reality and a painted image of reality and the relation between them; in the other branch, the spectator’s recognition of what automatic or quasi-automatic techniques have been used can become an integral part of experience of the work. Abstract expressionism  has, of course, inherited the surrealist exploitation of automatism, but, in placing a much greater emphasis on the pictorial reality of the work, makes a new act of faith in the art, affirms the moral value of painting as an activity that arrives at the realization of an unforeseen pictorial order (often on a scale that is a direct reflection of natural human gestures, so announcing that the work mirrors the actions of a man being unconstrainedly himself). And, because no small part of the content of the work is the struggle through which its order has been evolved out of chaos this art is also self-regarding.

And then there are also very personal comments such as...

Things were made easy for him to become an artist. He had a handsome face, a clever tongue, shone at school, quickly displayed an amazing facility in painting and sculpture. His father was a successful enough artist to help him but not so successful to demoralize him. And he gave him every encouragement, sending him to study in Geneva, Italy and Paris, and continuing to subsidize him when he was well past being a student. He settled in Paris, of course…

There is also a lot of writing about memory and how working from life is working from memory. I think the most insightful comment came from the analysis of this “trap” of the copying process for the artist...

And perhaps one implication is that if we never tried to copy what we see, we could go on seeing it, could be lost in it.