For those who have never been to the Giacometti Foundations in either Zurich or Basel, the current retrospective at the Museum of Modern 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 within 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 Andre Breton) to anoint him as Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialist 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 "S artrean" 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 Cezanne, 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 Surrealism (or rather, since Surrealism's 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 than 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. …