When Less Was More

By Plagens, Peter | Newsweek, October 30, 1995 | Go to article overview

When Less Was More


Plagens, Peter, Newsweek


These days, a relentless impulse to throw everything lying around the studio floor into contemporary art seems to dictate that a giant-size, interactive photo-text installation with video monitors and Dolby sound is inherently better than a plain old painting or sculpture. Early modernism's heroic attempt to distill visual art down to its absolute essentials - to create transcendently beautiful works that held their own amid skyscrapers and automobiles - has been largely, and conveniently, forgotten. Two magnificent retrospectives - one of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and the other of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - not only resuscitate the glories of reductive abstraction, but also aspire to act as esthetic consciences in today's fragmented, junkyard scene. After a couple of hours with Brancusi (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 31) and Mondrian (at New York's Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 23), you can almost hear the two masters telling us it's time once again for a little simplicity.

Brancusi and Mondrian took very different paths to purity. Brancusi's transformation from a neophyte realist to a visionary abstract sculptor was sudden; Mondrian's evolution from a quiet landscapist to what he called "neoplasticism" was gradual, methodical and arduous. Mondrian tried out cubism - albeit halfheartedly - while Brancusi simply avoided it. Although they lived in Paris simultaneously for more than 20 years, the two apparently never met.

Brancusi was born in a peasant village. At the age of 28, he set out (allegedly on foot) for Paris. He worked for Auguste Rodin for a month and then quit. "Nothing grows under big trees," he said. He also rejected Rodin's method of modeling in clay before casting in bronze, in favor of the ancient technique of carving. Suddenly, in 1910, he was there: heavy chunks of stone were honed into graceful curves, folding in on themselves like birth and death rolled into one.

But Brancusi never turned entirely abstract. "Sleeping Muse," from 1910 - a polished bronze cast, taken from molds made from a carving - retains a melodic stylization of a head. Looking almost as if it occurred through some exquisite crystallzation we don't yet understand, the piece poetically commands a space much greater than it occupies. Compared with painting, however, sculpture is inherently limited in attempting to stand as a metaphor for a grander harmony in the universe - sculptures, no matter what the artist does to them, are still so obviously things in themselves. Brancusi's achievement in overcoming that limitation makes him the greatest sculptor of the 20th century.

In the 1920s and '30s, Brancusi's work took on a sleekness echoing the popular art deco and "machine age" styles of the time. Once, much earlier, at an aeronautics exposition, his friend Marcel Duchamp had been looking at a propeller and turned to Brancusi to ask, "Tell me, can you do that?" He certainly could, and his increasingly elegant work attracted a loyal coterie of what curator Ann Temkin calls "fancy American ladies," such as Nancy Cunard.

Brancusi's only known personal link to Mondrian is coincidental - the sculptor had a son by an English concert pianist named Vera Moore, to whom the painter later sold a work. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Upgrade your membership to receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad‑free environment

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Upgrade your membership to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

When Less Was More
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved in your active project from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Upgrade your membership to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.