Sculpting the Soul

By Danto, Arthur C. | The Nation, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sculpting the Soul

Danto, Arthur C., The Nation


The comprehensive exhibition of Alberto Giacometti's work, on view at the Museum of Modern Art until January 8, opened on the centenary of the artist's birth, to a world very different from that of 1965, when the museum was last given over to it. It hardly needs saying that downtown Manhattan would not have figured greatly in the consciousness of those who saw the earlier show--though interestingly enough it was on Giacometti's mind when he traveled to New York that year. He had been commissioned to design a piece for Chase Manhattan Plaza, and part of his reason for coming to New York was to get a sense of that site. The downtown area was undergoing its great development in the middle 1960s--the World Trade Center was finally approved then--and one can imagine, as a sort of tableau vivant, the celebrated sculptor and his friends, standing like living statues in various different positions on the deserted plaza at night. On the night of this year's opening, Chase Manhattan Plaza was dense with smoke and deep in dust, and everyone who attended the show could think of little but the death and disaster New York had experienced a bare month earlier. But in some way the devastation made the city seem closer to the war-ruined world with which Giacometti's signature work is commonly associated than could possibly have been the case in 1965, when America seemed immune to attack and war was something that took place far away, and on someone else's territory.

The architect of Chase Manhattan's headquarters downtown, Gordon Bunshaft, had envisioned three colossal walking figures, high enough to stand up to the looming office buildings with which the space was surrounded. The prototype of figures walking might have been Giacometti's City Square of 1948, in which four of his archetypically attenuated male figures are shown walking in various directions in a space otherwise empty, save for a single standing woman. City Square is frequently used to illustrate a thesis about European cities, ruined and rubbled by World War II, or, alternatively, about the loneliness and alienation of modern urban existence. As such, it has become a cliche of book-jacket illustration for texts of popular sociology or existentialist philosophy, both of which helped create a cloud of received interpretation, disseminated in courses of Art History 101 wherever it is taught, which still stands almost indissolubly between Giacometti's work and its countless admirers. It is, to be sure, a very poetic vision to imagine four or five Giacometti figures at ground level, something like Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, but among which the supposedly alienated office workers in the world capital of alienation might hurry, in transit from impersonal offices, to sway in crowded isolation on the subway cars that speed them to their anonymous habitats. Rodin's figures are life-size, but if Giacometti's thin bronze figures were of that scale, they would vanish in the Lonely Crowd. The poetry would evaporate except at night, as when the artist and his friends moved about the plaza under artificial light. That is doubtless why Bunshaft proposed that the figures be immensely tall--but that would subvert the poetry as well, and add to the crowd's alleged demoralization. Giacometti himself, in all likelihood leery of the by-then-inescapable interpretations that falsified or at least distorted his work, at first proposed a kind of anthology of his pieces, including Monumental Head; and finally decided on a single standing woman on a scale uncharacteristically large for his work. Scale, however, was deeply limited by his remarkably intimate relationship with his sculptures. To have had a work fabricated by others would have been inconsistent with what at that point one might call his philosophy of art. A Giacometti sixty-five feet tall would not really be a Giacometti at all but an effigy of one--what he would have dismissed as an object. The commission in any case was never executed, and the artist died the following year. …

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