Ancient Modern

Giacometti is at least as well known for his attention to and obsession with process as he is for his works themselves; the merciless re-approaches he made to his paintings and sculpture are part of what endow them with such power. “He really reworked and reworked his surfaces,” Fontanella says. “You see that across all media, whether it's the sculptures or the paintings or drawings, the way he's building up his forms with lines, not the smoother surfaces of a Brâncuși sculpture. He would at times work for hours on a sculpture and then take it apart and start over again. You see this really deep investigation, this struggle, if you will, to capture — particularly in his figurative work— that essence of humanity. He was so focused on this idea of the gaze and how one encounters the work."

That is in large part what gives him a unique place in the constellation of modern artists. “He is so emblematic of 20th-century sculpture,” says Fontanella, “yet he's so distinct. I do think he has this very singular practice, that he takes quite far. And he does die quite young, in fact, at the age of 65. He undoubtedly could have taken it even further. Early in his career, he is connected to Cubism and he is connected to the Surrealist group, but he's also one of those artists who's on the periphery and doing his own thing. Again, he's Giacometti.”

The physical space he occupied formed an important part of this practice, Fontanella says. “Giacometti comes to Paris as a young man. By the mid-1920's he moves into this 23-square-meter studio, and he never leaves. It's the same studio he inhabits until the end of his life in 1966. That is a really fascinating part of the story, especially when you see the photographs of the studio. There's materials everywhere. There's pallets. There's brushes. There's sculptures in various states. But it really forces him to be literally knee-to-knee with his sitters. I think there's something about that that he didn't quite want to escape from. Diego, his brother, joined him in the studio and was his studio assistant, as well as an artist in his own right, and his most frequent model. So there's something about that familiarity and repetition of both his space and the models that's certainly really essential to his story.”

She argues as well that he enjoyed as deep associations with writers as he did with his fellow artists. “Jean Genet and Isaku Yanaihara,” she says, “these are all his subjects. These are the people who are sitting with him for hours and hours, days and days. Yanaihara, a Japanese existentialist philosopher, sat with him for something like 230 days. These conversations are happening as he's making the art. He's telling his sitters to sit quite still and yet saying ‘Let's talk. Let's have these conversations.’ Those conversations are making their way into his artwork. Especially in the post-war era, existentialist philosophy was quite influential on him. That post-war climate of isolation and anxiety was manifest in his work. I think so many people know his sculpture, if nothing else, and these iconic works like Walking Man and the elongated tall standing female figures. But his paintings, I think, are quite, quite interesting — they tell a rich story of who he was encountering and who he was influenced by.”

As for the show itself, Fontanella recommends both the lesser- and better-known works it contains. “I've really delighted in the quiet moments in our exhibition, the hidden gems,” she says. “I think his work in small scale — his works from the 1940's depicting his nephew Silvio, for instance — are really quite wonderful. There are also some paintings of his wife, Annette, that are more intimate in scale but quite extraordinary in the way he's building up her face with these lines.

But for her, most powerful is the tableau of three works that that came together as a commission for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in lower Manhattan — the Walking Man, the Standing Woman, and the Monumental Head. “This was a commission that Giacometti was invited to submit a proposal for in 1958. Giacometti himself had never come to this country at that point, though he had had a rich career here. Those are his iconic works, the works that everyone knows. But when they come together in a single tableau, it sets the tone at the beginning of the exhibition. It's a moment to step out of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda into this space. And together they create this conversation about what might have been in lower Manhattan — the commission ultimately didn't happen. Giacometti withdrew from the competition in 1961. And he recreated this tableau of these pieces later at the Venice Biennale. With this monument, he would have permitted audiences to enter his world — world where trees are women, these tall elongated figures. Where stones are heads. Where these walking men traverse space.”

To understand the compositional philosophy that produced these almost alien forms, Fontanella recommends listening to the artist himself. “He once said something to the effect that he tried to make them broader, but they just got narrower and narrower. Sometimes he plays things off as almost accidental. He comes to a small scale in the years leading up to the war because he's just working things, reworking, reworking — and suddenly something that started much bigger is now small. It almost seems accidental, but at the same time it's not. Concerns of scale and perspective are paramount in his work. He's an artist who's looking back to the Renaissance, looking back to ideas about perspective and thinking about how that translates to both his painting and his sculpture.”