In 1983, introducing the first exhibition in France devoted to Richard Serra, the critic Rosalind Krauss gingerly ventured to pair the American sculptor’s work with that of an artist far better known to her French readers, the Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti. What was at stake for Krauss was the importance, to each artist, of the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. But still she felt she was faced with a problem: how to pull off the introduction “without giving offense to Serra (for whom Giacometti’s work has neither any real interest nor any relevance to his own) or without completely baffling the French reader (for whom nothing could be more distant than these two domains of sculpture—one figurative, expressive, richly connotative, the other abstract, uninflected, associatively raw).”
So many years later, would Serra still be offended (if indeed he ever was) at being discussed in tandem with Giacometti? According to Krauss, what their work has in common is that it makes an issue of the
mute, still space that separates the viewer from the work of art, a space traversed only by his gaze…. the extension of the viewer’s aloneness as he confronts the work, a solitude that throws into sharpest relief the nature of his aesthetic demands: what he expects a work of art to satisfy; what arouses his interest and fixes his attention; what his attitudes are about the relation between art and seriousness, art and taste, art and pleasure.
Because these aesthetic demands are so variable, what counts as figurative or abstract, expressive or uninflected, can be defined only in relative terms. It might be so that Giacometti is expressive and full of connotations when compared with Serra. But seeing Giacometti’s work on the same day I saw an exhibition of paintings by Alice Neel was a salutary reminder of just how abstract and recalcitrant his work is, and how hard he worked to strip away layers of meaning that Neel seemed to register without being weighed down by them.
And yet, as different as they are, Giacometti and Neel (like Giacometti and Serra) have more in common than might seem apparent at first sight. We tend not to think of them as belonging to the same generation: Giacometti was part of the great prewar flourishing of art in Paris and one of its hardy survivors into a midcentury in which he and his peers (including somewhat elder figures like Picasso and Miró) were richly honored but no longer quite of the present. Neel, by contrast, is thought of as an artist of the postwar era, and one who came into her own in the ’60s and ’70s. Yet that’s all something of an illusion: Giacometti, born in 1901, was a year younger than Neel. But Giacometti got started young, and though he died at a relatively early age, it must have seemed to art lovers of the time as if he’d been on the scene forever. Neel found her way as an artist much more slowly: By the time Giacometti died in 1966, she was just starting to gain the fame that she would enjoy until her own death in 1984.
The Giacometti retrospective, on view at the Tate Modern in London this summer, begins in a most striking way: with serried ranks of sculpted heads confronting the viewer in a dense crowd. They range in date across nearly 50 years, from the student’s earnest exercises of 1917 through the works of the mature artist in the 1960s. Facing them, one does feel—as Krauss said—alone, or at least outnumbered. Giacometti’s aesthetic developed over time—from its roots in the Beaux-Arts tradition through a canny embrace of aspects of cubism and surrealism and even, for a moment, abstraction, until he finally arrived at the unclassifiable way of working that was unmistakably his own and no one else’s. At the Tate, all of this appears as the reckoning with a single problem. Call it, in the jargon of the philosophers, the problem of other minds. Or perhaps it’s even a problem of other bodies: What happens when I encounter another human presence? What occurs in the crossed gazes that traverse the “mute, still space that separates” not so much “the viewer from the work of art,” as Krauss would have it, but rather the artist from his subject, another person?