Alberto Giacometti and Alice Neel, Face to Face

Alberto Giacometti and Alice Neel, Face to Face

Face to Face

Alberto Giacometti and Alice Neel have more in common than it might seem.


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?

For Giacometti, it was the encounter with the other person that was primary. He somehow made us see—or rather, experience—the presence of another, the effort involved in seeing and representing that person, and the space between the perceiver and the perceived. The viewer’s encounter with the resulting sculpture or painting, it seems, is modeled on that tripartite articulation. To live this encounter with the other, to see and be seen seeing, was to live life itself—because, as Giacometti believed, “without a doubt, what makes the living person is his gaze.” But that which makes the living person is not what individuates him; on the contrary, “the more it is you, the more you become anyone at all.” And finally: “I no longer recognize people from seeing them so much.” He claimed that even his own wife or brother became unrecognizable once he started to paint them. This erosion of recognition became the essence of his art. Consider one more quotation, not from the artist but from the person who was closer to him than any other, his brother Diego Giacometti: “I saw Alberto die. I was seated at his bedside holding his hand. Alberto was looking at me, or rather scrutinizing the contours of my face, drawing me with his eyes like he drew with his eyes and transposed into drawing everything he looked at. He was not seeing a brother at his deathbed, but rather seemed to try to understand how the face of the model in front of him was made.”

The Tate’s Giacometti exhibition has been organized in collaboration with the Fondation de Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris, which holds most of the works exhibited. One benefit of this partnership is that some sculptures that are well-known as bronze casts can be seen in plaster, bringing us that much closer to the artist at work. Those stark, elongated figures that made Giacometti so renowned in the postwar decades—so instantly recognizable that by now they’ve become one of the clichés of modern art—are better perceived as the result of effort, questioning, revision: of a thousand small decisions, slight touches, that eventually resulted in what we see.

The plasters make it a little easier to hold on to that perception. Some of them are painted—or, it might be better to say, touched with paint. For Giacometti, painting could sometimes be one more way to sculpt, to add or remove a bit of matter or a quantum of circumambient space. (It would be worth studying his shifting feelings about the difference or continuity between painting and sculpture through the years.)

If Giacometti made an early start as an artist, maybe this was in part because he grew up around painters. The Swiss post-impressionists Giovanni and Augusto Giacometti—his father and his father’s cousin—may not exactly have been at the burning-hot center of the European art of their time, but they were serious and in touch with the main currents of the day. Alberto admired his father enormously, and sometimes hinted that his own much-lamented, not-so-secretly-treasured inability to render a head naturalistically was in part a reaction to his father’s facility at portraits. He virtually stopped painting by the time he settled in Paris in 1922.

Why did Giacometti take up painting again more than two decades later, after the war? In the Tate’s excellent exhibition catalog—structured as a dictionary covering topics from “Absolute” and “Agony” to “Yanaihara, Isaku” (one of Giacometti’s favorite portrait subjects starting in the late 1950s) and “Zervos, Christian” (the publisher of the magazine Cahiers d’Art, which often featured the artist’s work)—Claudia Milburn suggests that, for Giacometti, painting “became interchangeable with the disciplines of sculpture and drawing.” One consequence of this eradication of the boundaries between disciplines is that, at least in one sense, Giacometti’s painting is very unpainting-like: Color is demoted to a very minor role in it. The paintings may be labeled “oil on canvas,” but they look just as likely to be made of soot, ashes, mud, and shit on canvas. In them, typically, a single figure sits amid an uncertainly defined space of nebulous smudges and desultory lines, usually set off by a framing border of lighter or darker shadow or, in the paintings of Giacometti’s last years, unpainted canvas. The sitter’s head will often be placed close to the center of the canvas, so that a large space weighs heavily above it. Distinct from its hazy surroundings, or even from the nervously delineated body that supports it, the head tends to be densely built up out of a mass of tiny marks. The heads appear more like very flat sculptures, hard and resistant, rather than pictorial images.

Giacometti used to complain that his portraits lacked “likeness.” Sometimes, as in the tremendous 1957 Yanaihara Seated Full-Length, his subject’s head may seem entirely shrouded in shadow, and yet no less obdurately present for that. Although the sitter is named, one feels that such a painting is a portrait of… simply someone. But not just anyone; rather, a quite specific person stripped of everything recognizable about their specificity. We know from the title that it is Yanaihara; the name suggests that Yanaihara was Japanese; and a little further reading informs us that he was a philosophy professor, and that for a time he and Giacometti’s wife Annette were lovers. The portrait, however, reveals nothing of Yanaihara’s ethnicity, culture, or profession; we don’t know from it whether he was handsome or ugly, stern or charming, outgoing or withdrawn. We simply know that, in a persistent way, he was there, with a commanding thereness somehow his own, resisting the artist’s effort to fix his likeness.

Alice Neel’s portrait subjects are indelibly present in her paintings, too. But for her, their presence was inextricably bound up with their social identity and individual character—ethnicity included. “Alice Neel, Uptown,” a survey of her paintings from the 1940s through the ’70s, puts the accent on the artist’s response to her milieu, which—at least until she started to become successful in the ’60s—wasn’t that of the mainstream art world, but rather of her neighbors and friends in upper Manhattan: first in Spanish Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and then, from 1962 onward, on the Upper West Side. Curated by the writer Hilton Als, the exhibition was first shown in New York, where it was enthusiastically received. I was lucky enough to see it again this summer at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. The show has since moved on to Miro’s recently opened outpost in Venice, presumably in a reduced version (though the gallery’s website promises “a number of previously unexhibited paintings and works on paper”).

Seen in New York, the city to which Neel migrated in 1927 (she was born on Philadelphia’s Main Line), the exhibition had a distinctly nostalgic aspect that became more muted across the Atlantic. This longing backward was conveyed less by the paintings themselves than by the accompanying displays of memorabilia connected to Neel, her portrait subjects, and their city—a grittier place but, perhaps, a more generous one than anyone might have realized before experiencing the rapacious gentrification of New York. For a bibliophile like me, it was great to see vintage copies of books by some of the writers who’d caught Neel’s eye long before they’d found a reading public. Alice Childress, dressed to the nines in a 1950 painting, looks like she’s ready to head out to a ball, but she pensively gazes toward a window—unusual, because most of Neel’s portrait subjects, like Giacometti’s, look directly at the viewer—as if wondering whether her prince is ever really going to come. In 1950, Childress was a well-known actress who’d just written her first one-act play; she took on a wider fame in 1973, when her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich became a best seller for young adults around the country.

Also from around 1950 is a portrait of Harold Cruse, whose arms and hands seem to want to fold him up inside himself, or perhaps to give him an embrace that the world has denied him. It’s hard to believe this melancholy figure would become the author of the fiercely polemical 1967 classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I think I understand Cruse’s angry book better after seeing Neel’s portrait of him. It suggests the struggle within himself that would later be reflected in his struggles with (and against) the ideas of other black intellectuals—the “ideas wrapped in being” that, as Als says, both Neel and Cruse found in Harlem. Als points out that “Cruse was not a stylist the way that Alice Neel was a stylist,” because his focus was always on the force of his argument. But if Yeats was right that the quarrel with others yields rhetoric, while the quarrel with oneself makes for poetry, then we can say that Cruse combined the rhetorician and the poet, even despite himself.

Everyone knows about Giacometti’s connections to poets and philosophers like André Breton, René Crevel, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Seeing copies of Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes in “Uptown” was a reminder not only that Neel’s circle was deeply intellectual, but also that similar issues were being debated in both milieus. In Harlem, as much as in Paris, the question of communism was fraught. Cruse, for instance, had been a member of the Communist Party for a while, and maybe still was when Neel painted him. But later, like many black intellectuals, he argued that the party had misled the black movement it often appeared to support. Neel seems not to have joined it, but she felt at home in its environs, and many in her circle were or had been members; it’s not surprising that in 1981, she exhibited at the Artists’ Union in Moscow, a show organized by the Daily Worker’s correspondent there. It might be more surprising to learn that Giacometti, too, was close to the communists—-as a founder, in 1932, of the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, and as a contributor of drawings to political journals, including the French Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité in the late ’40s.

Although Neel and Giacometti both emerged from a left that was aligned with communism, neither one produced anything in a social-realist vein. It would also be wrong to see their insistence on portraiture as an acceptance of individualism. Both artists approached it as a sort of interpenetration of two (rarely more) “alonenesses,” to repurpose Krauss’s word. But for Neel, the space between artist and subject did not magnify itself the way it did for Giacometti, threatening to swallow the sitter whole as it sometimes seems to have done in his work. Her people sit at a conversational distance, and the figures take up much more of the frame than Giacometti’s do. They are no less vulnerable than the people Giacometti painted, but Neel is more interested in the particular strategies they invented for circumventing or dissembling their vulnerability than she is in the vulnerability itself, which is universal. Als articulates it beautifully in assessing Neel’s elegant 1971 portrait of graphic designer Ron Kajiwara. As he explains, she recorded Kajiwara’s “style as a way of being…inherently queer, bristling with attitude and dandy distance and an almost feminine softness or yearning behind the pretend armor.”

Neel’s almost reportorial focus on particularity—the way her work transcribes ethnic and other specificities that Giacometti obscures—is part of what makes her work seem more timely today than his, just as it might have made her kind of painting look dated or provincial in 1960. But it would be a mistake to think her work operates as anything like what we now call “identity politics”—a mistake that Als never makes, by the way.

A Giacometti portrait is a mass of approximations, each line a seemingly failed stab at certainty. And yet their sum total becomes an irrefutable reckoning with a single human consciousness. Each portrait’s lack of finish is evidence of something that can’t be finished. Neel’s art crosses Giacometti’s, traveling in the opposite direction—from particularity toward universality. In Neel’s paintings, at least from the ’60s on, the bare canvas and petering out of color and line proclaim what needn’t be finished. Decisively awkward outlines carve out the form, inside which a person copes with all the identities that are defined, in part, by other people’s perceptions. Still, Neel’s portraits leave room for the sitter’s sense of self that survives all the designations of an individual’s place in society—for what in the living person makes the living person, as Giacometti also knew. There were other great portraitists in the 20th century, but none reckoned more profoundly with the force of the gaze than these two. They show us, in different ways, not the face, but how the face is made.

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