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Giacometti at the Guggenheim

To look at a host of sculptures by the majestic sculptor Alberto Giacometti is to be invited into an island of reverie and reverence. And, no structure in the world can match the magic and caprice of Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the alchemy of architectural audaciousness.

Swelling out towards the city of Manhattan, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was the last major project designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1943 until it opened to the public in 1959, six months after his death, making it one of his longest works in creation alongside being one of his most popular projects. Completely contrasting the strict Manhattan city grid, the organic curves of the museum are a familiar landmark for art lovers, visitors, and pedestrians alike.

Epic Vocabulary

A preeminent artist of the twentieth century, Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) investigated the human figure for more than forty years. This comprehensive exhibition, a collaboration with the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, examines anew the artist's practice and his unmistakable aesthetic vocabulary. Featuring important works in bronze and in oil, as well as plaster sculptures and drawings never before seen in this country, the exhibition aims to provide a deeper understanding of this artist, whose intensive focus on the human condition continues to provoke and inspire new generations.

Atrium's alchemy

This author visited the Guggenheim in 2009 – to glimpse the huge atrium, rising 92' in height to an expansive glass dome, is an exercise in enchantment. Along the sides of this atrium is a continuous ramp uncoiling upwards six stories for more than one-quarter of a mile, allowing for one floor to flow into another. To curate Giacometti in this oasis is a dream.

The curators at the Guggenheim have placed Giacometti's little busts so that it aligns with the light-filled atrium, leading to an incandescent alchemy of art and aesthetics. One can imagine how Wright and Giacometti would have conversed with each other on the dynamics of design. In the installation image, it is as if an architect peals out a paean to the sculptor of pedigree. The ramp also creates a procession in which a visitor experiences the art displayed along the walls as they climb upwards towards the sky. Everything about these walls and spaces is encased in the rapture of resonance.

Dog and Cat

You can begin anywhere in this historic suite of works. My first choice is the Dog and Cat. Long before the world knew the dictats of minimalism, Giacometti built his own vocabulary. You can't miss the sadness, the angst in the loped ears of the dog, with a dulcet sadness as if caught in a time warp. If these two animals were a metaphor of man, Giacometti was giving the world a language that said that art must live beyond its very act of creation.

Men and Women

Then there are tall spindly men and women. Either created as solitary beings or sometimes in a group, each study is an insignia in expression. Giacometti's quest was continually for the power of the simplified form. He desired that these new sculptures, far removed from classical realism, should be understood as having evolved by means of an exploratory, touch-and-go process. It is as if Giacometti wanted to reveal the process of making the figures by tracking their changing and varied states. From the clay cast to the final figure, these "weightless and visionary" figures, the standing women and walking men of the late 1940s which had won Giacometti sudden international fame, had mainly been the conception of the sculptor's imagination. To glimpse them at the Guggenheim is like witnessing an epiphany.

Art historians state that around 1950, when it seemed to Giacometti that he could no longer mine this vein of expression without repeating himself and turning it into a tired mannerism, he returned – as he had done in the early 1930s following his surrealist works – to working directly from a model, nearly always his wife Annette for the standing female nudes, in order to restore a compelling sense of individual physical presence to his figures, so that they would convincingly occupy the space in which they exist.

Here in this historic haunt of many women, we can compare earlier sculptures, the women of the early 1950s possessed voluptuous figures – large breasts and wide hips – exhibiting an overtly sexual and fertile character that seemed surprising in contrast to previous leanly attenuated figures. But it is clear that Giacometti wanted to unveil a synthesis of all his resources, combining insights he had taken from his life studies, as he pursued an inner vision of his subject.

Giacometti created his forms mainly from memory, and from life, he proceeded to shape a daily procession of female figures with the spontaneous, instinctual and practised motions of his skilful hands.

History at the museum

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation has a long history with Giacometti. In 1955, the artist's first museum show was presented in New York at the institution's temporary quarters on Fifth Avenue. Noting divergent opinions on Giacometti's art at that moment, one critic recognised the director James Johnson Sweeney for continuing "his program at the Guggenheim Museum of bringing forward the most controversial work of the time". In 1974, the Guggenheim mounted a posthumous retrospective in its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda. The present exhibition is the first major museum presentation dedicated to the Swiss-born artist in the United States in more than 15 years.

(Giacometti has been curated by Megan Fontanella, Curator, Modern Art and Provenance, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Catherine Grenier, Director, The Fondation Giacometti.)

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