The sculpture of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), currently the subject of a somewhat truncated exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has long been regarded as one of the glories of the modern era. Owing to this distinction, it has also, alas, attracted a good deal of misdirected criticism and fanciful interpretation. Some of this derives from sheer ignorance or-what amounts to the same thing-a desire to add a component of intellectual complexity to what the writers see as the “simplifications” of the Brancusian oeuvre . But in some cases, it must be said, the errant criticism can be traced to the many gnomic statements about his art that Brancusi himself offered to an admiring public. The artist was nothing if not canny about the extent to which the power of words was likely to influence the perception, and thus the acceptance, of his boldest endeavors.
The title of the show at the Guggenheim- Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things -is drawn from one of his statements, which in its entirety reads: “They are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things.” Be that as it may, no sculptor of the modern era devoted a greater degree of concentration to perfecting the exterior form of his work than Brancusi. To the cutting, the carving, the polishing and the stacking of his forms-and to his own photographs of those forms-he brought a connoisseur’s eye for the physical properties of his chosen materials: wood, stone and metal. What Brancusi called “the idea” was designed to exalt those properties and transform them into a spiritual or philosophical experience.
In that process of transformation, his sculpture remained firmly tethered to the realm of representation, as the titles of his work unequivocally attest. Yet, despite the disavowals, there is an emphatic will to abstraction, or what might better be described as purification, to be seen in Brancusi’s sculpture, and it’s in the tension that obtains between the polarities of representation and abstraction (or purification) that we experience the poetic paradox that governs every aspect of his sculptural imagination-a paradox that the artist himself assiduously cultivated: The harder he labored at perfecting the material appeal of his sculpture, the more he talked about ideas and essences. Thus, while the sculpture is representational, all of Brancusi’s statements about it underscore its spiritual qualities.
At the Guggenheim, however, the subtleties of this paradox are shamelessly obscured by the juxtaposition of another exhibition- Mondrian to Ryman: The Abstract Impulse -that’s supposed to have a direct connection with the Brancusi sculptures scattered along the museum’s ramp. It’s hard to imagine a body of modernist art more at odds with both the spirit and the substance of Brancusi’s sculpture than that of the Minimalist artists represented in the Abstract Impulse show. While the latter vigorously eschew all references to representation, Brancusi’s sculpture tenderly embraces them. Minimalism, moreover, is governed by the imperatives of geometric form and straight-edged construction, both of which are entirely foreign to Brancusi’s sensibility. Yet the Guggenheim insists on identifying Brancusi as a source of 20th-century Minimalism, which is pure abstraction. You have to wonder if the museum’s curators understand what Brancusi meant when he spoke of “imbeciles.”
What both of these exhibitions at the Guggenheim really amount to is little more than yet another repackaging of the museum’s permanent collection under a couple of catchpenny titles. Some of us have seen these Brancusi sculptures many, many times in the past, and they gain nothing from their installation in the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright ramp, which is itself a proto-sculptural conception designed to dominate whatever it’s assigned to contain. Wright was famously contemptuous of all modern painting and sculpture, and he expressed his contempt by designing the kind of exhibition space that would signify his low opinion of both. This is not the first time that Brancusi has been made to serve as a casualty of Wright’s self-aggrandizing ideas, and it’s unlikely to be the last.
For those of us who recall the first Brancusi exhibition organized at the old, pre-Wright Guggenheim by the late James Johnson Sweeney, it’s doubly sad to witness the indifferent treatment of this great artist by the current custodians of the museum. Among his many other talents, Sweeney was a genius at museum installation as well as a keen connoisseur of sculpture, and these are precisely the gifts that are missing in the presentation of Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things , which remains in its compromised state at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 19.