Giacometti’s Depictions of Women Inspire Reverence, Some Revision

112805 article naves Giacometti’s Depictions of Women  Inspire Reverence, Some RevisionThe Women of Giacometti, an array of paintings and sculpture by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) on display at Pace Wildenstein, prompts a kind of yearning that has become familiar at the 57th Street branch of the gallery. Past shows bringing together Bonnard and Rothko, de Kooning and Dubuffet, Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, and the near-holy trinity of Hans Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder were so good that many wished they could be permanently installed. Now The Women of Giacometti shines a clarifying spotlight on yet another modern master.

On the morning I went to see it, each visitor accorded Giacometti’s art an almost religious obeisance, whether it was a student clad in tattered jeans or a well-heeled gent with (one imagines) money to burn. Everyone spoke in whispers; the stray ringing of a cell phone set off reproachful looks and ardent apologies. The installation, deliberately paced and dramatically lit, encourages reverence. And the work itself commands the sort of grave attention that cuts the chatter.

If the unhurried tour offered by The Women of Giacometti doesn’t glance upon every facet of the artist’s career, it comes close. The earliest piece on view was painted when he was 19 years old; it’s a Cézanne-like painting of his sister Ottilia. Early efforts in sculpture—a plaster bust of Ottilia; a roughhewn, Cubist-inspired portrayal of Flora Mayo, an American who studied alongside him—are more convincing. (Both pieces date from around 1926.) A preternatural, if still unrefined, gift for working in three dimensions is clearly evident.

A representative sampling of the primitivist sculptures that put Giacometti in good standing with the Surrealists is on display, including the Guggenheim’s renowned Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932). There’s a better selection of the late work, with its anxious, skeptical tone and solitary figures (elongated in the sculpture, ghost-like in the paintings). These latter pieces famously induced André Breton’s ire. The “Black Pope of Surrealism” found them insufficiently radical and booted Giacometti from the camp. Giacometti happily took his leave: He’d had his fill of what he called Surrealist “masturbation,” pegging the failings of that crowd with devastating accuracy.

Few painters in the history of art have been as relentless as Giacometti in exploring the meaning of perception. His self-appointed task was the accurate transcription of observed phenomenon, but it was his belief that attempting to fix an always-mutable physical reality, whether it be in oils or plaster, was folly. It’s well known—among his admirers, at least—that he considered himself a failure. A profound sense of despair permeates the work, but it wasn’t the existentialist romance foisted upon it by Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti’s friend and booster. Rather, it was occasioned by the vexing pursuit of giving tangible and permanent form to fleeting, ever-changing incident.

In paintings like Portrait of Caroline (1962) and Caroline Seated with a Red Dress (1965), he entombs the title character within jittery skeins of oil paint. Overlapping and lilting lines are typically left loose in the torso, but they coalesce into an almost sculptural mass in the face. The effect is discomfiting, even nerve-wracking, but irresistible in its pull. Giacometti makes his doubt plain. No brushstroke is arbitrary; no hesitation escapes comment. Caroline Seated with a Red Dress has an almost expressionist fervor, yet it stubbornly retains a clinical adherence to physical fact—a thrilling paradox.

Alas, The Women of Giacometti also makes plain what MoMA’s 2001 retrospective intimated: History has been kinder to the painter than to the sculptor. You hate to say it, particularly given the somber majesty of Giacometti’s achievement, but, boy, are those lumpy, spindly figures looking hokey. They’re even worse when they’re placed atop carriages or inside boxes: Giacometti’s attempt to locate the sculptures in space can be self-conscious and, at times, alarmingly arch. The paintings can come precariously close to mannerism; the sculptures don’t fight it off at all. An innate knack for sculpture led to a slackening of aesthetic vigilance, which in turn led to indulgence—albeit of a dour variety.

The extreme exaggeration of anatomy, the frazzled and theatrical textures, the bathetic dénouement—the sculptures aren’t much ado about nothing exactly, but Giacometti striving for effect is something less than Giacometti the master. When comparisons to Rodin flit into one’s mind, second thoughts follow soon thereafter. Fortunately, the painter responsible for canvases as unflinching and grand as The Artist’s Mother (1950) and Seated Woman (1958) emerges unscathed. That’s reason enough to cherish this splendidly conceived, intelligently executed exhibition.

The Women of Giacometti is at Pace Wildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, until Dec. 17.