Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Certain Doubt

I've always loved the end of Sylvester's autobiographical essay 'Curriculum Vitae' (in About Modern Art, first published 1996), which confronts Sylvester's disappointment at seeing a Giacometti retrospective in 1978, when it occurred to him that:

'Seeking had become- what it never had with Cézanne, say, or with Mondrian- fetishistic.
One day (according to Maurice Jardot) Picasso told Michel Leiris that he felt that the work of their old friend Giacometti was becoming increasingly monotonous and repetitive. Trying to explain and excuse this, Leiris spoke of Giacometti's consuming and intense desire "to find a new solution to the problem of figuration". Picasso answered: "In the first place there isn't any solution, there never is a solution, and that's as it should be.'

This comes, of course, from someone who did perhaps more than anyone else to establish Giacometti's reputation in Britain and whose monograph on the artist (Looking at Giacometti, 1994) was thirty-five years in the making. It's nothing like a loss of faith but an acceptance that opinions change over time.

I quote this because it complements something John Ashbery wrote in 1971 which I recently read, reprinted in Jed Perl's anthology Art in America, 1945-1970. Ashbery notes similarities between Giacometti and Leland Bell, with the caveat that:

'where the latter artist [Giacometti] seems sometimes to have embarked on a hopeless mission, a sort of Penelope's web created only to be rubbed out and rebegun, Bell is not afraid to contemplate completeness [...]'

Ashbery, like Sylvester, knew something about doubt and uncertainty, and like Sylvester, realized that for that uncertainty to become permanent is a parody of itself, a strange kind of certainty.

Of course, there are many similarities between Giacometti and another of Sylvester's passions, Francis Bacon, not the least of which is the knowledge one has in looking at their works that they could so easily have been destroyed, or are perhaps inferior to works which didn't survive. I often think of their surviving works like the fortunate survivors from ancient civilizations, which managed to escape all the opportunities for their destruction (this of course applies in different degrees to all art), with this exchange from Giacometti's interview with Sylvester (in Looking at Giacometti) an indication as to why:

DS: So when we see, say, a standing woman, this sculpture cast in bronze has possibly been made in a couple of hours but had already been done perhaps fifty or a hundred times.
AG: Yes, certainly.
DS: Do you know whether you need this constant repetition for personal reasons or for artistic reasons? And when you've redone something fifty times, is it decidedly better the fiftieth time than it was the twentieth?
AG: Absolutely not. Maybe no better than the first time.

There's always the risk of romanticising the destructive element in Giacometti and Bacon, and no doubt many other artists have gone through the same process without it becoming part of their mystique in this way. But to go back to Giacometti's doubt, one of his differences from Bacon is that I can't imagine Bacon saying this (again from the Looking at Giacometti interview):

'It's a matter of complete indifference to me whether a work is a success or not [...] A failure interests me just as much as a success. And we ought to exhibit our less good works rather than choose the best [...] because if there are others hidden away that aren't so good and don't hold up, even if you don't show them they still exist. And if someone looks very carefully he can see weaknesses even in the best of them. So we should start with the poorest.'

Bacon, the gambler, took risks in his work because he was constantly hoping for the marvellous accident that would produce a masterpiece and define his career, make his time on earth mean something. He took an impersonal view of luck and was happy to accept it. Giacometti, in this statement at any rate, saw every piece as one more plus or minus in the overall tally. The question with Giacometti, which the Picasso anecdote above sums up wonderfully, is this: if Bacon was concerned with 'deepening the game' he thought art had become, was Giacometti refusing to play it? Marla Daniels has that great line from The Wire: "you cannot lose if you do not play".

No comments:

Post a Comment