Giacometti Smith, by Pilar Ordovas (ed.)

Giacometti Smith

Despite Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) and American David Smith (1906-1965) being almost exact contemporaries, of the two sculptors Giacometti’s elongated and distorted human shapes are far better known than Smith’s abstracts.  A tiny exhibition at the Ordovas gallery in London from February to April 2015 brought together two pieces by Giacometti and three by Smith, conceived and made within a few years of each other, in order to facilitate comparison between the two: the pieces by Giacometti were Trois hommes qui marchent, (conceived in 1948) and Femme de Venise IX (conceived in 1956); those by David Smith were Anchorhead (1952), Untitled and Forging VI (both executed in 1955).  The exhibition was supplemented by two videos in which the artists are interviewed.

The accompanying slim 70-page hardback book, containing mostly photographs, cost a hefty £35.  The text of the introduction by its editor Pilar Ordovas can be found, with paragraphing alterations, in the press release on the Ordovas website.  Art historian David Anfam contributes an essay, ‘The French Connection’, which draws out what distinguishes the pair, from their backgrounds (one European metropolitan, the other American rural) to their materials and techniques, but also what links them conceptually which as far as I can understand him might be summed up roughly as Being (Smith) and Nothingness (Giacometti).  Actually Anfam spends far more time describing differences than he does similarities, so it probably best not to set too much store by attempts to shoehorn these two disparate sculptors into a single category.  What he does suggest is that while Giacometti was at the end of a ‘tendency stretching back to ancient Greek kouroi’, implying that the extent of his impact on later sculptors has been limited, Smith was at the beginning of another, influencing a number of practitioners and movements.

One might think that a five-piece exhibition hardly needs a catalogue, but what makes it worthwhile in its own right are the photographs.  We begin with a shot of Giacometti’s studio, taken in about 1960.  Looking down at the floor an easel has a cloth covered in fragments of plaster draped over it, and stools are surrounded by cigarette ends.  It possesses its own beauty and Ordovas likes it so much it is repeated on the front endpaper and half of it marks the end of the Giacometti section. It is followed by photographs of Giacometti round and about in Paris.  One is by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who seems to be lurking behind a tree while his subject runs across a road in the rain, coat up over his head (his cigarette must have been a trifle soggy).  Another is of Giacometti in a cafe, taken from outside.  Are these candid shots by photographers stalking him because he is shy and reclusive?  Robert Doisneau’s picture of the artist’s studio, vertical bottles at top right contrasting with horizontally scattered brushes and palette, reminds us that Giacometti painted as well as sculpted.  Photographs of Giacometti at work on his sculptures at the Tate Gallery in 1965 conclude the section.

In contrast to the photographs of Giacometti in the confines of the Tate’s basement, those of Smith’s sculptures show them and him in a field at Bolton Landing, New York, where he had his studio.  Sticking out of the snow, they look as if they are trying to escape into the woods.  The open air setting gives them a sense a freedom that is stifled in the confines of a gallery, Smith overseeing them like a farmer tending his animals.  A double page spread of Smith welding, cigarette in mouth, reinforces his vigorous approach to the raw material compared to Giacometti’s delicacy.  The book concludes with record shots of the five sculptures in the Ordovas show and technical information on the individual pieces.

Anfam contrasts the frailty of Giacometti’s work compared to the ‘elemental and extroverted’ nature of Smith’s.  To put it another way, Smith’s confident structures might be said to represent the powerful post-war ascendancy of the US against Giacometti’s exhausted spindly Europe, barely able to support its own weight after its ordeal.  However, comparing his human figures against Smith’s cold arrangements of shapes, Giacometti emerges the greater humanist.



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