There were wonders to be discovered in New York on a recent cold, clear, brilliant December day. Eykyn Maclean, an elegant new gallery with space on two floors of a narrow building on East 67th Street, had mounted an exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti. While there was a great deal of sculpture and much else to see, what I found myself thinking about was Giacometti’s curious habit of drawing on the pages of books or on newspapers and magazines, effacing an author’s words or journalism’s daily dose of reality with his masterful renderings of figures and faces. Something in the tidal wave of unmediated information in which we live today—the sense of words and images as detached from reasoned meanings in our crazily wired and Wikileaked moment—has set me to wondering about Giacometti’s willful obscuring or at least partial obscuring of words and images in some of his drawings. There can be something strangely illiberal—something almost demagogic—in the surfeit of information and pseudo-information we are grappling with now. Liberalism must be grounded in distinctions and discriminations, and the other day I found myself wondering if Giacometti’s habit of drawing over and around texts and images was in fact animated by a desire to make certain kinds of judgments, to explore the relative value of various kinds of experience.
Surely Giacometti—friend of Beckett, Genet, Sartre, Leiris, Crevel, and many other writers—was sensitive to the weight of words. So what do we make of the counterpoint he creates as he works his virtuosic lines against blocks of prose? Is he defacing the text or somehow celebrating it? Or are both impulses involved? When Giacometti copies a self-portrait by van Gogh in blue ink on the text page facing the reproduction in John Rewald’s history of Postimpressionism, my first impulse is to see this as nothing more than Giacometti’s spontaneous response to van Gogh. He’s drawing on the paper that is most immediately available, which means that he’s drawing over Rewald’s text. Now I am beginning to wonder if there is not something more going on. I would not be surprised if Giacometti admired Rewald’s writing, so perhaps when he draws over Rewald’s text he’s suggesting a competition between the interpretive arts, writing and drawing as parallel means of responding to the Dutch artist’s achievement. Through the lacework of Giacometti’s drawing, Rewald’s text can still be read. Word and image become two competing forms of knowledge, a modern-day version of the contests between the arts so beloved of the masters of the Renaissance and the Baroque.
"Portrait de Van Gogh," Alberto Giacometti, 1961, Courtesy Eykyn Maclean LP
As for the drawings Giacometti did on pages of magazines and pieces of newspaper, I used to regard them as great jeu d’esprit. But I now think it is possible to see here a dialogue between the public and the private, the political and the aesthetic. At least this is how Giacometti’s sketches affect me this December, when each morning I find myself dreading the pages of The New York Times, the news of a stubborn recession, a confounding conflict in Afghanistan, a surging Tea Party. With Giacometti, the relation between his drawings and the texts and photographic images in the newspapers and magazines is complex, ambiguous, mercurial. Sometimes he appears to be commenting on the news of the day, as when he repeatedly draws a nude woman on a 1964 France-Soir that contains a photograph and an article about Christine Keeler, the showgirl involved in the Profumo scandal. He is reinventing Keeler as a Giacometti woman, he is undressing her with his pen. On a copy of L’Express with a story and a photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald, it is not entirely clear what Giacometti means to make of the assassin, perhaps he himself is not sure, but he is nevertheless hard at work, reimagining the photograph of Oswald and inscribing on the magazine’s back cover heads and fragments of still-life, the ordinary stuff of his world. Could it be that Giacometti’s newspaper drawings are his way of asserting some private authority in the face of a bewilderment with current events? Could drawing on a newspaper or a magazine—sometimes in an easygoing, even comic spirit—be his way of coming to terms with the unfathomableness of the wide world? Is this Giacometti’s way, in twentieth-century Paris, of cultivating his own garden, with everyday reality the soil from which a private garden grows? After World War II, Meyer Schapiro spoke of the need for American avant-garde artists to cultivate their own gardens. Surely Giacometti must have felt a similar urgency, living as he did among intellectuals who were immersed in postwar politics. The Ekykn Maclean show includes one of Giacometti’s drawings of his friend Sartre, a political animal if there ever was one.
Giacometti drawing on 'France-Soir,' 1963, Courtesy Eykyn Maclean LP
Giacometti drawing on 'L’Express,' 1964, Courtesy Eykyn Maclean LP
Giacometti is by no means the only twentieth-century artist who incorporates newspaper in his work. Picasso and Braque cut up newspapers in order to construct the counter-realities of their collages, and there have been many theories as to the significance that these press clippings have in Cubist collage. It has been argued that if one pays close attention to the journalistic stories Picasso incorporates in his work, one finds a reflection of what some regard as his anarchist sympathies in the years leading up to World War I. Others have thought that the juxtaposition of various newspaper fragments reflects the cacophonous conversations in the Parisian cafés during the Cubist years, the cascade of cosmopolitan voices, the heterogeneity of opinions. De Kooning, in making his 1955 painting Gotham News, found a very different way of using newspaper, inserting the ghost of the day’s news amid his jabbing paint strokes. He would sometimes press sheets of newspaper into his wet paint, apparently to keep the surface from drying overnight. And when he removed the pages the next day and found that the ink had adhered to the paint, he occasionally left the black marks there, as a shadowy text.
Among the drawings at Eykyn Maclean is one that Giacometti made of Braque immediately after the old master’s death in 1963. Braque’s handsome head is an isolated profile, totally real and totally hieratic, as particular as a study by Ingres and as generalized as a figure in an Egyptian tomb. Giacometti was a great admirer of Braque’s paintings, with their heartbreaking, exquisite orchestrations of grays. Some influence may have also gone the other way, at least my thoughts about Giacometti and newspapers have made me think again about a poster by Braque that I’ve lived with for many years, one he designed for an exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in 1956. Braque was obsessed in those years with the image of a bird in flight, and so the poster features one of his emblematic creatures, the entire body composed of a single twisting, angling line. Only here the bird is inscribed on a sheet of newspaper that has been scumbled with white paint in such a way as not to totally obliterate the columns of type, so that if one comes close one can actually read the news and the advertisements. What does it mean to find this dreamy, mystical bird emerging from the pages of a newspaper? Is the juxtaposition of the newspaper and the bird a juxtaposition of the ordinary and the transcendent?
And could it be that Giacometti’s drawings have some similar meaning, if not for him, then certainly for us? In drawing his exquisite figures and faces on pieces of newspaper, Giacometti asserts a reality that complicates everyday reality: the superior reality of his eye, his sight. He is mastering—he is overriding—current events. These drawings, so casual and so gorgeous, trump their quotidian supports. Springing from the page, Giacometti’s line confounds the day’s news with a glimpse of eternity.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.