Brancusis Seen Through Blinders
By Jason Edward Kaufman
At the Museum of Modern Art, a new program is underway in which contemporary artists choose and install artworks from the Museum’s permanent collection. Opening this “Artist’s Choice” series is a group of works by the great Romanian-born sculptor, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). The selected artist-curator is Scott Burton (b. 1939), a manufacturer of lithic chairs and designer of public spaces.
Among the dozen or so Brancusis assembled are Bird in Space and The Cock, which stand like sentinels on a platform just outside the third-floor gallery in which are distributed Magic Bird, Adam and Eve, The Newborn, Endless Column, and other favorites.
According to Kirk Varnedoe, director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and organizer of the “Artist’s Choice” series, “The selections and juxtapositions in these shows will shed light on the creative intelligence of the contemporary artists who conceive them, and will allow us to see key moments in the history of modern art from a fresh viewpoint.”
These shows will maintain modern art’s “tradition of individual interpretation,” he says, and will recharge the fields of energy surrounding works in the Museum’s collection.
There is no question that Brancusi represents a key moment in the history of modern art, and it is a great pleasure to have his work on hand. But, new interpretations are not always valuable ones, and Mr. Burton’s presentation of Brancusi is limited, fragmentary, and self-serving. We cannot cast aside the criteria that make for good curatorship simply because the curator is an artist, or a celebrity.
Burton, the furniture maker, is quite naturally concerned mainly with Brancusi’s furniture. But, since the Museum owns none of the side chairs, benches, and tables which Brancusi carved for his Paris studio, nor any of the stone tables and chairs Brancusi erected in a park in Romania, Burton focuses instead on the next best thing: Brancusi’s sculpture bases.
In fact, he exhibits some of Brancusi’s pedestals — without the sculptures they were intended to support — as sculptures in their own right. Thus, the centerpiece of the show is not the elegant, gray, slippery Fish (1930), but the pair of limestone discs that form that sculpture’s base. And similarly, the pedestal of the Guggenheim’s The Sorceress (1916) has been loaned, while The Sorceress herself is left in storage.
Burton reasons that since Brancusi’s sculptures of ovoid heads (The Newborn, Sleeping Child, Prometheus, etc.) were intended as autonomous works, the pedestals, too, must be considered on their own — an argument the logic of which escapes me.
In the brick-colored brochure which he has authored for the exhibition, Burton states that Brancusi’s “best pieces of furniture are … representations of functional objects,” and asserts that the pedestals, too, are “representations” of tables or of columns.
In fact, however good this notion of “representations of objects” may sound, it does not provide a critical apparatus of adequate sophistication to embrace even Brancusi’s pedestal-bases, let alone his art in its totality.
Largely, Burton neglects to examine the bases in relation to the sculptures they support. Instead, he pursues “a typology of Brancusi’s pedestals,” dwelling on their relationship to more typical “functional objects.” He admires Brancusi’s tables, for example, because they suggest to him “a physical gesture, a kinesthetic impulse,” as though Brancusi squeezed an ordinary object into a compact format.
While Burton is not entirely oblivious of the philosophical and spiritual aspect of Brancusi’s abstraction, in his formalist search for affinities between his own Minimalist furnishings and Brancusi’s sculptures, he blinders us to the more fundamental issues with which Brancusi dealt. The result is that he deflects museumgoers from experiencing Brancusi’s works in the larger context in which they were conceived. Is this the “fresh viewpoint” from which Varnedoe would have us encounter his Museum’s collection?
A more essential understanding of Brancusi’s art recognizes that his work was not merely a reduction of physical form into a more appealing shape, as Burton might have us believe, but an almost Neoplatonic conceptualization of form. “Everything — animate or inanimate –has a spirit,” he said. “I must express the spirit of the subject, … the idea of the subject: that which never dies.”
In many of his vertical, totemic sculptures, one observes a progression from crude material on the bottom to rarefied, almost visionary forms at the top, a symbolic escalation from the worldly to the ideal.
For example, the work titled Maiastra (1910 version) after a “Magic Bird” of Romanian folklore, is divided into two sets of elements. The lower portion consists of a rectangular pillar from which semi-formed human caryatids emerge; the upper section comprises a gleaming white cube surmounted by the sleek “Magic Bird.” The iconic and ideal form rises from the base matter with which it contrasts.
Burton mentions the “two orders of being,” but labels the work a “special case of the thematic use of the table as a figure.” I would argue that this is not a “special case,” that the pedestal-bases are always thematic, and that they are integral components of Brancusi’s metaphysical works.
Where does the pedestal end and the sculpture begin? Brancusi would say they are united in his compositions.
My point is that to isolate the pedestals is to dismember Brancusi’s art and to nullify its conceptual content: Burton suggests that the original wooden version of Endless Column (1918), a 96-foot iron rendition of which rises in the public park at Tirgu Jiu, Romania, is a modernist version of a classical memorial column, “the depiction of a column.” Brancusi, however, regarded it as “… a column which, if enlarged, would support the vault of heaven.” Rather than expand our critical faculties, “Burton on Brancusi” stunts them.
I was surprised that Burton, the designer of public spaces, did not quote Brancusi’s very interesting statement on the subject: “I would like my works to be built in parks and public gardens. I would like children to play on them, as they would have played on stones and monuments born from the earth. Nobody should know what they are or who did them, but everybody should feel their necessity and friendliness, like something that is part of Nature’s soul.”
Concurrent with the exhibition, visitors to MOMA can try out some of Scott Burton’s rock chairs (1980-86) in the Museum’s garden. To view one of his most successful public spaces, enter the atrium (1985-6) of Equitable Center, 787 Seventh Avenue. An exhibition of Burton’s work will appear at the Max Protech Gallery, 560 Broadway, from May 4 through June 10. For further information call (212) 966-5454.
“Artist’s Choice: Burton on Brancusi,” first in the “Artist’s Choice” series at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, remains on view through June 28. For further information call (212) 708-9400.
The Museum’s second “Contemporary Art in Context” program takes place next week, and will feature a series of lectures and panel discussions by prominent persons in the art world. The speakers will address such topics as “changes in the collecting of contemporary art” (Thursday, May 4, at 8:30 PM); “issues concerning contemporary artists” (Friday, May 5, 8:30 PM); and “the changing situation over the last twenty years of American artists from diverse cultures” (Saturday, May 6, 10:00 AM and 12:00 Noon). Tickets are $8 and may be purchased at the information desk in the lobby. Ä
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Apr. 27, 1989, p. 16.