Devolution into Simplicity

The Guggenheim exhibits Brancusi’s sculptures in a study of modernism’s traits

Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957) is arguably the modern master of sculpture. His serene, simplified sculptures are widely acknowledged as icons of Modernism. Born in Romania and educated in Bucharest, he moved to Paris in 1904, where he spent the rest of his life.

A Rodin protégé, Brancusi eventually broke away from the elder artist’s sculptural tradition. Rather than commissioning craftsmen to enlarge his original clay models, Brancusi was the first modern sculptor to carve works himself, to deal with the so-called “specific object.”

Brancusi worked his themes again and again, taking them through reductive stages. Initially representational and naturalistic, his figures iteratively became simplified to the brink of abstraction. In a Guggenheim exhibition, several of Brancusi’s typical motifs—the kiss, the torsos, and the muses—are followed through to this abstract end, reduced to their core essences.

The series of “sleeping” white marble heads starts with the naturalistic “Head of a Sleeping Child” (c. 1908) and continues with the more elongated “Sleeping Muse I” (1909- 1910). This simplification and refinement is taken even further in “Prometheus”(1911) where the ovoid smooth shape has only the slightest suggestion of a brow bone, with nose, lips, and the ear being only a rough spiral. These works are taken to their sublime conclusion in the extremely abstract works “Beginning of the World” (c. 1920, marble on base of polished steel and limestone) and “Sculpture for the Blind”(1920, in veined marble), where Brancusi’s ovoid shapes have been emptied of all features to create perfectly smooth pure forms.

His torso series takes the same route, from naturalistic fragment of a human “Torso” (1912), to “Torso of a Young Man II” (1923) where the walnut wood is carved into the perfect symbol of a man. The figure can also be read as the archetypal phallic object down to and including the stylized testes; a true symbol of man—primal, yet so refined and assured.

At the same time that he was simplifying his forms, Brancusi acknowledged the craftsmanship that constituted the bases of his sculptures. The respect and integrity he gave in choosing certain materials have influenced contemporary sculptors from Donald Judd to Carl Andre.

Contemporaneous to his work on highly refined sculptures, Brancusi was also working on large totemic wooden pieces that seem more influenced by “primitive” art, and it is in this work that his melding of sculpture and base became one.

All of these works are complemented by their placement on the spiral ramps of the Guggenheim. The exhibition’s stoicism, its light and stillness, the curved white stone, all create a cathedral of calm and peace. The work is ethereal and the atmosphere sublime.

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