Alberto Giacometti, “Head of Diego on ‘La Psychanalyse’” (n.d.), ink on book page; 8 7/8 x 5 1/2 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“What I am looking for is not happiness. I work solely because it is impossible for me to do anything else.” That’s how Alberto Giacometti summed it up, as told by James Lord in Giacometti: A Biography, published in 1997.

The artist’s ceaseless activity is amply on display in Alberto Giacometti Drawings: An Intimate View, a year-end gem of a show curated by Karen Wilkin at the gallery of the New York Studio School. The exhibition is part of a celebration of that venerable institution on the 50th anniversary of its founding by the painter Mercedes Matter, who believed that artists should be trained in an atelier environment rather than an academic one.

The Giacometti drawings — 35 top-tier examples of heads, nudes, still lifes, interiors, and a solitary landscape — have all been chosen from the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection. While there is little room for surprise in terms of content, given Giacometti’s penchant for time-tested motifs, the beauty of such a tightly focused exhibition is the opportunity to observe the variations in the artist’s approach from one sheet to another, zigzagging from casual to manic to classically refined.

In the first of the gallery’s two rooms, there is an undated ballpoint portrait of the artist’s brother Diego done in two different shades of blue ink, one for the head and the other for the crosshatched space surrounding it.

Alberto Giacometti, “Head of Diego” (n.d.), ballpoint pen on paper; 7 1/8 x 5 1/2 inches

Rust-colored stains punctuate the forehead and collarbone, and the paper itself is crumpled — tactile elements that infuse the piece with a certain objecthood, as if Diego, a notable sculptor in his own right as well as a steadfast sitter for Alberto’s endless sessions in clay, emanated a sculptural aura that had to be reckoned with.

Hanging near Diego are a couple of undated works, one showing a pair of scribbled female nudes and, in the other, a vertical stack of male characters capped by a figure brandishing a staff or rifle — an unusual detail for Giacometti.

On the same wall we find another head of Diego, this time covering a page torn from a book on psychoanalysis (an interesting choice for a picture of one’s brother), as well as a sheet filled with several heads sharing space with a matrix of spiraling doodles (both drawings are undated).

The second room holds a selection of larger, more circumspect works, including some dazzlingly translucent still lifes, as well as the lone exterior, “A Mountainous Landscape” (1955), which is rendered with such delicacy that if not for the spindly fir tree at the bottom center, it could be a tumble of sheets cascading off a bed.

In a short but crystalline essay for the show’s handy, affordable catalogue, the poet W.S. Di Piero diagnoses Giacometti’s stylistic restlessness as “a state of nerves that was also a transcription of his form-finding consciousness,” which is about as incisive a statement on the artist’s drawings as you’re ever going to find. Di Piero also cites the “cultivated instability” evidenced in these works, setting up a contrast with Cézanne:

It’s there in his drawing of a bowl of apples from the early 1920s […], ethereally complete in its phantasmal incompleteness. He’s already picking up Cézanne’s quarrel with completeness and carrying it forward in his own practice and on his own terms.

It’s always intriguing to note how indistinguishable some of Giacometti’s early drawings can be from his later ones, while his sculpture after World War II is completely different from what came before. The similarity is indicative of how profoundly he analyzed the problem of seeing, with drawing as his tool. By the 1920s, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, taking their own cues from Cézanne, had already deconstructed and reassembled the perceived object, yet Giacometti soldiered on, pecking away at the problem of representation — of volume, space, and time — for the rest of his life.

Alberto Giacometti, “Studies of Men” (n.d.). Ballpoint pen on newsprint; 8 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches

One page of the catalogue is filled with a single quotation from the artist, which amounts to something of a manifesto: “The more one works on a picture the more impossible it becomes to finish it.”

As futile as that may sound, it also bespeaks an uncommon humility, a recognition of art being greater than the artist. It is one of the reasons why Giacometti continues to be a lodestar for those who take a wide view of art and history, and of the interrelationship of the two with lived experience.

The same paragraph of the James Lord biography that includes “What I am looking for is not happiness” leads off with the artist’s most notorious remark: “In a burning building, I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.” Lord writes that Giacometti’s “order of priority expressed a reverence for life. It also spoke for an awareness that art amounts to little in the balance of living and dying.”

Giacometti, through his incessant investigations — which Di Piero describes in the exhibition catalogue as a “streaming, of-the-instant notation of the real” — never stopped gut-checking his experiential state against that balance of living and dying, an overwhelming endeavor that found consummate form in his whittled-down sculptural figures. In the onrush of time, both the Rembrandt and the cat are caught in the blur.

Permanence is an illusion. Giacometti chooses to save something that is sensate — thereby sharing his experience, no matter the degree of comprehension — over something that is not: an action based on an acute awareness of temporal interconnectedness and the shifting sands beneath the feet of the breathing.

NOTE: Another stellar show marking the Studio School’s anniversary is 12 Painters: The Studio School, 1974/2014 at the Steven Kasher Gallery, which presents six alumni from the 1970s — Andrea Belag, Robert Bordo, Joyce Pensato, David Reed, Adam Simon and Christopher Wool — alongside Mercedes Matter and five other powerhouse teachers: Nicolas Carone, Philip Guston, George McNeil, Steven Sloman and Jack Tworkov.

Alberto Giacometti Drawings: An Intimate View continues at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, West Village, Manhattan) through January 18, 2015.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

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