The Primitive and the Base

John Haber
in New York City

Constantin Brancusi

— Awesome.

— You mean Brancusi at the Modern? Right, tell me about it. I am starting to pray already.

— You think this is a joke? Pieces from Paris have been resting in New York for a bit on their way home. I mean crucial pieces, the ones that were on loan to the Philly retrospective. In an installation together with MoMA's own very sizable holdings, they make quite a core retrospective in itself . . . . Constantin Brancusi's Torso (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1917)

— . . . But awesome? It is only three rooms' worth.

— You are both moving too fast. Why so worried about ensuring that Brancusi is suitably venerated? The two of you are putting him up on a pedestal, same as a museum.

— Well, he invites that. The appropriation of primitive art, the titles that draw on myths about the creation of the world, the fantasies of purified images of one sex or the other . . . .

— Nothing of the sort. Brancusi never settles for those stereotypes.

— Oh, sure. Just as the show slightly exceeds three rooms?

— Maybe. As you enter, in all but an anteroom to itself, a slab of brutally hacked wood, like a fallen totem, lies on a fine polished base. But then another seeming pedestal sits on top of that, before your eye precariously rests on the abstract form at the very top.

— He could be saying that the primitive really is primal, Africa as a dark unconscious on which modernity, no, the whole of Europe rests . . . .

— Is that such a fine acknowledgment, this dark foreigner within the modern? Or is it plain condescending, an imperialist art history?

— . . . Or he could be parodying the whole idea of some supposedly pure formal or psychological base. After all, the pedestal rests on top. He could be replacing an imperialist art history with an inverted history of the primitive.

— His images of gender, then, nurture much the same ambivalence, the same intensity of reversals. There is one I cannot get out of my head. A brass ellipse lies on the ground, without any sculptural base, polished but asymmetric, with only the slightest, most awkward incised design. It could be a female head, a sperm, or a seed. It could be a whole world. Who am I to say which is meant by The Origin of the World?

— Not bad, but take it one step further. Is it truly a work about origins? Or is it a work that knows there is no formal completion, whether in art or life? Brancusi, I hear you saying, promises no payoff. I leave that for mere human narratives.

— The museum, I am more than half afraid, does its best to hide the ambivalence—or at least to elevate ambiguity. The works never sit lost on the floor, waiting for you to circulate among them. The curators have built maybe foot-high platforms, hugging the walls, ample enough to accommodate half a dozen pieces. Brancusi would have wanted you to experience his forms in three dimensions, but you cannot walk there. You cannot even squeeze around all sides of the platforms.

— Brancusi becomes just another part of the grand museum architecture, elegant foregrounds for those famous trapezoidal windows. They leave no ground for the "unmonumental."

— So where Brancusi took fine sculpture down off its pedestal, like Alberto Giacometti around the same time, MoMA has bent over backward to put it back up? Sounds like the modern museum, the museum empire, its expansion, its demand to be looked at, its millennial aspirations, the sculpture garden as mall, or grand sculptural plaza, sure enough.

— Part of the fault, I have to insist, is Brancusi's after all. You spoke, almost despite yourself, of his transcending human understanding. Go back to your ideal view, circulating among fallen objects. You still feel lost in a wilder land, catching privileged glimpses of a truer, more natural culture on the forest floor. Brancusi wants you never to lose that sense of awe.

— What is so tricky, what makes it so hard to decide, is the play with the primitive and the modern, the male and the female. He rests each on the other, and neither has the last word. The two pairs never line up either. The primitive, like the vertical form, is not simply the male or female impulse.

— What is really so tricky is that Brancusi retains all the old terms, even while he destroys the values associated with them. What sometimes seems so old-fashioned in modern art is the very set of oppositions that it accepts as defining. In that sense, Modernism never was a revolution.

— But only an overturning? Hold your breath. I hear some heavy theoretical machinery coming up.

— And anyway, who is doing the accepting? We have been tossing around supposedly tired sculptural conventions, the museum in this age of inflated markets, modernist gamesmanship in between, the artist's prejudices, our own . . . .

— Maybe I am a little slow, but awe that comes from work that exceeds expectations is pretty darn well earned, no? The High Renaissance was a precarious balance. Brancusi's Modernism is a precarious imbalance. It is a glory to behold, and it could not last. I was surprised at how few are the years represented in those three . . . okay, three and a fraction rooms.

— Take that idea of imbalance and return to the problem of the base and superstructure. This sculpture is impressive. So many modern theories pay homage to exactly those ideas. Freud wonders how much of the base any conscious superstructure, even art, can bring to light. Marx asks how high the capitalist superstructure can grow before the base, the workers, recover their share.

— Theory, nothing. What about art? Artists are the ones who made those ideas work. All along, they were diving into the formal underpinnings of their art. All along, they knew about broader social conventions, gender restrictions, and political connections. It is all there.

— Or ask what happens when Brancusi like Gonzalo Fonseca either incorporates the base explicitly into the art, as in those pedestals, or cuts it away and excludes it, as in the polished metal Origins. It is like bringing the frame of a painting into the work. At first it seems to solve the problem of the frame's being neither simply part of the work nor simply part of the outside world. But as you look, it makes the whole point of a frame unspeakable. It forces you to ask where the work stops.

— Soon everything in and around Brancusi's art becomes a frame. Think of the influence on Isamu Noguchi, a student of his and, later, Buckminster Fuller before his buckyballs. It is what Derrida calls a parergon, a coinage of his meaning neither inside nor outside. The greatest formalism, the purest art, is to make purity impossible.

— In the same way, no art can claim to be a primitive truth, so long as it necessarily falls within our own history. No more can it claim to be simply the modern, for the same reason.

— At the museum I let it enter my history. I cheated a little and squeezed behind the platform, down near the wall and windows. The art does look away, out to the origins of the world . . . but really so it will not catch you cheating. Try it!

— So what if I get caught?

— Caught up in the mystique of the work of art?

— You were framed.

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The retrospective of Constantin Brancusi ran in the spring of 1996, at The Museum of Modern Art. My improvisation for n + 1 voices offers apologies to Jacques Derrida and his essay "Restitutions."


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