Newsprint and Transcendence: Alberto Giacometti vs. the Horrors of the Media Circus.

KeelerVanGogh_0 Jed Perl in The New Republic:

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.