Magnificent Obsession

Artist Alberto Giacometti’s singular vision is celebrated in a special centennial exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art

Best known for his tall, spindly, vanishingly thin bronze sculptures of walking men and standing women, Alberto Giacometti also achieved early recognition for his numerous Surrealist works and later acclaim for his radically original portraits. A major retrospective of his work (nearly 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures) opened in October 2001 at New York's Museum of Modern Art to coincide with the anniversary of his birth 100 years ago on October 10, 1901.

"One of the great struggles in the history of 20th-century art," says MoMA curator Anne Umland, "is that between abstraction and figuration, the ideal and the real, and this all comes together in Giacometti's work." On view through January 8, 2002, the exhibition and its accompanying catalog (MoMA/Abrams) were a collaboration with the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Switzerland.

"The artist," Giacometti once said, "must portray things as he sees them, not as others show them." Although considered one of the titans of 20th-century sculpture and painting, he never stopped struggling to achieve that goal, and claimed to the end that he had failed. That persistent sense of failure, along with his striking, almost dissolute appearance, became his trademark. "He is the man who burns. I have seen his face always pale, his eyes blazing, his hair charged with electricity, attracted by celestial gravitation," wrote one contemporary.

Early works such as Suspended Ball (characterized by one art historian as "an erotic machine...for the disconnection of the sexes") are on display in this unprecedented exhibition, along with such enigmatic later sculptures as a spectral woman standing on a chariot, a hollow-mouthed head of a man stuck on a rod, and a spindly falling figure with arms outspread. There are also extraordinary portraits—in bronze, plaster and paint—of his devoted brother and lifelong assistant, Diego, and his model, muse and wife, Annette.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.