Pure sculpture

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Two small exhibits at MoMA and the Guggenheim showcase groundbreaking works by Brancusi


  • Constantin Brancusi. "Mademoiselle Pogany." version I, 1913 (after a marble of 1912). Bronze with black patina 17 1/4 x 8 1/2 x 12 1/2?, on limestone base 5 3/4 x 6 1/8 x 7 3/8?. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo:  Imaging and Visual Resources Department, MoMA "Mademoiselle Pogany" is a portrait of Hungarian artist Margit Pogany, who studied painting in Paris. It was carved from memory in marble in 1912 and later cast in bronze.

  • Installation View: "Guggenheim Collection: Brancusi," Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018

  • Constantin Brancusi. "Bird in Space," c.1941. Bronze 6' high, on two-part stone pedestal 17 3/8" high. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris A version of "Bird in Space" was at the center of an historic trial that began in 1927 and changed the definition of sculpture in this country. No longer did a bird have to look like bird.

  • Constantin Brancusi. "The Cock." 1924. Cherry, 47 5/8" x 18 1/4" x 5 3/4?. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of LeRay W. Berdeau. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris "The Cock" was carved from a single piece of red cherry. Brancusi is said to have claimed, "Le Coq, c'est moi" (The Cock is me).

  • Constantin Brancusi. "Maiastra." 1910-12. White marble, 22? high, on three-part limestone pedestal 70? high, of which the middle section is Double Caryatid, c. 1908. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Katherine S. Dreier Bequest. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Thomas Griesel "Maiastra" is Brancusi's first bird-themed work. It was inspired by a Romanian folk tale about a magical bird.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) fit the mold of the bohemian artist: he had a beard, a penchant for baggy clothes, a cluttered studio in Montparnasse and a reputation as a loner. But he broke the mold when it came to his art and changed the definition of sculpture in this country. No longer did a bird have to look like a bird.

A judge said as much in 1928, after Brancusi sued the U.S. government and won when his “Bird in Space” was slapped with an import tax from which art was exempt. It was classified as a utilitarian item, like a knife or a fork.

“In the meanwhile there has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects,” the decision read. “Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas ... we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art world as recognized by the courts must be considered.”

It didn’t take long for the sculptor to carve a path for himself. After arriving in Paris in 1904 from his native Romania, he apprenticed for a month with Rodin before deciding, “Nothing can grow in the shadow of great trees” and quitting the master’s studio.

“Brancusi enormously respected Rodin, but he came to despise those sculptors who created ‘beefsteak’ art, as he liked to call the figurative works in the traditional style,” Jerome Neutres writes in “Brancusi in New York: 1913-2013.”

His pure, reductive sculptures first exploded on the scene here in 1913 at the Armory Show, a global showcase for modern art held in the Armory building at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. Exhibited alongside the likes of Duchamp, Picasso and Matisse, Brancusi’s five works created a sensation, with one newspaper declaring the alien-looking “Mademoiselle Pogany” a “hard-boiled egg balanced on a cube of sugar.”

But critics and the public ultimately had a favorable reaction to the new avant-garde art. The works on display today at both the Museum of Modern Art (11 sculptures, plus photos, drawings and films) and the Guggenheim (6 sculptures, plus photos) have largely been culled from the museums’ collections and inspire true awe, both for their originality and for their striking simplicity.

Brancusi was drawn to certain subjects in his practice, producing different iterations of heads (women and newborns, especially), birds, fish and other animals by employing different forms and materials.

Some pieces were set atop pedestals that were works of art in their own right and became a part of the sculptures they supported. Other bases “occupied the space between a fully realized sculpture and a bench or a fireplace,” MoMA Associate Curator Paulina Pobocha says.

“His pedestals are of a piece with the way he approached his environment. In his studio in Paris ... he constructed his entire environment. He built fireplaces, benches and supposedly carved holes in stones to place the speakers for his record player. There was a line where his sculpture also bled into these utilitarian things.”

At MoMA, the avian sculptures soar. The stylized “Maiastra” (1910-12) is Brancusi’s first bird-themed work and opens the show. It was inspired by a Romanian folk tale about a magical bird and was likely influenced by Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” which premiered in Paris in 1910. The regal marble rises seven feet in the air, topping a three-part pedestal that features a double caryatid sandwiched between two limestone blocks.

This streamlined bird boasts discernible plumage, swelling breast, legs, neck and open beak, features that are radically pared down in the later bird sculptures, so much so that they virtually disappear (e.g., “Bird in Space,” 1928, c. 1941; “Young Bird,” 1928).

But as former MoMA curator Carolyn Lanchner writes in a survey of the museum’s Brancusi holdings, his sculptures are nonetheless overwhelmingly representational and sourced from nature: “Although his work is often described as abstract and geometric, it is neither.... Typically, details such as facial features are rendered with a minimal, uncannily descriptive inflection of surface.”

Pobocha agrees. “In the same way Picasso abstracted from reality but was never a non-figurative, non-objective artist, Brancusi’s art was always based on things in the world.”

The sculptor himself said: “What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things ... it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its external surface.”

“The Cock” (1924), another member of MoMA’s aviary, was carved from a single piece of red cherry. Brancusi captured its essence with a dramatic serrated form suggesting a rooster’s comb — and full-throated crowing.

“Mademoiselle Pogany” (version 1, 1913), in gleaming bronze with chic chignon, is a refined bust. A portrait of Hungarian artist Margit Pogany, who studied painting in Paris, it is a tight, contemplative evocation of the subject first carved from memory in marble in 1912 and later cast in bronze.

Women, Brancusi believed, moved men to create art. At the Guggenheim, “Muse” (1912) is another gorgeous distillation built from simple forms that convey the essence of female beauty with just hints of facial features and anatomy. It’s an idealized head minus the details. Tradition be damned.

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