Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

“Isabel and other intimate strangers – Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon” – Gagosian Gallery, Madison Avenue, New York

Posted in Reviews by jeremygoldsmith on November 26, 2008

baconIn contrast to Gagosian’s slightly disappointing exhibition of new Richard Prince paintings downtown, his Giacometti and Bacon show recently opened at the uptown Madison Avenue space provides an interesting insight in to the life and work of two very different yet frighteningly similar modern and post-war masters.


Drawn mainly from institutions and private collections around the world, the show brings together a group of works (many which have not been seen publicly for some time) by each artist that highlight the similarity between the artists’ ideas and philosophies. Throughout their respective careers, Giacometti and Bacon were both troubled by the existential challenges and mysteries faced by modern man expressed through the human figure and psyche. Portraits of friends and family were the predominant subject matter for both artists and while Bacon exclusively painted; Giacometti produced both figurative sculptures and paintings dealing with these themes. 


Spread across two floors in several galleries, sculptures, drawings and paintings by Giacometti are interspersed with both small and large scale paintings by Bacon, including a few large and small scale triptychs. The contorted forms in Bacon’s portraits which pull and twist the sitter into a deranged, anxious and distraught state echo the squashed and compressed, almost lumpy figures that Giacometti is so famous for. When confronted with the side by side comparison of the two artists’ works, it becomes alarmingly apparent that although working in a fundamentally different media, the artists share a similar style of working: that of constant pushing, pulling and re-working their respective media. The pronounced finger marks in Giacometti’s sculptures left behind during the working and moulding of the clay used to create the bronze casts correlates quite closely to the evidence of Bacon’s brush and palette knife on the surface of his canvases as he incessantly scraped and applied layers of paint in creating his haunting images.


Both artists’ works have the ability to appear aesthetically beautiful while at the same time haunting and discomforting. Meandering through the lengthy exhibition seeing all of these works in both contexts leaves the viewer in a state of excitement, perplexity and even distress. Furthermore, the exhibition inaugurates the new fourth floor galleries of the Madison Avenue space heightening the importance and surreal feelings experienced from manoeuvring or even gliding through the dramatic show.


It seems like an opportune time for Gagosian to present such a magnificent exhibition. Over the past few years Bacon prices on the international market are soaring to higher and higher levels which has attracted significant media attention throughout the art community. Additionally, the Tate Britain is currently holding a major Bacon retrospective drawing in art lovers from around the world and interestingly the first major exhibition of Giacometti’s work in Russia has recently opened at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Considering that some of the newest major Bacon buyers have been Russians and such a high percentage of Gagosian’s recent buyers have been Russian, it seems only appropriate for him to point out this interesting and important connection between these two great and complex “blue chip” artists.


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