Essay review: No More Play by Rosalind Krauss

Any artist’s work can be seen from the vantage of either two, possibly conflicting, perspectives. One of these looks at the oeuvre from within the totality of the individual. The other regards it, far more impersonally, within a historical dimension, which is to say, comparatively, in relation to the work of others and the collective development of a given medium. Often these two perspectives overlap… In Giacometti’s case this is not so. (73)

Alberto Giacometti, “Invisible Object” (1934)

“No More Play” is an essay in the anthology Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths by Rosalind Krauss. I read this particular essay for one of my major questions that deals with Andre Breton vs. Georges Bataille’s perspectives on Surrealism. In this essay, Krauss looks at the art of Alberto Giacometti, specifically in the years leading up to 1934 when he utilized primitivism in his work. She starts with an account (or rather several) about his sculpture “Invisible Object.” She first begins by recounting a rather orthodox-Surrealist story told by Andre Breton about Giacometti being drawn to a mask at a flea market that helped resolve the conflict he was having with the sculpture he was working on. The finding of this mask functioned as a dream, for the dream frees one from emotional scruples. However, in a 1951 catalog of a survey exhibition of Giacometti’s work, Michel Leiris wrote that the piece was sculpted after “‘a young girl with knees half-bent as though offering herself to the beholder'” (43). This reference to a real-world inspiration goes against Breton’s dream-world assumptions because it puts the object at a transparent level to the observable world, which also reflects the attitude of postwar Paris. Breton’s story is suspicious anyway because the piece alludes so clearly to a figure from the Solomon Islands, evidenced in its posture, jut of the head, and shape of breasts. Krauss uses this sculpture as a springboard to talk about the larger issues of the role of primitivism in Giacometti’s art up until 1934, which freed his work from the classical sculptural tradition and Cubism. This primitivism is in accordance with Georges Bataille’s dissident Surrealism, which was arguably transgressive. 

Krauss explores the primitivist implications of African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian influences on mainly Giacometti’s work, which allowed for the celebration of the “primal function of women seen through a primitivized formal logic” (49). This positions at an aggressive anti-Western stance that airs towards the logic of Georges Bataille. Bataille, with his obsessions with perversity and transgressiveness, believes that primitivism is a willing mode of representation (which is unlike the dominant Western belief that Euroamerican artistic styles are simply more developed than non-Western styles). Krauss quotes Bataille: “Art, since it is incontestably art, proceeds in this way by successive destructions. Thus insofar as it liberates instincts, these are sadistic'” (54). He uses the ambivalent term “alteration” to describe the primal impulse of self-representation, making alteration a concept that is both high and low. This ambivalence also indicates the notion of violence being historically lodged in the heart of the sacred: “to be genuine, the very thought of the creative must simultaneously be an experience of death; and that is impossible for any moment of true intensity to exist apart from a cruelty that is equally extreme” (ibid).

Alberto Giacometti, “Suspended Ball” (1930-31)

For a time, Giacometti was a part of the dissident Surrealists, which also included Masson, Desnos, Artaud, Queneau, and Leiris, not only through his incorporation of primitivism in his work but also his participation with Bataille’s Documents. Giacometti’s piece “Suspended Ball” is erotically charged and rooted in pre-Columbian imagery, which garnered the enthusiasm of the orthodox Surrealists, but it is transgressive in its ambiguity of sexual identities and sadism. Because both the wedge and the sphere could each be male or female, discussion of the “third sex” is opened, which is not something the orthodox Surrealists– with their idealism of romantic, heterosexual love– would have been receptive to. According to Krauss, “the transgression contained in [‘Suspended Ball’]’s signifying gesture, we should note, sets it apart simultaneously from Breton’s adamant rejection of the sexually perverse, and the rather anodine, formal jeux d’esprit of Picasso’s transformations of the human body in the late 20’s, with which ‘Suspended Ball’ is often compared” (62). The sculpture participates in the “daemonic logic” of Story of the Eye, in which the eye is manifested in different iterations– eggs, testicles, the sun– as well as its secondary iterations (yolk, tears, urine, semen). Both this particular sculpture and Story of the Eye are conceived as cyclic metaphors in that there is no beginning or end to transformations.

Based off of Bataille and the work/beliefs of the dissident Surrealists, the “hard use” of primitivism can therefore be defined as the use of primitivism to make art “violently anti-idealist and antihumanist” (64). However, by 1935, Giacometti had denied his connection to primitive art and his art in general: he broke with the horizontal sculpture in order to deal with the vertical sculpture, which is a more traditional form, and Krauss believes that his work after this point lost much of the brilliance that was seen in is pre-1935 work.


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