12. January 2017

The breadth of the desert and the density of the Swiss Alps: an intellectual game about the correlations between origins, living space and art in Giacometti and Nauman.

By Lisa Beisswanger

Alberto Giacometti and Bruce Nauman are artistic mavericks. Their works cannot clearly be allocated to one particular style or artistic trend. The things they have in common, as the exhibition at the SCHIRN impressively reveals, tend to fall within the sphere of more general artistic interests – in “figure and space” and the search for a “measure of things,” in relationships between people. At the same time, the direct comparison of their works is nevertheless a bit like comparing apples and pears – they couldn’t be more different.

The case is similar when you compare the living and working situations of the two contrary artistic personalities. Bruce Nauman grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the American Midwest. The small town lies amid endless fields of corn. Since the 1980s he has lived and worked in Galisteo, New Mexico, a small settlement of fewer than 300 residents in the middle of the desert. The climate there is extreme, with very little rain.

A cowboy far from the great centers of art

There Nauman lives on a ranch together with his wife Susan Rothenberg, who is a painter. Both have their own studio that directly adjoins the living space. Nauman’s studio is on the ground floor with a fluid transition to the flat landscape outside. What’s more, the studio is relatively spacious in its proportions, but is filled with a huge variety of materials just waiting to one day become art. When Nauman isn’t working in his studio, he takes care of his horses. As a “cowboy artist” this is how he lives, far away from the great centers of art.

Bruce Nauman in Galisteo, New Mexico, Image via barteverly.com

Alberto Giacometti on the other hand came from Bergell in Switzerland, a narrow alpine valley which barely gets a ray of sunshine during the winter. Throughout his life he remained loyal to his small home town of Stampa, where these days you can even arrange Giacometti tours. From 1922 however (with an interruption during the war years) Paris was the focal point of his life. There, at the very heart of the art world at that time, he had a tiny studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, not far from the legendary artist quarter of Montparnasse.

Crowds in the big city

Judging by the numerous black-and-white snapshots, his studio was higher than it was wide and was full to bursting with finished and unfinished plaster sculptures. Even the walls were adorned with sketches. For Giacometti too, his living space was in close proximity to his workspace. In his free time he liked to be around people and was a regular customer of the legendary Parisian cafés, where he liked to debate with other artists and intellectuals. On walks through the streets he observed the crowds of people hurrying by in the big city.

Das Studio von Bruce Nauman, Image via db-artmag.de

Alberto Giacometti in Stampa, Image via bka.ch

Thus both artists dwelt (or dwell) in thoroughly extreme (urban) landscapes, whose overwhelming dimensions and whose loneliness, on the one hand – or overcrowdedness on the other, permit the person as an individual to reverberate back onto himself. Perhaps this is one reason why both artists, in very different ways, use(d) the person as a measure for their works. But does the living space of artists really affect their work so directly?

Work and living space

From an art-historical perspective, the answer to this question can certainly be very different for different times. These days one might well say that artists can by no means be reduced to their artistic, social or howsoever defined environment, that the biography alone cannot be the key to the work. So although characteristics like proximity and verticality or breadth and horizontality, crowdedness and emptiness, light and dark, cold and warm, compromised and open spaces, elongations, rugged surfaces, etc. could be allocated to both artists, their works and their native and chosen living spaces, these sorts of categorizations do not serve as models for explanation and therefore are better left in the realm of loose association. They are interesting merely by way of an intellectual game and as traces that soon take shape, but can quickly be lost once again.

Alberto Giacometti workig in his studio, 1958, Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger © 2016 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger-Archiv, Zürich