As we share our Sculpture issue this month, Art in America is looking back on a March 1990 feature in which artist Scott Burton argues persuasively for an understanding of Brancusi’s bases as works of art in their own right.
THE TABLE AND ITS DOUBLE
MY EXCITEMENT OVER BRANCUSI focuses not on his works with humans and animal subjects, but on the architectural elements and works of furniture he created. The various kinds of seats and tables he made are especially fascinating. Although I am hardly the first to celebrate Brancusi’s famous bases, I see them in a slightly different light from that in which they have been discussed before.
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The base, or pedestal, is a specialized form of table, and we can call Brancusi’s objects of support “pedestal-tables.” I do not claim that all of them are major works of art, as wonderful as the heads or birds. But I do feel that a number of them are very fine and complex-works of the same order as his other sculptures. William Tucker has declared bluntly, “The bases are not works of art” (Early Modern Sculpture, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974). More liberal and interested but of the same judgment is Sidney Geist, who states in his indispensable book on Brancusi that “the pedestals are not works of art,” characterizing them as “decorative objects of the same kind as picture frames” (Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture, New York, Grossman, 1968). Most advanced in the interpretation of Brancusi’s functional objects is Pontus Hulten. His 1983 essay on Brancusi brings us—almost—to a late 20th-century point of view. He reiterates the by now old case for Brancusi as the first Minimalist, but he also lays the groundwork for the case for Brancusi as the first furniture artist and the first Brancusi of the sculptures proper; he emphasizes the artist’s “passionate concern for the rapport of his sculptures with the space around them” and demonstrates how around 1915 “the distinction between the sculptures, the works commonly referred to as their bases, and the other objects in Brancusi’s studio became ever more blurred.” This is a progressive assessment, but even Hulten says that the pedestal-table “should not by its nature be quite the same as what it supports” (Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi, New York, Abrams, 1987).
I think, however, that some of Brancusi’s pedestal-tables are of the same conceptual order as any of his busts or torsos. His best pieces of furniture are not only functional objects but also representations of functional objects. We have here sculptures of tables, close in character to Brancusi’s other sculptures. They are both object and subject.
Brancusi’s Cup pieces and Vase are pertinent here. As Geist states: “After the head as object and the torso as object, Cup is the object as object.” In these terms, Brancusi’s pedestal is also the object as object—but with a (supportive) role the nonfunctional works do not have. Unlike the various versions of Cup, the Brancusi table is an object simultaneously performing a function and acting as its own sign. It is a usable meditation on utilitarian form, as are the fireplace and door frame in Brancusi’s studio. The pedestal-tables are not merely applied art but autonomous sculptures of objects, with all the stylistic devices Brancusi brings to the representation of organic form. The pedestals are significant not only because they are wonderfully cut but because they are representational.
There are a couple of Brancusis that may be top-to-bottom representations, not unlike a traditional painting of a still life and the table that supports it. Architectural Fragment (despite its title) and Exotic Plant fit the theory. Both works are on a particular base forever. These sculptures work as two-part units. It seems to me that it is modern to include the whole support as well as the still life. Brancusi may have touched on this modern notion.
One of the models for Brancusi’s bases is a classic form or type of pedestal occurring at least since the time of the Egyptians. In an important photograph of one of his early studios, taken by Brancusi around 1907, we can see a commonplace 19th-century wooden pedestal, complete with piled-up, graduated concentric disks. But with Brancusi, the table reference hovers nearby to complicate the pedestal idea.
HOW CAN WE LOOK AT BRANCUSI’S pedestal-tables to see their doubleness? What are the elements of transformation? Above all, and characteristically, simplification. Just as he treats a face by rejecting specific detail, he rejects the principal features of a typical table, namely legs and top. Now, tables have one great formal problem: an antithetical relation between the legs and the top or “table” proper (the tablet or Brancusi’s pedestal-tables never have conventionally proportioned tops. He seems to take the shape of a normal tabletop, broad but thin, and squeeze it into a chunky, thick little mass. You can sense a physical gesture, a kinesthetic impulse. The resulting relation between the monopodal support and the small block on top of it is one of unity between parts. Rather than being contrasting and dialectical (as is vertical against horizontal, leg against top), the relation is additive. In Brancusi’s tables it is often impossible to tell where the grounded support stops and the top (itself a support) begins.
In addition to the two major forms of pedestal-table and one special kind (to be discussed below), Brancusi made two or three other types of pedestal-tables. One group takes a form which is pilaster-like, with a flat back suggesting architectural alignment against a wall and with motifs that connote living (though not human) creatures. The Museum of Modern Art has one of these, used for the Blond Negress. Another group consists of roughly carved, scored works in wood-asymmetrical, improvised, often cantilevered. Not many of Brancusi’s pedestals depend on the appeal of carving; most are geometric forms—a vertical stack of spheres of different sizes, for example.
Some pedestal-tables are all wood, some all stone or plaster, some combinations of stone and wood. Some are of one piece, some make a point of having several parts. Many are top-heavy. All are monopodal, of course. Some are pierced, sometimes in such a way as to almost suggest incipient legs. In some, all the sides are identical, but others have strongly distinguished fronts, sides and backs. Some are vertically symmetrical, the top repeated at the bottom. Some are square in section, some round. The motifs can occur in two- or three-dimensional variations, as triangles and circles or pyramids and spheres. Some have a very different kind of top, thin disks of metal or glass, usually to hold the unsupported heads. Many of the tables are primitivizing, rustic, with a touch of the exotic. A typology of Brancusi’s pedestal-tables will reveal a richness of variation as great as that found in other groups of his work.
Compare the Museum of Modern Art’s head of The Newborn with an important pedestal (for The Sorceress, now in the Guggenheim Museum), which Brancusi singled out for photographing by itself. The elimination of facial features in The Newborn and of structural features in the pedestal-table is the same, and the signs for mouth and eye of the bronze head are clearly from the same repertory of motifs as the disks or semicircles of the wooden table. (Note also the double top—two thick superimposed blocks—of this beautiful table.) The heads are negatively important to the pedestals: in their portability and instability, their baselessness, they are independent. The autonomy of the head confirms the autonomy of the pedestal.
We know that Brancusi had a vital interest in furniture. Dumitresco and Istrati (Brancusi’s assistants after 1948) describe his style of “rugged furniture that discourages indolence.” He must have thought about it from adolescence; Dumitresco and Istrati tell us that while still a student at the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts in Romania, “he built some pieces of furniture for an examination.” Around the same time, 1896 or ’97, he made a summer trip to Vienna, where he worked either in a carpenter’s shop, for a cabinetmaker, or—the most intriguing suggestion—”in a furniture factory, probably the house of Thonet” (see the chronology in Radu Varia, Brancusi, New York, Rizzoli, 1986). (Incidentally, Viennese Secession drawing style had a great influence on some of Brancusi’s work—cf. The Kiss, 1908.) It is tempting to take a typical bentwood table as Brancusi’s starting point for his amazing transformation of the type, a masterful conversion of line into mass. Later on, Brancusi’s two largest works express the importance of furniture to him. I refer to his studio, and to the complex that sums up his life’s work, the park in Tirgu-Jiu, Romania.
Brancusi’s enlargement of the definition of the art object is as original as Duchamp’s new kind of object, the readymade, or Tatlin’s utilitarian Constructivist works. And in today’s artistic climate Brancusi’s embrace of functional objects seems as absolutely contemporary as his invention for our century-long before earthworks, installation art and today’s public art of sculpture as place. In a Warholian context, Brancusi the mystic saint may not appeal, but his conceptual side—his imaginative and intellectual questioning of the limits of art—is a legitimate, available and welcome model.
ONE MAJOR FORM OF BRANCUSI’S TABLES
THE DOUBLE-DRUM FORM, a stacked pair of unequal cylinders of disks, occurs in numerous pedestal-tables of stone, in several studio tables of plaster and, supremely, in the Table of Silence in the park at Tirgu-Jiu. The Museum of Modern Art’s Fish base is a choice example of this type. Istrati and Dumitresco have provided us with its background: “In the studio on Impasse Ronsin, the blue-grey marble Fish was atop a big slab of plaster. When Fish was sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the sculptor designed smaller bases [actually a two-part base] for it. Alexandre Istrati carved these [components] in 1948 in accordance with the new measurements. The sculpture lost none of its presence.” In some sense it is foolhardy to separate the Fish from its base even temporarily, given the thematic relation that the two elements may have: it has been suggested that the stone circle over which the fish floats may be a representation of a pool, lake or ocean. But the base alone surely holds its own as sculpture.
The two-cylinder works, whether broad and low independent tables or smaller and more vertical sculpture bases, are all powerful abstractions of tables. Geist suggests that the Table of Silence is “possibly intended as a monumental version of a little, low, round wooden table, with three or four legs—the masa joasa—found in some Romanian peasant cottages.” Another great transformation, the Table of Silence is surely as monumental as the Endless Column. Carola Giedion-Welcker wrote, “it was Brancusi’s intention that the Table of Silence be used for the leisurely repasts and friendly gatherings of the people” (Constantin Brancusi, New York, Braziller, 1959). Thus it is both a functional work and a moving and elevated work of art.
ANOTHER MAJOR FORM OF BRANCUSI’S TABLES
CONSIDER THE “SQUARE HOURGLASS” in wood, another principal table form. Geist describes the module as “paired truncated pyramids now apex to apex, now base to base.” If you see the basic unit in the classic pedestal-table form. It is the clearest transformation of a traditional pedestal, with its spreading foot and top and its narrow waist. In a Brancusi photograph of ca. 1921 or ’22 there is a pair of such forms with extremely thick tablet tops. This pair must surely be one of his most successful table sculptures.
The Museum of Modern Art is fortunate to have the only Endless Column outside of the studio and Tirgu-Jiu. (Another, installed in Edward Steichen’s garden, was cut up and dispersed.) The single module which makes a base for the birdlike figure in Chimera is a one-unit Endless Column: it is joined to the figure by a pierced element and all three forms are inseparable. Which came first—the Endless Column or the single module? Hulten has “no doubt that the module of the Endless Column was first a base, or part of a support.” However, Geist and others say the opposite, supposing the emergence of the module originally in multiple. If Hulten is right, the Endless Column might be seen as a mighty étagère, a quantity of little tables stacked on top of one another. This is an unlikely image. The more likely genesis of the work can be seen in a good print of Brancusi’s· photograph of the well-known Groupe Mobile, 1917 (reproduced in Brancusi, Photographer, New York, Agrinde, 1979, plate 9). In it, the column holding the cup is an example of his two-dimensionally serrated motif, but discernible on one side are lines indicating additional cuts to be made—which would result in the definitive truncated pyramids. The Endless Column appeared sometime after 1915. We may have here a documentation of its origin.
Geist does not dismiss the Endless Column; he values it greatly but still calls it “a work of high decoration.” I think another layer of interpretation is possible; we can look at it as the depiction of a column, as another sculpture of a thing. Of course it has a mute modernist distance from its model, the classical commemorative monument. It was unnecessary for Brancusi to put a figure on top: the column is its own image.
A SPECIAL CASE: THE FIGURATIVE PEDESTALS
BRANCUSI MADE TWO LARGE CARYATIDS, free-standing full figures in wood; several small, strange, wooden full figures; and two other key works that include reduced full figures as bases or as base components. Two other key works that include reduced full figures as bases or as base components. One is the Museum of Modern Art’s Magic Bird, 1910-12. In the work’s present form, the base consists of a three-part limestone pedestal whose middle element is figural. The “gothic” stone carving of the two figures is deliberately unfinished—more a sketch of a representation than a representation. The figural element was made around 1908, and two years later the bird was joined to it. The conjunction creates a thematic relation between two orders of being: lowly, sagging, half-formed humanity, contrasted with lifting, perfect, supernatural force above.
An even more special case of the thematic use of the table as a figure is the extraordinary Adam and Eve. Again, the lower figural component was done first (1916), and the upper added a few years later (1917-21). But this work belongs entirely to the order of mortal humanity. It is Shakespearean in its comedy. The sexual politics are far from those of the near-equal, androgynized couple in The Kiss; suffice it to say that Adam and Eve is pronouncedly heterophile. Difference between the male and female is its most important note. The Adam is submissive, secondary—a table—and the Eve triumphant and erect. The block of wood between the two figures is proportionally much more like a traditional table too than in most of Brancusi’s pedestals. Usually, part of the function of the blocks is to make an equivalence between what is above and what is below. But here, Brancusi wanted to make sure Adam would be read as a table—he wanted to destroy the equivalence.
The psychology of this piece is fascinating, but Brancusi’s multiplicity of purpose is also fascinating. He adds a third layer to his construct of table as sculpture and sculpture as table—a figurative layer with a point. The hierarchical works with their figurative bases are special cases, and in their top-to-bottom, almost narrative completeness, they are among Brancusi’s most eloquent.
This article appears under the title “My Brancusi” in the March 1990 issue, pp. 149–157.