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My Brancusi: The Table and Its Double

Author(s): Scott Burton


Source: MoMA, No. 51 (Spring, 1989), p. 4
Published by: The Museum of Modern Art
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4381069
Accessed: 08-08-2015 06:53 UTC

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Brancusi

MY

TH

Tal
$

by Scott Burton
In April, theMuseuminitiatesa series of
Artist'sChoice exhibitions.In thefirst of
these, the sculptor Scott Burton reconsiders the significance of Constantin
Brancusi's work in relation to contemporary art and especially Burton'sown
concernsas an artist. Elementsfromthe
Museum's holdings of sculpture by
Brancusi will be presented in an installation conceived and supervised by Burton. A few key works by
Brancusifromother museumswill also be included.
The exhibition,on view throughJune 28, is organizedby Scott
Burton, in collaborationwithKirkVarnedoe,
Director, Departmentof Painting and Sculpture. It is made possible by grants from
Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, and The
ContemporaryArts Council of The Museum
of Modern Art. During the exhibition, a
selection of Burton'ssculptures will also be
shown, in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
SculptureGarden.

Aboveright
Constantin Brancusi.
Tableof Silence.
1937-38.
Bampotok limestone.
Tirgu-Jiu,Rumania.
Photo: G. Serban.
Right
Constantin Brancusi.
Vase.Late 1930s.
Wood. BrancusiStudio,
Mus6e National d'Art
Moderne, Centre Georges
Pompidou, Paris.
Below right
View of Brancusi's
studio taken by the
artist. 1933-34.
Courtesy Musee National
d'Art Moderne, Centre
Georges Pompidou, Paris.

R
C

H1OI

ST'S

lhe

Artist's Choice exhibitionswill help Museumvisitors to become moreawareof connectionsbetween contemporary creativity and the modern tradition. By
selecting andjuxtaposingworksfrom the Museum'scollection in temporaryexhibitions, artists will provide insight into their own creative intelligence, and also
encourageus to see key momentsin the historyof modern
art from a fresh viewpoint. The ongoing series will demonstratethat the Museum's collection functions not just
as a fixed didactic progression of thoroughly "understood" monuments,but also-and crucially-as a seedbed both for ongoing creativity, and for constant
reassessmentsof the past.
Among those who have responded to modern art's
spiritof individualinnovation, no constituencyhas been
as importantas artiststhemselves. Faced with new artas
radicalas thatof Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock, and many
others since, critics could say "I like that"; collectors
could say "I'll buy that"; dealers could say "I can sell
that"; and scholars could say "I understandthat." But
none of these responsescotld be as vital for the life of
modern art as that of the artists who said, and who still
say, "I can do somethingwith that."The Artist's Choice
series celebratesthe usefulnessof the moderntraditionin
this sense, as a set of possibilitiesstill being explored.
-Kirk Varnedoe,Director
Departmentof Painting and Sculpture

My excitement over Brancusifocuses not on


his works with human and animal subjects,
but on the architectural elements and
works of furniturehe created. The various
kinds of seats and tables he made are especially fascinating. Although I am hardlythe
first to celebrate Brancusi's famous bases,
I see them in a slightly different light from
thatin which they have been discussed before.
The base, or pedestal, is a specializedformof table, and we can
call Brancusi'sobjects of supportpedestal-tables.I do not claim
thatall of themaremajorworksof art, as
wonderfulas the headsor birds. But I do
feel thata numberof them are very fine
and complex-works of the same order
as his other sculptures. Brancusi's best
pieces of furniture are not only functionalobjects but also representationsof
functionalobjects. We have here sculptures of tables, close in character to
Brancusi's other sculptures. They are
both object and subject.
Brancusi's Cups and Vase are pertinent here. As Sidney Geist states: "After the head as object and the torso as
object, Cup is the object as object"
(Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture,
New York: Grossman, 1968). In these
"IUterms, the pedestal is object as objectbut with a role the nonfunctionalworks
do not have. Unlike the variousversions
of Cups, the Brancusitable is an object
simultaneously performing a function
and acting as its own sign. It is a usable meditationon utilitarian
form, as are the fireplace and doorframe in his studio. The
pedestal-tablesare not merely appliedart, but can be seen as autonomoussculpturesof objects, with all the stylisticdevices Brancusi bringsto the representationof organicform.

tabletop, broadbut 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 is one of unity between parts. Ratherthan being
contrastinganddialectical(as is
vertical against horizontal, leg
againsttop), the relationis addi'4
tive. In Brancusi's tables it is
impossible to tell where the
1i
groundedsupportstops and the
top, itself a support,begins.
He often elides the distinction between the tablets and
what I will call the footings:
44
smaller elements, usually
stone, that recur as cylindrical
A
or near-cubicsolids attachedto
the bottoms of the works they
support. These necessary footings probablyfirst inspiredthe
thick tabletform below.
Not manyof Brancusi'spedestalsdependon the appealof carving; most are geometricforms-a vertical stack of spheresof different sizes, for example. Some pedestal-tablesare all wood,
some all stone or plaster,some combinationsof stone and wood.
Some areof one piece, some makea pointof having several parts.
Some are pierced; a few are pierced to the bottom and almost
suggest incipient legs. In some all the sides are identical, but
othershave stronglydistinguishedfronts, sides, and backs. Some
are vertically symmetrical,the top repeatedat the bottom. Some
aresquarein section, some round.The motifs can occur in two- or
three-dimensionalvariations,as trianglesand circles or pyramids
and spheres. Some have a very differentkind of top, thin disksof
metal or glass, usually for the unsupportedheads. Some of the
tables are primitivising,rustic. Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati(Brancusi'sassistantsfrom 1948) describe his style of
"ruggedfurniturethatdiscouragesindolence."It hasa touchofthe
exotic. A typology of Brancusi's pedestal-tableswill reveal a
family of variationsas greatas thatin his othergroupsof work.
We know that Brancusihad a vital interestin furniture.He must
have thought about it from adolescence; Dumitresco and Istrati
tell us thatwhile still a studentat the CraiovaSchool of Arts and
Craftsin Rumania, "he built some pieces of furniturefor an examination." Around the same
time, 1896 or 1897, he madea
summer trip to Vienna, where
he worked either in a carpenter's shop, for a cabinetmaker,
or-the most intriguingsuggestion-"in a furniture factory,
probablythe house of Thonet"
(see the chronologyin RaduVafia, Brancusi, New York:Riz*1
zoi, 1986). (Incidentally,
Viennese Secession style later
hada greatinfluence on someof
Brancusi'swork.) It is tempting
to take a typical bentwoodtable
as Brancusi's startingpoint for
his amazing transformationof
the type, a masterfulconversion
of line into mass. Later on,
Brancusi's two largest works
expressthe importanceof furnitureto him. I refer to the studio
andto the complex thatsums up his life's work, the parkin TirguJiu, Rumania.
Brancusi's enlargementof the nature of the art object is as
original as Marcel Duchamp's new kind of object, the Readymade, or VladimirTatlin'sUtilitarian-Constructivist
works. And
in today's artisticclimate Brancusi's embrace of functionalobjects seems as absolutelycontemporaryas his invention for our
century-long before Earthworks,installationart, and publicart
-of sculptureas place. In a Warholiancontext, Brancusias the
mystic saint may not appeal, but his conceptualside-his imaginativeand intellectualquestioningof the limits of art-is a legitimate, available, and welcome model.

*1',7sk7

How can we look at Brancusi'spedestal-tablesto see theirdoubleness? Whatarethe elementsof transformation?First, andcharacteristically, simplification. Just as he treats a face, he rejects
centralfeaturesof a typicaltable, namelylegs andtop. Now tables
have one great formal problem:an antitheticalrelationbetween
the legs and the top or "table" proper(the tablet or tableau, the
boardlaid across the trestles in early Europeanexamples). Brancusi's pedestal-tablesnever have developed legs or conventionally proportionedtops. He seems to take the shape of a normal

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