Volume 19 • Issue 5 | June 16 - 22, 2006

©2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris

In sharp contrast to the skinny figures normally associated with artist Alberto Giacometti is his
surreal, haunting “Palace at 4 A.M.,” on view at MoMA through the summer.

Spooked by Giacometti’s Palace all these years

By Jerry Tallmer

In a tucked-away corner of the 6th floor of the rebuilt, enlarged – dare one say edificial? – Museum of Modern Art there is one small gallery newly given over to a dozen pieces of sculpture (using the term loosely) from the Surrealist perios (1926-1934) in the life and work of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) that preceded the great, skinny, harrowed, hollowed-out figures we think of as classic Giacomettis.

The question about the terminology is because one of these dozen pieces, a thing of sticks and wires and glass and string that sits atop its pedestal in a glass box the size of a large suitcase, can hardly be thought of as sculpture at all. Indeed, this eerie configuration, something out of a dream, was first put together by Giacometti “little by little in the late summer of 1932” as outcrop of a love affair of a year earlier in the course of which he and the lady – “a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, magically transformed my every moment” – spent “six whole months hour by hour” erecting “a fantastic … very fragile palace of matchsticks” that kept falling apart at the slightest touch.

In the small town of Lincoln, Illinois, in the year 1921, a new house is under construction. It is still only ladders and beams and window holes and planks – horizontal 2x6’s over which two 13-year-old boys, all but strangers to one another, are making their way, inch by inch across gaping space, with “arms outstretched, teetering like circus acrobats on the high wire.” They do this until it gets dark. “So long,” one of these kids says as they head to their respective homes. “See you tomorrow,” says the same kid or the other. As one of them will one day write.

Fatality already has both these boys lined up. The mother of one died two years earlier in the worldwide 1919 influenza epidemic when the boy was 10, a body-blow with which “the shine went out of everything.” The father of the other will just a few days from now shoot to death a second man, the good friend and neighbor who has been fornicating with his, the shooter’s, wife. Then the shooter – the boy’s father – commits suicide. And the light goes out of that boy’s life.

These two boys inhabit an exquisite 1980 novel by the late William Maxwell, a book of memory plus imagination called So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell is the one whose mother died in 1919 of the flu. To the other boy, the murderer’s son, he gives the name of Cletus Smith.

These two boys also, for me, as they did for William Maxwell, inhabit MoMA’s mysterious work of sculpture, if that’s what it is, by Alberto Giacometti. They are still teeter-walking arms outstretched across those tiny 2x6 planks as I stand in the corner gallery on the 6th floor of the new MoMA and look once more upon the beckoning little ghost Palace as I did so often during the days of my youth and long afterward through the years in the old, warmer, smaller MoMA.

The Giacometti construction is called – he called it – “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” and it has been haunting this viewer’s imagination ever since he first laid eyes upon it when not much older than either of those two boys, forty-something years before William Maxwell ever wrote that novel or I ever read it. My mother started me at the Museum of Modern Art while I was still the last kid in my class to go from knickers to long pants (the whole class stood up and cheered the first day I entered knickerless). No, she did not die when I was 10 or, for that matter, 13; it was when I was much, much older, but Cletus Smith and I have something in common, not the murder, but the suicide.

William Maxwell and I had something in common too: i.e., being spooked over the decades by “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” a concurrence that poked its way into the conversation when, during one of a couple of occasions I had to interview him, he was telling me how, many years earlier, as a longtime fiction editor at the New Yorker, he had to spend a weekend in some trepidation alone in a house at the tip of Long Island with a hard-drinking, embittered, violence-prone John O’Hara, editor Maxwell having to read his way through a batch of inferior O’Hara manuscripts, only to come at last, at midnight, upon a great new and most publishable John O’Hara story called “Imagine Kissing Pete” – a heart-flooding story centered, now that I think of it, on a marriage as rotten as that of Cletus Smith’s parents, but with a different ending.

For that matter, Giacometti and I (and you, and you, and you, and you) also have something in common, because the little female figure like a chess piece in “The Palace,” to the left as you face the installation, is, the artist has said, his own mother. And we all have, or have had, mothers. See above.

Then there’s Giacometti’s hungry-for-life girlfriend of the said era. She is surreally represented, he has revealed, by the little sinuous dangling vertebrae to the right as you face the scene.

Allow me to make a further surreal jump. To me, “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” which finds its way into So Long, See You Tomorrow close to the beginning of that work and reappears just at the end, is in itself the spine, the backbone, the vertebrae of this stunning proof – in an American vernacular as organic, as unforced, as truthful as  Twain’s – that when writing about life, death, loss, betrayal, and guilt, less is more.

The life-hungry girlfriend of Giacometti’s may in another guise be the raped, ravaged, busted open, carnally implicit lobster shell (cast in bronze, 1949) of “Woman With Her Throat Cut,” on the floor near “The Palace” and originally created by Giacometti the very same year as “The Palace,” 1932 – but that is another part of the story. In fact the week’s headlines as I wrote this – discovery of a raped and ravaged body in a Brooklyn wasteland – spelled that same horrible story as ever throughout the history of our species.

There is, to be sure, sexual machinery implicit and (surreally) explicit here and there all through the dozen works in this corner of MoMA’s 6th floor, not least the somewhat outsize genitallic ball-and-scoop dangling in the center of that little Palace – and maybe the sexual factor had something one way or the other to do with Giacometti’s abrupt break with Surrealism after a strenuous argument with André Breton, “the Pope of Surrealism,” in the mid-1930s.  (Columbia University’s Meyer Schapiro once climbed five flights to the skylight studio where I was living on West 11th Street, took one look around, and said: “This is where André Brenton lived during World War II.”)

I do not know what the tiny skeletal prehistoric bird winging its way across an empty window in the upper right of “The Palace at 4 A.M.” represents, or represented to Giacometti. Perhaps a soul in flight?  Too easy, too banal.

I do know this. We are told by Anne Umland, a MoMA curator of Painting and Sculpture and organizer of this stimulating exhibit (in place through July), that Giacometti came to the United States only once in his life, briefly, when Alfred Barr acquired “The Palace” for MoMA in 1936. It so happens that Samuel Beckett came to the United States only once in his life, very briefly – two weeks flat – for the making of his Film by publisher Barney Rosset, director Alan Schneider, actor Buster Keaton, and others, in 1965.

Beckett and Giacometti were friends in Paris. Toward the end of Beckett’s life, Rosset says, the man who wrote Waiting for Godot was so lean, so hollowed, and so beautiful, as to look like nothing so much as a Giacometti sculpture. Not one of the ones in this room, but those others, the classics, down there on the 4th floor.

Still and all, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo and Lucky, and Hamm and Clov, and Nagg and Nell, and Winnie and Willie, and Krapp and his tape, are – with William Maxwell and Cletus Smith – wandering forever in life and death through the Palace at 4 A.M.


Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.
145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 Fax: (212) 229-2790
Advertising: (646) 452-2465 •
© 2006 Community Media, LLC

Email: news@downtownexpress.com

Written permission of the publisher
must be obtainedbefore any of the contents
of this newspaper, in whole or in part,
can be reproduced or redistributed.