Proof of Art

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Constantin Brancusi, "View of the Artist's Studio," 1918, Gouache and pencil on board, 13 x 16 1/4". The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Understandably, I have always associated Constantin Brancusi with pure lines and modernism of an overly spiritual kind, the kind someone who wants to “fill the vault of the sky,” as Brancusi once said he did, would gravitate toward. However, I saw his drawings for the first time last week. Two hang in the High Museum in Atlanta, as part of the Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters exhibition. Both are studies, and neither have pure lines. View of the Artist’s Studio, a small painting in gouache and pencil, shows one of the artist’s favorite subjects: his own sculptures. They are arranged haphazardly and painted so that they look like little amorphous creatures. The palette is neutral, made up of browns, grays and ochre. The composition has the quirky quaintness of some of Louise Bourgeois’ drawings of anthropomorphized objects.

A view of Brancusi's studio today

Winifred Nicholson, a painter married to Ben Nicholson, recalled that you always took flowers when you visited Brancusi’s studio, because “he loved them and kept them forever, dead and dry as beautiful as when they were in bloom.” You always took flowers when you visited Louise Bourgeois’ salons, too, or at least you did if you wanted her to pay attention to you. The drawings at the High look like they were made by a man who loved flowers. In other words, they have none of the ascetic austerity that Brancusi’s bronze Bird in Space evokes whenever I see it at the Los Angeles County Museum. Having seen Brancusi’s unpretentious drawings, I am much happier that it’s the Romanian-born Parisian transplant who proved to U.S. courts that abstraction is art.

Constantin Brancusi, "Bird in Space," 1926, bronze.

When, in 1927, photographer and curator Edward Steichen took one of Brancusi’s bronze Birds in Space through customs in the United States, the U.S. deemed the object a “utensil” and taxed him $600. Usually, tax could be waived for works of art, but the long, golden object did not look like art to customs officials. Steichen sued and the trial that followed resembled the one in Miracle on 34th Street — it’s as if the defendant is simply trying to show that magic does not exist.

Artist Jacob Epstein took the stand as a witness at one point, and the cross examination proceeded as follows:
Cross-examiner: Do you make painting your profession?

Epstein: No, sculpture is my profession.

Do you have anything to do with making sculpture similar to Exhibit One?

Well, all sculptures are different.

I asked you if you made anything like Exhibit One?

I may not have the desire to make it.

I did not ask you that.

Justice Waite:  Answer the question. Did you make anything like that exhibit?


In all your thirty years?

No, I have not made anything like that.

Do you consider from the training you have had and based on your experience you had in these different schools and galleries—do you consider that a work of art?

I certainly do.

When you say you consider that a work of art, will you kindly tell me why?

Well, it pleases my sense of beauty, gives me a feeling of pleasure. Made by a sculptor, it has to me a great many elements, but consists in itself as a beautiful object. To me it is a work of art.

So, if we had a brass rail, highly polished, curved in a more or less symmetrical and harmonious circle, it would be a work of art?

It might become a work of art.

Whether it is made by a sculptor or made by a mechanic?

A mechanic cannot make beautiful work.

Do you mean to tell us that Exhibit One, if formed up by a mechanic—that is, a first class mechanic with a file and polishing tools—could not polish that article up?

He can polish it up, but he cannot conceive of the object. That is the whole point. He cannot conceive those particular lines which give it its individual beauty. That is the difference between a mechanic and an artist; he (the mechanic) cannot conceive as an artist.

Justice Waite did eventually agree that Brancusi’s object could be deemed art: “It is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at.”