Sometimes it only takes one object for a visit to a museum to be remarkable. But you have to stop and look carefully.
I went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York yesterday and was struck by the way that, much of the time, people moved around in the space neither stopping nor looking.
In some ways, this is understandable. The Guggenheim, with its long, spiraling ramp could be seen as much as a place to walk as to look. You’re going up or down, past rectangular objects that work in opposition to the curved wall, and the rise and fall of the floor can be disorienting in relation to the displays.
At least that’s one way of looking at it. Another is that the space lends itself perfectly to progressive looking and to curatorial storytelling. You can look at works in sequence without wondering which way round the room you should be going
Whatever view you take of the Guggenheim ramp, there are moments in which the museum expands out into more conventional gallery spaces. And in these, it becomes clear that the extent to which we are prepared to engage in a more considered way with the objects doesn’t depend on the shape of the space or the care of the curation but entirely on our willingness to look.
Brancusi’s The Miracle (Seal ) is set in what amounts to a radiating side-chapel of the Guggenheim’s ambulatory spiral. It is as beautifully displayed as so beautifully simple an object could be. There is space to let the form breathe; crisp angular architecture to offset its curvilinearity; colour to play against the cream pedestal and grey-inflected white marble; and clean light that makes every edge sharp and clear. There is nothing to interfere with the absolute legibility of Brancusi’s immaculate reduction of form.
And yet, somehow, it is so legible that, like airport signage in Helvetica, it is apprehended and passed by in a moment. So a visitor will come, make a pass around the circular plinth in its square space and move on, like a satellite using the gravity of a convenient planet to slingshot it further out into space.
But look closer. The limestone drum that forms the pedestal is chipped around the edge.
In three places, it has been repaired by inset fillets of stone that introduce unexpected and incongruous straight lines to the object. The sides of this squat, pale cylinder are scarred by what seem at first to be hammer marks, but which, on reflection might be the traces of a workshop floor across which the heavy stone has been rolled.
On top of the pedestal, the occasional movements of the miraculous seal are recorded in the scraped deposit of marble traces around its foot.
Then, as you look at the seal itself, apparently as sleek, uniform and frictionless as the fur of the animal, it dissolves into a myriad of independent crystalline structures, suggestions of black veining on and just beneath a surface covered with tiny scratches from the relentless polishing of the stone.
Minute chips in the edge of the oval face, where the main block was sliced vertically, belie its perfection and the foot has broken and been repaired with creamy cement.
Here is an object whose apparent simplicity is contradicted the moment you stop to look. It’s like a poem, in which every word, every punctuation mark and syntactical choice has meaning and moment, tells a story with a compressed delicacy. Yet unless you give it time, it becomes nothing more than its own label, a short catalogue of materials, attribution, title and date, set in a room which outlines it as precisely and as two dimensionally as a frame in a comic book.
Without time, sculpture is poetry reduced to information, a novel about making, materials, time, motion, nature, life and beauty reduced to a flat, cartoon outline, to be seen once and set aside as you move on to the sports pages.
That’s not to say that Brancusi’s sculpture doesn’t also embody a precise, crisp, graphic two-dimensionality. But to read past that requires more than a cursory glance.