Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland
May 22 – August 21, 2011

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
October 8, 2011 – April 15, 2012

Constantin Brancusi, Muse endormie [I], 1910 Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d‘art moderne, Paris © 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich, Photo: © Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris

Constantin Brancusi, Muse endormie [I], 1910
Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d‘art moderne, Paris
© 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich, Photo: © Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris

At first glance, the works of Constantin Brancusi and Richard Serra have little in common. Serra’s work is an elegantly restrained analysis of how form can define and even dominate a space. His pragmatic and linear approach aims to contextualize the object with the inhabited space and the physical reality of the viewer. In addition to its gestural qualities, Serra’s work always initiates a geometric contemplation.

In contrast, Brancusi favored subjects and forms were rooted in life. Some of his most famous abstractions were inspired by human heads, his muse Margit Pogány, or birds, for example. Even his most geometric work, Endless Column, a stack of rhomboidal modules, functions as the embodiment of the human dream to build a connection to the heavens. All of his works are defined by a unique stylistic blend of simplification, stylization and genuine sensuality. It is their particular strength, that no matter their size or subject matter, Brancusi’s sculptures always evoke a sense of intimacy.

In Serra, we observe ourselves in relation to the work; in Brancusi, we often find ourselves reflected. Whereas the former often confronts his audience with the sheer mass of his monumental works, the latter draws us in like a storyteller. While incorporating these differences, this exhibition curated by Oliver Wick – now on view at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao through April 15, 2012 – nevertheless finds parallels. It does so by providing an extensive overview of both oeuvres and keeping them at a safe distance from each other. In Basel, most rooms were dedicated to one artist or the other, and it was only on a few occasions that works by both were arranged in proximity to each other. The result was two mini-retrospectives, which together included a staggering 40 sculptures and several photographs by Brancusi, as well as 10 sculptures and various works on paper by Serra.

Richard Serra, House of Cards, 1969
Collection of the artist, © 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich, Photo: Serra Studio, New York

Among this group were signature works loaned by public institutions, such as the Centre Georges Pompidou’s Muse endormie [I], 1910 by Brancusi, as well as works from private collections, such as Serra’s House of Cards, 1969, owned by the artist. Within each gallery, works were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, revealing how thoroughly both artists investigated specific forms, sometimes for years.

In Brancusi, secrets seem to be embedded in every contour and angle. His modernism is not completely stripped off the mysterious. Furthermore, he found as much lightness in plaster and wood as he did while working with stone or bronze. His materials function like paint, employed to bring out different qualities in each surface, which in turn are transformed into skins. In comparison, Serra has always favored industrial materials, such as rubber, lead or steel, which immediately distinguish themselves from any organic matter. His works are not rooted within us, they steer us. This overt display of uncompromised dedication crystallized as the common denominator. Brancusi and Serra demonstrate equal commitment to stripping away excess information in order to observe form and space with the utmost clarity. They also share the ambition to push the limits of their chosen medium. Through abstraction, Brancusi led sculpture into the Modernist Age. By pushing the scale of his vision in the Endless Column, for example, he established a precedent of grandeur, which Serra later carried to new heights in his monumental steel works. Serra indeed credits Brancusi for much. He first saw the master’s work in person in 1964, while traveling to Paris on a scholarship. According to Serra, this encounter convinced him to become a sculptor rather than a painter. He was inspired by the open possibilities in Brancusi’s work and how it described volume through line.

Both artists have much gain through this unusual juxtaposition. Next to Serra, Brancusi’s work remains clearly contemporary, while suddenly Serra’s line and form appear classical and timeless.