How do you know when to stop working on a project? — Quartz at work
Alberto Giacometti was a prolific artist – a fact that is also a minor miracle, given his notoriously laborious creative process. Best known for his austere, elongated figures adopted by critics as emblems of a ravaged but persevering humanity in the aftermath of World War II, the Swiss sculptor and painter could work on his works for so long that he risked reducing them to nothing. . “Often they became so tiny that with a touch of my knife they disappeared into dust,” Giacometti wrote in a 1947 letter to Pierre Matisse.
The tortured nature of Giacometti’s quest for excellence, as captured in a new traveling exhibition of his post-war work (on view from July 14 at the Seattle Art Museum), may inspire visitors with an unexpected feeling of kinship with one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century. Who among us, immersed in a devouring project, has had no trouble knowing when to stop?
In Giacometti’s struggles with sculpture, there may be answers about how to overcome perfectionism and come to the conclusion of a given work, thus creating the space to do something new.
Why perfectionism can be self-defeating
Giacometti was well aware of his own obsessive nature. This was evident in the distinctive mottled texture of his sculptures, the result of his constant pinching and reworking of clay and plaster – “like scars”, as the director of the Giacometti Foundation in Paris told NPR. . The artist’s brother and wife were among his most frequent subjects – the new exhibit suggests few others had the patience to model for his long and arduous sessions.
A documentary included in the exhibition, filmed shortly before his death in 1966, shows a charming, self-aware Giacometti describing the futility of striving to create a work that lives up to the vision he had in your head.
“There is no possible end, because the closer you get to what you see, the more you see it,” Giacometti explains as his fingers tug at the clay bust in front of him. “So the distance between what I want to do and what I do remains basically a bit permanent […] I am convinced that in a thousand years, I will tell you, It’s all wrong, but I’m getting a little closer.”
Such a process would be perfectly reasonable if Giacometti (and the rest of us) received immortality. But things being what they are, there is a fine line between maintaining its work at high levels and sliding into self-destruction – an application never submitted, a project never launched, a fragile statue crumbling on the stab of the knife. If we want to share the things we create with the outside world, there comes a time when we have to get our work done, at least for now. So how do you let go?
The power of deadlines
Due dates are the classic solution for a reason. Giacometti was not immune to the motivating powers of time pressure: A 2018 article in The New Yorker recounts how Giacometti sculpted his famous 1947 work “Man Pointing” while facing a date show limit, “in one night between midnight and nine the next morning.”
Know when you’ve gone too far
The very process that led Giacometti to inadvertently decimate his own sculptures may also have served to allow him to discover the limits of his interventions. Artist Clara Lieu writes in a blog post that she sometimes encourages students in her drawing classes to deliberately overwork their projects, “to the point that the drawing is ruined. This way, when they have the experience of pushing their drawings too far, they develop an awareness of the whole process and will know in the future when to step back.
“Try is all”
Delve a little deeper into Giacometti’s career history, and it seems that two other factors also allowed him to continue creating new art, even though he was never satisfied with what he has realised.
First, Giacometti had people in his life who appreciated the value of what he had accomplished, even when he could not. “He probably would have just destroyed everything he made,” Artforum noted in 2018, “but his watchful brother Diego, his essential role model (and sole mold maker), saved some of the best pieces from the world. ‘artist.”
It is inevitable that what we create will always fall short of our hopes, for exactly the reasons described by Giacometti. That’s why it’s so important to have people you trust to look at what you’ve done: being unable to compare the job that actually exists to the ideal job that lives only in your heads, they’re often better equipped to see what’s inside in front of them.
The other factor that seems to have enabled Giacometti to continue to create, despite a process aptly described by the New Yorker as “an irresistible force of ambition colliding with an unshakeable conviction of insufficiency”? In other words: His penchant for repetition.
This quality is sometimes perceived as a criticism against the artist. His enemy Pablo Picasso suggested that going back over and over to the same subjects and ideas resulted in a rather monotonous work. But by returning to certain motifs – men walking, women standing – Giacometti was able not only to explore “variation in identity”, as one critic put it, but to accept that an individual piece had not been at the up to his expectations. Maybe next time it would: the ability to propel him forward, even knowing that failure was inevitable.
“Trying is everything,” Giacometti wrote in a poem, “how wonderful!”
Ultimately, the secret to knowing when a project is done may have less to do with the project itself than with anticipating the next effort to come.