2. Constantin Brancusi Refracted in the Work of Some North Americans


Collected in the United States even before the  1913 NY Armory Show, Brancusi’s work is widely known.


“When I approached New York on the boat, I had the impression of seeing my studio on a large scale”, was Brancusi’s memory of his first 1913 visit.


Brancusi kept his own work grouped close  in his studio, turning the pieces for the light. 




A view of Brancusi’s atelier now in an annex of the Centre Pompidou, Paris from a museum photo



Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street (below) towering on the right of this photo from the web.  The Seaport taken ?across the Brooklyn Bridge, NY



American sculptors have absorbed and monumentalized Brancusi’s intuitions.


They have turned the city of New York and the country into his studio

in a manner of speaking.



The architect, Frank Gerhry, has said that he learned more from Brancusi than from any architect.


Here Gehry’s stacked residential column, the wind off the water ruffling its surface to suggest that it may want to lift off into the skies:



8 Spruce Street, New York, 2006-2010, frame of reinforced concrete. 76 stacked floors. Elementary school and above residential apartments. 

Frank Gehry, architect, American born Canada, 1929 






Essential Brancusi is often described like this:

The stacking of sculptural elements




implied or inherent movement


a move away from figuration without entering into full-scale abstraction


the expression of emotion


and material integrity:

Each of Brancusi’s works is compact.  Each is unique including those cast in metal.  Efforts have been made after his death to name further castings as reproductions and not originals.



So widespread is Brancusi’s influence, that, in identifying it

it may be more interesting to recognize those for whom Brancusi’s work speaks to more than the sum of these parts. 


This more seems to lie in the 

transformation of Brancusi’s subject matter from its individual instance to the widest possible interpretation of the subject or theme Brancusi addresses:


Mademoiselle Pogany  is a fundamental case of the widest interpretation.


Mlle Pogany sat for Brancusi after he had agreed to make a sculptural portrait of her.  He used wax casts to do this.  Cast after cast he threw away. 


After Mlle Pogany returned from Paris to Hungary, Brancusi created her image in marble by direct sculpting from memory. 


This sculpture stands, then, not for Mlle Pogany alone but for the mastery of the sculptor’s art and craft working on the material directly without benefit of intermediate processes.


It stands also for the depiction of the character of Mlle Pogany as Brancusi had interiorized it:  an  abstraction of something real, keeping still to figuration, to which the sculptor aspired.


“What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things,” Brancusi said.



This direct carving was the break that Brancusi made with recent European sculptural tradition.



Other more are: 


not a baby alone but birth




Newborn (I), white marble, 1915.  Philadelphia Art Museum



not a king but kingship 


not a column but the attribute of our species sometimes called ‘spirit’:  the impulse to soar onwards and upwards metaphorically, spiritually and for real beyond our universe.



Brancusi said: “I think a true form should suggest infinity; the surfaces cut to look as if they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”






Something should be said as to why Louise Bourgeois is not, from where I sit, in the lineage of the universal Brancusi.


Louise Bourgeois is the doyenne of North American sculpture after 70 years of work.


She made her pilgrimage to Brancusi’s studio in the 1950s and, like him, was influenced by Dada and the Surrealists.  She interacted, as he did, with the Modernists, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and their circle. 


Virtually her entire oeuvre, however, is embedded in the particular circumstances of her childhood, her evolution as a woman and artist, and the traditions of healing trauma in the ‘Western’ world. 



It is not that, from time to time, her work did not evoke Brancusi.  It did:




 Sleep II 1967
Marble, on two wooden timbers, 1967.

Louise Bourgeois, American born France    On display at the Tate Modern, London, 2007-08.

Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth © Louise Bourgeois Photo: Peter Bellamy



But this artist’s work has its roots in the struggles of a 20th century ‘Western’ woman for her psychological and artistic autonomy.



The ‘West’ is just that, the ‘West’.  There is also the very large Rest and the ‘West’ is not universal in its values, images, religious and spiritual ideas etc. 



Fee Couturiere, 1963, cast 1984, painted bronze. 

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010, American born France.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY. 


This is one of the artist’s ‘lair’ series.  She is in New York.  She is seeking protection against dangers internal and foreign.




The Destruction of the Father, 1974, flesh-toned installation in a soft and womb-like room. Made of flesh-toned plaster, latex, wood, fabric, and red light.

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010, American born France. 

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images


Interpreted both as an expression of the artist’s fear and loathing of the her own father who repeatedly betrayed and humiliated her mother;

and a revulsion against the mid-century American image of the perfect (white) American family at table, eating up the earth.




Brancusi’s references may have been particular: 

as one example, Maiastra is a Romanian bird of myth. 

But he transformed Maiastra into the soaring wing which anyone anywhere can recognize. 


Louise Bourgeois expressed her specificities – which all of us in the ‘West’ recognize.  She did this almost always to the exclusion of a universal identification.






Brancusi’s Endless Column is the creation which critics have said has had the greatest impact on American artists.



Endless Column, 1937. steel, more than 98′ tall. Installed at Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania to remember the Romanian soldiers who fought in WW1.

Constantin Brancusi,1976-1954, Romanian. 

Photo: Dalf, Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania 

(Endless because it has no terminal points)





Claes Oldenburg


Here the special pleading of Philadelphians who were left without their own Endless Column despite their own Brancusi chapel,


but who have a clothespin which, with each rotation around it by foot, reveals that it has a multiple Brancusi heritage.




Claes Oldenburg, American born Sweden, 1929.

The Clothespin, 1976, Cor-Ten steel.

  1500 Market Street in front of the west side of City Hall, Philadelphia



This is called both The Kiss and The Clothespin in Philly. 

She is recognizably both


and an opposable thumb which clothespins require for them to function.  And so a primate and a man, more likely a woman.


And a bird which would fly if it could, if it were not held taught by its spring (’76 for the founding of the Republic).


(“All my life, I have sought to render the essence of flight, Brancusi said of his 27 bird sculptures created in the 30 years prior to 1940.)


And this reference to clothespins and flying is something of which Man Ray, reminded us.  He was a close friend and teacher (how to take photographs) of Brancusi.

He left this painting of the cloths which would fly away but for Claes Oldenburg’s clothespin in Philly.




Flying Dutchman, 1920, oil on board. 

Man Ray, 1890-1976, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The museum notes that the paint, applied directly with a palette, was a Dada rejection of conventional easel painting with a brush. 

In legend, the sails of the Flying Dutchman were in tatters and this ship was doomed to sail forever.



Isamu Noguchi 


Noguchi reached Paris in 1927. 


Taken to visit Brancusi, the latter agreed to take Noguchi as an assistant despite severe language difficulties between them.


From Brancusi for the next seven months Noguchi learned about working with stone. 


He said that Brancusi’s great strength was that he had “gone back to the beginnings.”




Black Sun, granite, 1969. 

Isamu Noguchi, 1904-1988, Japanese-American.  Seattle Volunteer Park across from the Seattle Asian Museum.  Looking towards the Seattle Space Needle and Elliott Bay. 


The sun gone black, I suppose, for Hiroshima and Nagasaki which could be seen from here if the ocean  evaporated.




Front view of Black Sun, 1969


View through Black Sun, granite 1969 towards the front doors of the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Isamu Noguchi, 1904-1988, Japanese American




Martin Puryear


Martin Puryear, has said that every sculptor owes a debt to Brancusi whether they know it or not.



View of Self, 1978, stain on red cedar and mahogany. 

Martin Puryear, American born 1941.   Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha on loan to Brooklyn Museum in 2018/19.

The sculpture is hollow.  The artist said that is meant to visualize the secret self; anyone’s and not of that of someone in particular





Martin Puryear, American born 1941, installing Guardian Stone in Tokyo, Japan, 2002/03

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” © Art21, Inc. 2003



Bearing Witness, 1998, 40 foot tall, weighing 20,000 pounds, individual patinated bronze sheets over a stainless steel armature.  Ronald Reagan Building, Washington DC. 

Martin Puryear, American born 1941





Pylons, Battery Park City Authority, NY, 1995, granite and stainless steel.

Martin Puryear, American born 1941

 Puryear’s  two Pylons – one stacked and the other open-weave –  are placed along the waterfront of the Belvedere, near the Winter Garden: a symbolic portal at the river’s edge.   Illuminated at night




Harry Bertoia






Commissioned by the City of Philadelphia in 1967, it was installed at the Civic Center West until that center was demolished in 2005.




It has found harbour at the Woodmere Museum of Art in the city.





Views of  Free Interpretation of Plant Forms, 1967, welded bronze, copper. 

Harry Bertoia, 1915-1978, American.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia



Bertoia’s words on completion of this work could have come out of the mouth of Constantin Brancusi:

 “Conceptually, the initial intent was to produce a work embodying gentleness and strength.

“To partake of basic qualities, to have an inherent sense of growth, movement, and vitality and to make poetic sense to every walk of life.

“I endeavor to shun the particular, such as a wave, but to capture the motion of all waves through time, to echo the sound of the first….” 





Richard Serra


Richard Serra moved to sculpture from a study of Fine Arts when he came upon Brancusi’s work in Paris as a student in the mid-1960s.


Every day for a month, Serra went to Brancusi’s studio and made drawings.  He studied Brancusi for four months.  He said:

“Brancusi left a handbook of possibilities for sculpture.”


Of these Serra has exercised the amplest options: large, holistic creations which encircle or box you in without entrapping you.





Torqued Ellipses, 1997-98, weatherproof steel. 

Richard Serra, American born 1938, DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, NY from whose website these photos



Serra’s oeuvre produces in the viewer a heightened awareness of his/her surroundings.

Something that a Brancusi sculpture does by reason of its intense workmanship and simplicity and the radiating light.




Equal, 2015, forged weatherproof steel. 

Richard Serra, American born 1938.  MOMA, NY 

Eight boxes stacked in pairs, each 11 foot high, the orientation of each box differing from others. 




Ellsworth Kelly


Ellsworth Kelly visited Brancusi in 1950 when the Romanian sculptor was no longer making new forms.


Kelly’s entire artistic life he filled with a spirituality with which he turned out his experiments to strip forms and colours to their essence:


a spirituality and an exercise which he acknowledged first in the work he saw in the studio of Brancusi.  






Study for Atlantic, 1956, oil on canvas. 

Ellsworth Kelly, 1923-2015, American.  Philadelphia Museum of Art




It isn’t credible that Ellsworth Kelly had not visited the Brancusi gallery at the Philadelphia Art Museum which houses a gift in 1950 of 22 works of Brancusi.


Brancusi gallery, Philadelphia Art Museum



Shaped like a Romanesque church – with a nave and an apse but without a transept – this gallery could not but have contributed to the design of the only building which Ellsworth Kelly designed. 


This building, which Kelly called a ‘secular chapel’ is thought to have been dedicated both to Brancusi and Matisse.


Kelly said that it was not a Romanesque chapel so much as the experience of being in one.


It is considered to be a summation of the artist’s devotion to stripped-down form and to colour.



‘Austin’, a ‘secular’chapel’ at the University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art.

Ellsworth Kelly, architect, 1923-2015, America


  Built between 2015 and 2018; Spanish limestone, glass, marble and other elements. 

The ‘chapel’ contains 14 abstracts by the artist of the Stations of the Cross; and a totem of redwood.





Brancusi and Light


As is known, the movement known as ‘Minimalism’ was a riposte in the 1960s to the overweening authority of the art establishment in New York.


One of its primary concepts was the dematerialization of the artistic object or painting by pushing to the foreground light, space, movement.



A fundamental of Brancusi’s sculpture is reflective light.




Golden Bird, 1919-1920, base 1922; bronze, stone and wood.

Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957, Romanian.  Art Institute of Chicago whose photo this is.




This is a quality that the Minimalists, and later the Light and Space artists


have put to use in their move towards the dematerialization of art to the end of altering the viewer’s perception of ego, space, colour and time.



Donald Judd



Minimalist, austere work which some critics have said would have had difficulty birthing


without Brancusi’s reductionism, insistence on integrity of form, dispensing of the idea of a base; and vertical stacking of repeated elements,


and without the shimmering reflective light of his (Brancusi’s) highly polished surfaces: light of which Judd also was admiring and considered ‘mystical.




Untitled, cadmium red light oil on acrylic and sand on composition board with yellow Plexiglass, 1962. 

Donald Judd,1928-1974,American.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on loan to MOMA 2020/21





Untitled, 1963, refabricated 1975, cadmium red light oil on wood and purple lacquer on aluminum. 

Donald Judd,1928-1974,American.  National Gallery of Art, Ottawa on loan to MOMA 2020/21




Untitled, 1986, stainless steel and amber Plexiglass, 1968. 

Donald Judd,1928-1994, American. Milwaukee Art Museum on loan to MOMA, NY in 2020/21




Untitled, 1986, enameled aluminum. 

Donald Judd, American, 1928-1994. On loan to MOMA, NY in 2020 by a private collection in Zurich.



Brancusi said: “I think a true form should suggest infinity; the surfaces cut to look as if they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”




100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-86.

Donald Judd, American, 1928-1994.  Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo from the web.





Dan Flavin


first directly attached – to the wall – a fluorescent  light without packaging in 1963. 


He dedicated this to Brancusi in memory of the Endless Column.  




Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963, to Constantin Brancusi)  

Dan Flavin,1933-1996, American. Photo from the net. I don’t know where this is now.




Brancusi said: “I think a true form should suggest infinity; the surfaces cut to look as if they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”



A decade later:



“Untitled (To Helga and Carlos, With Respect and Affection)”, 1974, fluorescent lighting.

Dan Flavin,1933-1996, American.© Dean Hochman.




Another view of “Untitled (To Helga and Carlos, With Respect and Affection)”1974, fluorescent lighting.

© 2017 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York





Dan Flavin is described  by others as a Minimalist.  He was also a forerunner of the American Light and Space artists:


the architects of dematerialized art and light:


Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Mary Corse and others



But I cannot photograph their works adequately.

Their experiments are designed to be experienced.




Among them, Philip K. Smith III who recognizes his Brancusian heritage. He could have been speaking for Brancusi in a quote in 2019 reported by Whitehot Magazine:



“We desire the powerful, memorable experiences that we can’t fully explain.


“We desire mystery and beauty as they remind us of the unity, love, immensity, and incomprehensible complexity that exist in the world.”


The magazine also published a photo of one of this artist’s pieces.

Taking Constantin Brancusi into the electronic age.




Torus 9, 2014,  Acrylic, LED Lighting,
Plywood, Custom Electronic Components 

Philip K. Smith II, American born 1972

 Images courtesy of the artist and Royale Projects




As Brancusi said: “I think a true form should suggest infinity; the surfaces cut to look as if they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”



Some perfect and complete existence: the perennial, universal hope of our species.