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|The Roving Eye
by Anthony Haden-Guest
|This not-quite-endless column begins a while back in Saint Ambroeus, a minuscule restaurant on Madison Avenue much favored by New York art people. "You are the first to see this," Dr. Radu Varia told me, magnificently. Varia, a Romanian-born art writer with a high forehead and a swoop of white hair, produced a square of metal and plunked it on the tablecloth. It glistened palely, almost transparently yellow, like white wine.
This is the metal that will sheaf the Endless Column, the famous sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, when it rises again in Targu-Jiu, Romania, thanks to the World Monuments Fund and a committee headed by the likes of Manhattan's Romanian-born social locomotive, Mica Ertegun. The slab was copper-plated cast iron, and heavy. Was I really the first to see it? Varia reconsidered. "Among the first," he emended.
It was a momentous event when the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit that sits in one of the few two-story buildings on Park Avenue in the 80s, decided to include the Brancusi on its list of the 100 most endangered cultural sites in the world. The fund's other picks, after all, are much as you might expect -- a palace in St. Petersburg, a Polish church, a neo-classic Irish temple. The Brancusi is a paean to pure abstraction. Meaning: Modernism belongs to the ages, too.
Brancusi seems a perfect poster boy for Modernism. Born in Romania in 1876, he walked to Paris at the age of 28, and spent most of his life in seclusion there. In 1934, he returned to his homeland to erect a war memorial. It consists of three elements, the Endless Column, the Gate of the Kiss and the Table of Silence. They stand on just under a square mile of land, a space they share with a small Romanian Orthodox church.
The Gate and the Table are carved from travertine, a warm, golden stone. The Endless Column is metal, and formed of identical modules, faceted with eight sides each, like the plainest-cut diamonds, and rising to a height of 30 meters. Brancusi was once asked why he had built it. "So that it would sustain the vault of heaven," he said. Even in his lifetime, Brancusi was seen as somehow holy. Ezra Pound called him "a saint."
Radu Varia returned to Romania in 1985 -- his first visit in 15 years -- to take photographs for a book on Brancusi. He found the Endless Column in a sorry state. "The communists tried to pull it down in the '50s," he said. Their first effort had been with three oxcarts, yoked with two oxen each. No dice. Their second attempt, using a Russian tractor, also failed to topple the piece, but succeeded in fissuring its metal surface and wrenching the iron spine. Rain and frost have been corroding it ever since.
Communism collapsed in 1989 and the Romanian dictator, Nicolas Ceausescu was killed in early 1990. Varia hastened back to find things had gotten worse. "Ceausescu had decided to build a power station behind the Table of Silence. They were going to build a couple of 12-story apartment blocks right in the middle. He was killed at the right moment."
That wasn't quite the end of the problem. "This has been approved," the bureaucrat said. "It is part of the five-year plan." Varia said "Forget it! That's communism. We talk a new language now. You'll learn it in a minute!" He buttonholed politicians, went on TV. Finally, the Brancusi monument was spared.
Larry Gagosian, the art dealer, contacted Varia later that year. "I wanted to do something with Brancusi," Gagosian says. "He helped me put together a show of works. Most of them had never been out of the country. It was strictly a loan show. And it was really a piece of work getting these things in here. These guys didn't know what a loan form was.
"They brought them over in a private plane with the minister of culture, and I had to put them all up at the Carlyle. And once they got over here and got a taste of New York, you couldnąt get them out of the bar."
Gagosian's show opened in November 1990. Six museums had signaled interest in taking the exhibition, and the Detroit Institute of Arts had made a firm commitment. Then all hell broke loose in Bucharest.
"The Minister of Culture and the heads of the two museums that had these pieces, they all knew that the Gagosian gallery was a commercial gallery," Gagosian says. "But when some of the bureaucrats found out, they got paranoid. The flavor of it was that the works wouldn't return to Rumania. These are national treasures! They just fabricated all these paranoid scenarios. There was something to the effect that I was in cahoots with Sotheby's, and when we got the pieces over here we were going to auction them. It was really bizarre."
The Romanian press denounced the loans. One politician announced, "We will never kiss Brancusi's Kiss again!" Sidney Geist, a New York sculptor, Brancusi expert and no fan of Varia -- he described Varia's book as "a glamorous product of the coffee-table genre" -- says of the Gagosian show that "there were Rumanian muscle men there. Killer types!" The museum tour was canceled, and the pieces were flown straight back at the end of the exhibition.
Radu Varia got back to the Endless Column. The World Monuments Fund got involved in 1996 through its Paris office. Most of the $20 million budget has now been raised -- the World Bank has come up with $5 million.
Varia's operation is planned in two phases. First the restoration of the sculpture, then the site. Work is expected to begin next month, in January 2000. Within a year, this pillar of old-fashioned modernism, which is now an ugly jumble of rusty chunks, will uphold the vault of heaven again.
The World Monuments Fund, as if encouraged into modernism, has recently added a Richard Neutra building in Los Angeles to its List of 100 Most Endangered Sites ("asbestos needs to be removed," the release explains, "electrical systems must be updated").
What Constantin Brancusi would have thought is another matter. Sidney Geist recalls a visit to his studio in 1949 when he was in Paris on the GI bill. He told Brancusi how much the work, the studio meant to him.
"This will pass. It will all be destroyed," Brancusi told him.
Geist let his bewilderment show.
"We're just between two ice ages" Brancusi told him, brightly.
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).