Curator, Ann Temkin: Brancusi often talked about his work in terms of how simple it was, and that his goals were purity and simplicity, but for me one of the most important sides of Brancusi’s work is its complexity.
So if you look at a sculpture like the one called Maiastra from 1910. You realize Brancusi’s always combining things. He’s combining cylinders with cubes. He’s combining straight lines with curves, shiny materials with matte materials, grainy textures with reflective textures. You have a whole variety of stimuli as you look at this one object.
You can find on the platform the tallest work called Bird in Space, which is a very thin, shiny, almost spire-like sculpture reaching way up toward the ceiling. Now Brancusi reduced that abstract language that he introduced in a sculpture like in Maiastra, and by the 1920s, the idea now had become not having any connection to what a bird looks like, but instead the idea of flight and soaring.
When his work was being brought in for an exhibition in New York City in 1926, one of the customs brokers refused to acknowledge that it was a work of art, because it just looked like some kind of industrial part to him. It was one of the Birds in Space. This meant a heavy tax that would not have been levied on the work had it been a painting or a sculpture, which was exempt. Brancusi actually decided to sue the U.S. government and it turned out to be a court case that generated quite a bit of press. And when in fact the judge finally ruled in Brancusi’s favor, it was a landmark decision about artistic freedom and creative expression.