Frail yet erect, a man gestures with his left arm and points with his right. We have no idea what he points to, or why. Anonymous and alone, he is also almost a skeleton. For the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in fact, Giacometti's sculpture was "always halfway between nothingness and being."
Such sculptures were full of meaning to Sartre, who said of them, "At first glance we seem to be up against the fleshless martyrs of Buchenwald. But a moment later we have a quite different conception: these fine and slender natures rise up to heaven. We seem to have come across a group of Ascensions."
In the years leading up to World War II, Giacometti abandoned his earlier Surrealism. Dissatisfied with the resource of imagination, he returned to the resource of vision, focusing on the human figure and working from live models. Under his eyes, however, these models seem virtually to have dissolved. Working in clay (the preparation to casting in bronze), Giacometti scraped away the body's musculature, so that the flesh seems eaten off by a terrible surrounding emptiness, or to register the air around it as a hostile pressure. Recording the touch of the artist's fingers, the surface of Man Pointing is as rough as if charred or corroded. At the same time, the figure dominates its space, even from a distance.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 214.