How do you know when a project is finished?

Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “L’homme Au Doigt” (Pointing man).
Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “L’homme Au Doigt” (Pointing man).
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Alberto Giacometti was a prolific artist—a fact that’s also a small miracle, given his notoriously laborious creative process. Best known for the stark, elongated figures embraced by critics as emblems of a ravaged but persevering humanity in the aftermath of World War II, the Swiss sculptor and painter could toil so long over his works that he risked whittling them away into nothing. “Often they became so tiny that with one 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 exhibit of his post-war work (on view beginning July 14 at the Seattle Art Museum), may prompt visitors to feel an unexpected sense of kinship with one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century. Who among us, immersed in an all-consuming project, hasn’t had a hard time knowing when to stop?

In Giacometti’s struggles with sculpture, there may lie answers about how to get past perfectionism and arrive at the conclusion of any given work, thereby creating the space to make something new.

Why perfectionism can be self-defeating

Giacometti was well aware of his own obsessive nature. It 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 Fondation Giacometti in Paris told NPR. The artist’s brother and wife were among his most frequent subjects—the new exhibit suggests that few others had the patience to model for his long, strenuous sessions.

"Homme Traversant une place par un matin soleil," by Alberto Giacometti
“Homme Traversant une place par un matin soleil,” by Alberto Giacometti.
Image: Reuters/Chip East

A documentary included in the exhibit, filmed shortly before he died in 1966, shows a charmingly self-aware Giacometti describing the futility of striving to create work that lived up to the vision he had in your head.

“There can be no possible end, because the closer you get to what you see, the more you see it,” Giacometti explains as his fingers pull at the clay bust in front of him. “Then the distance between what I want to do and what I am doing remains basically somewhat permanent […] I am convinced that in a thousand years, I would tell you, Everything is wrong, but I am getting a little closer.”

Such a process would be perfectly reasonable if Giacometti (and the rest of us) were granted immortality. But things being as they are, there’s a thin line between holding one’s work to high standards and slipping into self-destruction—an application never submitted, a project never launched, a brittle statue crumbling at the nick of the knife. If we want to share the things we create with the outside world, there comes a point at which we must be done with our work, at least for the time being. So how to let go?

The power of deadlines

Due dates are the classic solution for a reason. Giacometti was not immune to the motivational powers of time pressure: A 2018 article in the New Yorker recounts how Giacometti sculpted his famous 1947 work “Man Pointing” while up against a show deadline, “in one night between midnight and nine the next morning.”

Knowing when you’ve gone too far

The very process that led Giacometti to inadvertently decimate his own sculptures may have also served a purpose in allowing him to discover the limits of his interventions. The artist Clara Lieu writes in a blog post that she sometimes encourages students in her drawing classes to purposefully 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 entire process, and will know in the future when to pull back.”

“Trying is everything”

Delve a bit deeper into the story of Giacometti’s career, and it seems that two other factors may also have allowed him to continue creating new art even though he was never satisfied with what he achieved.

First, Giacometti had people in his life who appreciated the value in what he had accomplished, even when he could not. “He likely would have been content to destroy everything he made,” Artforum noted in 2018, “but his watchful brother Diego, his essential model (and his only mold-maker), saved some of the artist’s best pieces.”

It’s inevitable that what we create will always fall short of our hopes, for exactly the reasons Giacometti described. That’s why it’s so important to have people we trust to look at what we’ve made: Being unable to compare the work that exists in reality to the ideal work that lives only in our heads, they’re often better equipped to see what’s in front of them.

The sculpture "Four Figures on a Base" by Alberto Giacometti.
The sculpture “Four Figures on a Base” by Alberto Giacometti.
Image: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

The other factor that seems to have allowed Giacometti to keep creating, despite a process aptly described by the New Yorker as “an irresistible force of ambition colliding with an immovable conviction of inadequacy”? His penchant for repetition.

This quality is sometimes levied as a criticism against the artist. His frenemy Pablo Picasso suggested that going back to the same subjects and ideas over and over again made for a rather monotonous oeuvre. But in returning to certain motifs—men walking, women standing—Giacometti was able not only to explore “variation within sameness,” as one critic put it, but to accept that an individual piece had not lived up to his expectations. Perhaps the next time, it would: the possibility of propelled him forward, even knowing that failure was inevitable.

“Trying is everything,” Giacometti wrote in one poem, “how marvelous!”

Ultimately, the secret to knowing when a project is finished may have less to do with the project itself than anticipation of the next effort ahead.