In the next year, full-stretch retrospectives will give two of America’s greatest contemporary artists historic status in their own lifetimes. Richard Serra, Forty Years, opens at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in June, and, to mark his 80th birthday, Cy Twombly comes to Tate Modern in 2008. Both began their careers in the tail of high modernism in the 1950s; Twombly’s debt to Europe has always been emphatic, Serra, by contrast, is the ultimate macho American man of mass and steel. To put them together is interesting enough; to show them with Alberto Giacometti and Lucio Fontana, as Gagosian Gallery’s excellent new sculpture show does, is to set up electric conversations about abstraction and figuration, America and Europe, endings that turned out to be beginnings, revolutions that now look like continuations. This mid-20th-century terrain is where contemporary visual culture looks for origins – a living battlefield still to be argued about, fought over, redefined.

Living, Looking, Making, rarely seen works from mostly private collections, including those of the artists, is exactly the sort of historical exhibition Tate ought to do and never does. Instead, generous, insightful expositions of this significance are becoming increasingly the show-products of London’s more expensive commercial galleries. This time, as often happens, transatlantic Gagosian is both swift-footedly a pace ahead of the major museums in London and New York, and audacious in the scope, thought and drama of its installation. The result is a selling show that sets the intellectual agenda for its artists so seductively that you forget prices – multimillion-dollar prices – are at stake too. Money talks; ideas whisper in advance.

Serra has joked that Larry Gagosian is the only person to have built a gallery big enough for him – twice. In London’s large, clean, high-ceilinged rooms, you experience immediately the twin senses of solidity and energy that emanate from his massive sculptures, yet they never envelop anything else on display. In one daring juxtaposition, a pair of prop pieces from 1969, the 2½-metre-high steel “Plate, Pole, Prop” and the lead antimony “Sign Board” confront each other from opposite ends of a room across a late Giacometti bronze, “Buste d’homme”, no more than a foot high; the effect humanises Serra, and emphasises his figural qualities.

Another surprise is to hang a quartet of just-completed Serra paintings on paper – thick, crusty, glowing, black abstractions, Serra encapsulated at domestic, two-dimensional scale – with a second tiny Giacometti. Lyrical, harmonious, less solemn than expected, the paintings in turn mellow Serra’s huge paired steel rectangles – “Corner Prop No 8 (Orozco and Siqueiros)” and “Do It” – which lose their 1980s hard edge and take on a luminous, painterly shimmer.

Each piece here is positioned with grace and breathing space, and each one – Serra’s balanced planes, Twombly’s delicate, freely cast leaves and flowers, Fontana’s fragile minimalism – recalls Giacometti’s observation about the small margins of formal perfection: “It’s always extremely limited. Like the fact that you can only survive with a temperature of – what – between 36 and 39 degrees – and that’s already very, very bad. So you can only really live with a temperature between 36.8 and 37.8. And everything’s like that.”

In the main gallery, the instantly arresting juxtaposition is a group of compelling caryatid-like Giacometti “Femmes debout”, their agitated surfaces almost flickering into movement, who surround a trio of Twombly’s refined bronzes, dashed and splattered with paint to give a patina suggestive of ruination and decay. “Untitled, Rome”, made from panpipes and gauze, was sculpted in 1959 but only recently cast, and has a found-object look evocative of Robert Rauschenberg. “Madame d’O, Jupiter Island” and “Untitled (Jupiter Island)” are curving, looping baroque forms, semi-abstract paintings in space, whose insistent verticality is a homage to Giacometti.

But the parallels highlighted here go beyond individual genius. Where Giacometti, a friend of Sartre and the existentialists and a symbol of the renewal of postwar France, brought moral authority to the defence of figuration during the age of abstraction, Twombly a decade later upheld gestural mark-making and the classical tradition against the onslaught of pop art and mass culture.

Both did so by almost – but not quite – incorporating their opposites. Twombly fuses a fading antiquity with the fragmentation and rawness of 1960s modernity. Giacometti’s skeletal figures, transient, fugitive, soaring before us in a frontal rigidity that Camus claimed “summarises all the glances and postures of the world”, seem to want to vanish into nothing, embodying postwar man’s alienation and solitude, yet they are also vibrant, fluid, affirmative, even funny.

Curated with a light touch, this is less a show about ancestries and legacies, more a series of dialogues and references that enliven the familiar while allowing a mood of mid-century zeitgeist to emerge. Thus in the company of Fontana’s limpid vertical sculptures, such as “Concetto spaziale” of 1957 and 1958 – flat gold and black iron abstractions shot through with incisions, suggesting butterflies or flowers, posed on thin, tapering stems – Giacometti’s elongations and etiolations look more rooted in the sinuous line of the Italian Renaissance than ever.

Fontana and Giacometti, born 1899 and 1901 respectively, were direct contemporaries, one progressing through Dada, the other through surrealism, to 1950s existentialism. Fontana’s “Natura” series, highly sexualised bronzes of pierced terracotta spheres that the artist rammed through with a stick, are exhibited here alongside Giacometti’s expressive last works, three “Têtes d’homme” modelled on the down-and-out former surrealist photographer Eli Lotar. The visionary gaze of the failing Lotar echoes Giacometti’s own gaze, the intensity of his final effort to grasp and fix mutating reality. Fontana’s evocations of the void are as fraught as Giacometti’s, but also represent materiality punched through with holes to make room, as Fontana saw it, for the visualisation of an idea.

“If there’s no picture, that’s too bad. So long as I’ve learned something about why,” Giacometti once said. Absence, negative presence, disappearance: post-modernism and conceptualism start here. But what makes modernism look heroic, poignant – historic – now, is palpable too: its classical allusions; the sensual indulgence of pieces such as Twombly’s Venetian pink crumbling column “Untitled (New York)” of 2002 or Giacometti’s knobbly, ragged “Femme de Venise III”, which faces it; above all, the tension between humanist doubt and a post-cubist art of construction. “If I could make a sculpture or a painting (but I’m not sure I want to) in just the way I’d like to, they would have been made long since (but I am incapable of saying what I want),” Giacometti wrote. “Oh, I see a marvellous and brilliant painting, but I didn’t do it, nobody did it. I don’t see my sculpture, I see blackness.”

‘Living, Looking, Making: Sculpture by Giacometti, Fontana, Twombly, Serra’, Gagosian Gallery, London WC1, to May 19, tel 20 7841 9960

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