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Sculpture Thenish and Nowish: David Smith and Alina Szapocznikow at the Wexner Center

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Sculpture Thenish and Nowish: David Smith and Alina Szapocznikow at the Wexner Center
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Cubi I - David Smith

One of the nice things about my relationship with Columbus Underground is this: I can write whatever I want, whenever I want. All those pesky relics of staid, old media; things like deadlines, word counts, and style guides vanish in the cloud of binary code and digital content. It really is a brave new world.

For instance, most publications would recoil at the notion of publishing a review of an exhibition that ended months ago. Not Walker Evans and the Columbus Underground crew. They’ll run it. They’re cool like that.

OK, that’s not an altogether accurate characterization of the arrangement. It’s relevant though in that I find myself inclined to write, at least in part, about an exhibition that did indeed close on April 15th. The exhibition was David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center. I didn’t write about it then but I think I need to now. That’s because it’s difficult to consider the Wexner Center’s current exhibition, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955‒1972 without also considering the preceding display of Smith’s work. Context is everything after all, and it was all but impossible for me to absorb Szapoczikow’s work without the spectre of David Smith hovering around my memory.

You see, whether calculated or not, the Wexner Center has presented successive shows by contemporaneous sculptors offering two very different perspectives on art, expression, and materials. Placed back-to-back on the calendar, these exhibitions serve as convenient stand-ins for two competing directions in 20th century sculpture. Smith representing what it was, and Szapocznikow representing what it would be.

Zig III - David Smith

David Smith, if you’re not familiar, is more or less the quintessential 20th-century American sculptor. Imagine Jackson Pollock, but with a welding torch (Smith was a pioneer of welded metal sculpture). He helped reinvent how artists create and viewers view three-dimensional works; crafting geometric abstractions that had as much to do with painting and collage as they did sculpture. Inasmuch as one can, Smith approached sculpture the way abstract expressionists approached painting. He played on impulse and intuition. He remained open to possibilities. He allowed the process to shape the product. The result is a body of work that’s iconically modern; the very picture of Mid-Century sculpture.

Smith too was very much of his time. Left-leaning politics, the labor movement, and the experiences gained in a rapidly industrializing America all shaped his work and worldview. Like many 20th-Century modernists, Smith was influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. Smith also had that particular aura of the heroic outsider (again, think Jackson Pollock). Originally from the Midwest, Smith found ideas and support among the New York avant-garde. He eventually eschewed the New York City scene for an upstate studio compound in Bolton Landing. There he often worked alone, forging works that were born of his experience in factories and welding shops.

Smith also represented pretty much the end of the line for that particular brand of steel and sweat abstraction. Oh sure Mark di Suvero kept the dream alive for a while. I suppose Tony Smith and George Rickey did as well. And while you can make the case that the Minimalists took Smith’s cubes and ran with them, David Smith was clearly not pointing the direction contemporary sculpture was heading.

Small Dessert I - Alina Szapocznikow

For a look at that, we turn can turn to Alina Szapocznikow, an artist whose oeuvre contains so many forward thinking materials and concepts that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of her. Apparently I’m not the only one. Artforum praised Sculpture Undone for offering “that rare luminous sense of discovery that comes with encountering a phenomenal artist for the first time.” I’ll second that. In a museum culture often dedicated to blockbuster exhibitions, it’s refreshing to see institutions take a chance on a relative unknown, especially when the payoff is so big.

Szapocznikow’s work is an unqualified treat. It’s frank, honest, and full of wonder. This is a body of work that is relentlessly experimental, offering an enthusiasm for the possibilities inherent in materials that’s simply infectious. Also, in fairness to anyone else who said, “Alina who?”, note that this is one the first comprehensive exhibitions of Szapocznikow’s work outside of Poland. It’s not as though we’ve had a lot of opportunities to get to know her.

Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood) - Alina Szapocznikow

Szapocznikow was a Polish sculptor and Holocaust survivor whose career was cut short by cancer in 1973. Her intensely personal work focuses on the human body and it’s impermanence. Illness (as seen in her tumor sculptures) and fragmentation (in the form of disembodied lips, breasts, and faces) recur as themes throughout Szapocznikow’s work. Much of the work is created by casting individual body parts (often her own) and molding them in resin, polyester, fabric or polyurethane. Works often includes photographs, newspapers, cultural artifacts, and light. In this way, she’s creating pieces that maintain a relationship with Pop Art, though the similarities are only skin deep (pun intended).

Pop Art usually struck one of two poses; cool detachment or cool cynicism. I expect Szapocznikow has a little bit more in mind than that. Maybe I’m only saying that because I know how the story ends, but remember this, we don’t typically notice our bodies until something’s gone wrong.  Given the physical challenges Szapocznikow faced (Jewish ghettos, tuberculosis, cancer), it’s likely she developed a very acute sense of her own physicality and its limitations. This sense comes through loud and clear in her work.

Illuminated Woman - Alina Szapocznikow

As to Szapocznikow’s place in contemporary sculpture, I wonder if prescient is too strong a word? Perhaps, but it’s uncanny how the work Szapocznikow created 50 years ago resonates and holds currency today. She used modern and unconventional materials. She created soft sculptures. She incorporated light. She brought a decidely female perspective to an often male-dominated field. She mixed materials and added color. She made art that was deeply personal; like journaling in thee-dimensions.

I think that’s why I couldn’t let go of David Smith. The contrasts between Smith and Szapocznikow were so sharp they became impossible to ignore:

Smith, the manly man forging weighty sculptures from iron and fire. Szapocznikow creating malleable works from her own failing body.

Smith carrying on a tradition of large-scale sculptures that carve out space with heft and mass, Szapocznikow making small pieces, delicate and fragile.

Smith creating works that are fixed and permanent; works that will stand the test of time. Szapocznikow, creating works that honor frailty and impermanence.

Smith, the iconic artist; top-tier and a staple in history of art textbooks. Szapocznikow the artist few outside of Poland knew.

Art is an ongoing dialog. While Smith and Szapocznikow have markedly different approaches, both are part of a discussion that involves questions as basic as how art can be made and what it can mean. In that sense we’re lucky to have a space like the Wexner Center that can facilitate these discussions. Two sculptors, two shows, two very different perspectives. If we look carefully, we can learn a lot from both.

Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955‒1972 is currently on view at the Wexner Center Galleries May 19th – August 5th, 2012

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy has moved on. It was on view at the Wexner Center Galleries January 28th – April 15th, 2012.

For more information, contact Wexner Center Galleries.

David Smith
Cubi I, 1963
Stainless steel
124 x 34 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches
Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Special Purchase Fund
© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York
Photo © Detroit Institute of Arts/licensed by The Bridgeman Art Library

David Smith
Zig III, 1961 (detail)
Painted steel
93 × 124 × 61 inches
The Estate of David Smith, New York; courtesy Gagosian Gallery
© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York
Photo: Jerry L. Thompson

Alina Szapocznikow
Small Dessert I, 1970–1971
Assemblage: Colored polyester, glass salad bowl
3 1/8 x 4 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches
Kravis Collection
© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo: Roland Schmid

Alina Szapocznikow
Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood)
Assemblage: colored polyester resin, photographs, gauze
16 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches
Société de l’Apostolat Catholique (Pères Pallotins), Paris
© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Alina Szapocznikow
Illuminated Woman, 1966–1967
Plaster, colored polyester resin, electrical wiring
61 x 22 7/16 x 15 11/16 inches
Collection Alexandre Stanislawski
© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo: Fabrice Gousset, Paris
Image courtesy Piotr Stanislawski and Galerie Gisela Capitain GmbH, Cologne

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