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PRINT November 2011

TOUCHING FROM A DISTANCE: THE ART OF ALINA SZAPOCZNIKOW

Alina Szapocznikow working on Le Voyage (Journey), 1967, in her studio in Paris, 1967.

IT WAS THE MID-1980S, a bleak, depressed era in post-martial-law Poland, when I first saw Alina Szapocznikow’s 1967 sculpture Le Voyage (Journey) at Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz. Strolling pretty much alone through the museum’s galleries, I came upon it suddenly: a slender waxy-white nude that seemed to recline in the air. Perched on a tiny metal plinth and leaning back at a steep angle, improbably balanced between standing and falling, it denied gravity with the ease of a specter. Rounded pads of blue-green polyester covered the figure’s eyes like the lenses of oversize sunglasses, conveying hippie-era modishness but also evoking blindness, a state of perceptual impairment that is the opposite of the awareness connoted by hip. The mouth and nipples were bright red. The hair, articulated as two petal-like solid extensions, encircled the face, while the top of the head opened up slightly into a bizarre, vaguely sexual cleavage. With hands outstretched and fingers delicately maneuvering the nonexistent steering wheel of a car that wasn’t there, the figure was oblivious to its own precarious position. Defying gravity and emanating a sense of lightness, it also seemed strangely aglow, half opaque but translucent enough to absorb and reflect the ambient light. It was an unforgettable apparition, the more so because of its oddly quiet presence, which set it apart from other pieces by Polish and international artists displayed nearby. Roughly contemporaneous with Journey, these other works invoked popular iconography, serial reproduction, technology, sex, household objects—a repertoire of the late-’60s and early-’70s international style in which bodies and signs melded into a predictable unity.

In 1967, the Polish-born Szapocznikow, then forty-one, had been living in Paris for four years. She had found a champion in art critic and curator Pierre Restany; her friends included Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager, as well as members of the determinedly Dionysian art collective Panique (with which her second husband, graphic designer Roman Cieślewicz, was associated). Established in 1962, this late-Surrealist circle of eccentrics included poet Fernando Arrabal, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and artist and writer Roland Topor. The anarchic spirit of the Panique antimovement went decidedly against the main currents of contemporary art discourse in France at the time. For Szapocznikow, the group provided an alternative to a number of practices that were informed by Conceptualism and that were soon to occupy an important position on the French art scene, as well to the Nouveau Réalisme espoused by Restany.

Yet critics and historians have often emphasized the extent to which Szapocznikow’s work is informed by Nouveau Réalisme and Pop, with their chilly eroticism and their fascination with the sleek facture of mass production. Affinities are indeed manifest, however ambivalently, in such works as the gold-patinated cement sculpture Goldfinger, 1965—two truncated cast-cement thighs, upside down, locked together by a car’s shock absorber. We see these movements’ echoes, too, in lamps of the late ’60s—electrified pseudopods with feminine mouths—and in her early-’70s “desserts,” cast polyester-resin breasts in Day-Glo colors, arrayed like sorbets on serving dishes. She also toyed with the idea of conflating art and industry in her “belly cushions,” which were intended to be prototypes for mass production (but were never realized as such).

Journey might seem at first to have much in common with such works, but in fact the commonalities are rather superficial. Augmented by the title, the figure’s pose—a body thrust back as if by the acceleration of a speeding car—suggests a machine-induced high. The artist’s preliminary drawings, in fact, show a figure seated in a car. Yet however Szapocznikow may have initially conceived it, the final work is an allegory of a transcendental journey, and the movement it suggests is that of floating, perhaps of ascending. In another sculpture from the same year, L’Apesanteur (Hommage à Komarov) (Weightlessness [Homage to Komarov]), the artist was explicit in her association of death and ecstasy with a release from gravity. Vladimir Komarov was a cosmonaut killed when his Soyuz module crashed due to a parachute failure on April 24, 1967. The sculpture is a slim, seven-and-a-half-foot-tall human form wrapped in layers of gauzy plastic. The huge feet are fused together into a base, while long legs support a muscular, armless torso. Instead of a head, an almost flat, spoonlike shape protrudes from the cocooned body; the face is a photograph of Komarov mounted on an oval support, covered with semitransparent plastic. A series of photographs taken in Szapocznikow’s presence, and obviously at her direction, shows the sculpture placed on the ground in a forest clearing. Shot at exaggerated angles, the enshrouded, mummylike cosmonaut sways in the landscape, embodying the wish, shared by sculptors and space travelers, to overcome the pull of earthly mass. Particularly when considered alongside Weightlessness, there is no doubt that what Journey shows us is not the unidirectional progress of a vehicle carrying a passive, immobilized passenger. The sculpture is a space oddity, floating in the most peculiar way in a vacuum that knows no directions. The body itself is the vehicle.

Alina Szapocznikow, Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood), 1969, pigmented polyester resin, photographs, gauze, 16 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7".

In March 1972, exactly one year before her death, Szapocznikow penned her most oft-quoted assessment of her own practice. “I have been conquered by the hero-miracle of our age, the machine,” she wrote. “To it belong beauty, revelations, testimonies, the recording of history. To it belong, in the end, truthful dreams and public demand. As for me, I produce awkward objects. This absurd and convulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret gland, necessary for life.” This is the fundamental proposition of her work. “Conquered” or not by the post­industrial machine, she produced work that manifested a corporeality that for her was “necessary for life.” For Szapocznikow, the body provided the vessel for those aspects of experience that both lurk below and reach beyond the modernist paradigms of technology and cognition itself. In her work, the body is blinded, like the figure in Journey. Touch—not sight, the “highest” perceptual faculty—is the sense through which it chiefly apprehends the world. Privileging the tactile over the visual is much more than a gesture of insouciant commodity critique or wry commentary on the sexism inherent to the history of male sculptural practice. As the artist succinctly put it in the text quoted above, “My gesture is addressed to the human body, ‘that complete erogenous zone.’ . . .

I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering and all truth.” When Szapocznikow died, of breast cancer, she left behind a fragile, variegated, and ambiguous body of work that cannot be efficiently categorized in terms of formal or stylistic affiliations and evades inscription in the existing orders of reading. A better avenue by which to approach her art is through a consideration of her modest yet significant statements, which, in various ways, all point to an idea of undoing sculpture.

FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE IS THE DISCIPLINE in which Szapocznikow was trained at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague, where she had fled from her native Poland as a displaced person after the war. But after a brief period of probing into realism, making works that included both portraits of friends and a full-figure sculpture of Stalin, she rejected the depiction of the human form as a solid whole. In the decade following Stalin’s death in 1953, Szapocznikow’s sculptural oeuvre responds to the tradition of not only classical but also modern sculpture, from Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso to Jean Fautrier, Germaine Richier, and Ossip Zadkine. In the mid-’50s—by which point Szapocznikow had returned to Poland after a stint in Paris and become one of the nation’s most celebrated young artists—the integrity of the body was already severely compromised in her work. Ekshumowany (Exhumed), 1955, made of bronze, is the anonymous, mutilated torso of a man with an imprint of a blindfold across the face, reminiscent of the charred bodies found at Pompeii. (Quite possibly, this was a conscious allusion. The reference to the creative and destructive capacity of volcanoes was to reverberate in a group of later works such as Stèle (Stela), 1968, in which truncated body parts made of white polyester are immersed in lavalike black polyurethane foam, and in her unrealized project for a skating rink in the crater of Vesuvius, proposed for Restany’s project “Operazione Vesuvio” in 1972.) Gradually, Szapocznikow began narrowing her focus. In her work of the late ’60s, keen knowledge of contemporary art and acute powers of observation are complemented by introspection, and a unique awareness of the human body’s vulnerable condition comes to the fore. The locus of attention shifts from the body of sculpture to the sculpting body.

In 1962, Szapocznikow was chosen as one of three artists to represent Poland at the Venice Biennale, and shortly after that, she decamped for Paris, this time for good. There her mature work began. Her technique of choice was casting, and her materials were often substances that could be molded onto legs, arms, or thighs or mounded, stretched, pushed, and pulled. She did use wood and metal, but mostly to build supporting structures. Sometimes she executed in granite or bronze works that had originated as plaster casts. But ultimately she turned to polyester resin, viscous and fleshy, and to the black polyurethane foam with which she made some of her most powerful sculptures, such as Stèle. This dark matter expands before it solidifies, and could be spongy and bulbous or sludgy and oozing.

This was the kind of vaguely menacing artificial material whose sculptural use Szapocznikow, along with Eva Hesse and others, pioneered. Alien-smelling and acrid, capable of generating strange new textures—and, as we now know, sometimes carcinogenic—these plastics and polymers were where technology met the abject. Szapocznikow knew from a young age that “beauty” and “revelations” are not the only things that belong to the hero-miracle of the machine. As a Polish Jew born in 1926, she had witnessed how Taylorized, bureaucratized industrialism can abet the most grotesque violence. Before she was out of her teens she had lived in the ghettos of the town of Pabianice and of Lodz, with their forced labor and epidemics, and had been interned in concentration camps, including a brief term in Auschwitz and a long spell in Bergen-Belsen. There, as a child-nurse helping her pediatrician mother, she laid her hands on afflicted and emaciated bodies, just as she would later lay hands on herself or others in making the casts she used in her sculptures. The visual turns haptic; the figure becomes the body. The hollow cast becomes a “true image” of the tormented and ecstatic body, often fragmented, often prone or floating, at once freed and imperiled, and always threatening to deliquesce into undifferentiated matter.

Alina Szapocznikow, Herbier XIII (Herbarium XIII), 1972, polyester resin and polychrome wood, 43 3/8 x 31 1/2".

Szapocznikow took her first cast in 1962, in plaster; it became the work Noga (Leg), which in 1967 she also cast in bronze and placed on a granite base. Numerous casts of bodies, or of parts of bodies, including her own, followed: torsos, breasts, limbs, and lips. She routinely urged photographers to take pictures of her posing next to her works in the studio, and in these images the casts often function as props, substitute body parts. In the most striking photographs, she actually “wears” them (anticipating the Passstücke [Adaptives] that Franz West began producing in 1974). Other works of the period, such as Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth and Paul Thek’s The Tomb (both 1967), also investigate the uncanny relationship between cast, sculpture, and living subject. But Szapocznikow, focusing on the concrete, emotionally charged body, did so with a unique intimacy and intensity—as is evident in her 1972 work Piotr and the extraordinary series of photographs that document its making. These show the artist in her Paris studio, producing molds directly from the body of her adopted son Piotr (then twenty) for what was to become a full-scale portrait sculpture. In these images, the artist stages a travesty of Pygmalion’s workshop, a performative inversion of that venerable scene, the (male) sculptor in his atelier with his (female) model. We see a mother and son unperturbed by the practical difficulties of the molding procedure or by its erotic undertones, even amused as they immerse themselves in what might be considered the making of a very special kind of pietà. The resulting sculpture is the artist’s final word on weightlessness. Without the mother to hold her dead child, the polyester shell of Piotr’s naked body hovers suspended above the ground, gently slanted backward, toes poised just above the floor as if in the moment before the ascent—or the fall. The head rests on the bed of hair and leans gently to one side; Piotr’s face is relaxed, his eyes closed and lips open slightly, as if in a deep sleep. The portrait is halfway between death and reawakening.

Following her 1969 diagnosis with breast cancer, Szapocznikow entered a period of frenetic productivity. We see her confronting her illness in numerous ways—most directly in a number of sculptures that seek to embody, perhaps exorcise, the horrors of the disease. The “tumors” are misshapen agglomerations of polyester, fiberglass, paper, and gauze that magnify the physical manifestation of cancer. A group of Tumeurs personnifiées (Tumors Personified), 1971, conversely, literally gives metastasis a face—Szapocznikow’s own visage has been cast several times and used as a material for variably shaped lumps, strewn on the ground. In the “Fétiche” (Fetish) works of 1970 and ’71, she created relics from her own personal effects—stockings, underwear, and other garments, all coated in stiffened cauls of resin—while in L’Enterrement d’Alina (Alina’s Interment), 1970, more resin-coated clothes and photographs become a kind of still life or tableau against a coffinlike wooden support. This work, in particular, demonstrates the consistency of her exploration of death’s twilight zone, which began with Exhumed. But the unease it elicits pales beside the primal dread that may be felt by viewers of her “Herbier” (Herbarium) cycle of 1971–72, direct casts of her own and her son’s body that are among her most daring and disturbing experiments. There, the faces and body parts register as volumetric forms that have been flattened out. Veiny swaths of polyester resin rest on wooden backings, their texture by turns gelidly smooth or ulcerous, suggesting human hides or irregular spills of melting fat.

Perhaps it was through the crucible of these frightening works that Szapocznikow arrived at the possibility of transcendence hinted at, however tentatively, in Piotr. This complex and profoundly personal sculpture is an attempt to step over the threshold separating life and death and to look back from the vantage point described in the opening lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Edge”: “The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” The empty space upholding Piotr anticipates, in a truly nonrepresentational way, the absence of his mother’s body. The sculpture is conceived as a concrete fragment of an imaginable whole—an image that directs the viewer to conjure a presence that isn’t there. In a way, it is Szapocznikow’s ultimate self-portrait, in absentia.

EVEN BEFORE SHE BECAME ILL, photography seems to have functioned for Szapocznikow, in an intricate way, as both a recorder of and a bulwark against absence, invisibility, and evanescence. Her use of photography as a material component in her sculptures, visible in Weightlessness and Alina’s Funeral, began with Photomaton (Photo Booth), 1966, a vaguely anthropomorphic polyester construction plastered with small photographs of faces, and proliferated. In the Tumeurs and in the series “Souvenirs,” photographs are embedded in the lumpen polyester sculptures, which become concrete memorials to family members, friends (e.g., Boltanski), celebrities (Twiggy), or works of art (a late-Gothic Madonna). The most striking image used in this way is an archival photograph of a female corpse, a concentration-camp victim, collaged together with a childhood photo of the artist and her father, whose face has been excised. This juxtaposition appears in the centerpiece of the sculptural ensemble Souvenir de la table de noce d’une femme heureuse (A Souvenir from the Wedding Table of a Happy Woman), 1971.

View of “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972,” 2011, Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels. Foreground: Sein en chiffon vert (Fétiche II) (Breast in Green Cloth [Fetish II]), 1970–71. Middle ground, from left: Sculpture (Fétiche IV), 1971; Sans Titre (Fétiche VII) (Untitled [Fetish VII]), 1971. Background: Sans Titre (Fétiche I) (Untitled [Fetish 1]), 1970. In box: Bouche en marche (Fétiche III) (Marching Lips [Fetish III]), 1970. Photo: Filip Vanzieleghem.

That year, Szapocznikow produced her Fotorzezby (Photosculptures), a series of enlarged black-and-white photographs of gnawed-on chewing gum, misbegotten and pocked with teeth marks, as disturbing in its way as anything she’d done with polyester or polyurethane. In this series, she proposed that sculpture might exist as no more than a photograph of a fleeting presence. There are striking and instructive analogies between these works and early black-and-white photographs by Swiss artist Hannah Villiger. Taken between 1975 and 1979, before Villiger began shooting her better-known close-up images of her own body, these pictures record small-scale ephemeral adventures, such as a palm leaf set afire or a jet of water arcing through the air. Villiger called her entire, almost exclusively photographic oeuvre “Skulptural.” The rhetorical maneuver performed by both artists—photography termed sculpture—indicates a desire to free sculpture from the “ballast” of materials and tools, effectively rendering it immaterial. Szapocznikow was certainly not being coy when she described herself in her 1972 statement as “a sculptor who has experienced the failure of a thwarted vocation.” Rather, she was expressing profound existential doubts, which ultimately led to her most extreme manifestation of anti-sculpture, Cendrier de Célibataire III (Bachelor’s Ashtray III), 1972. Evoking the bachelor machine, the work is a photograph of cigarette ends extinguished on a stick of butter. The ashtray, an accessory of existentialists, literati, and other idle thinkers—Conceptual artists included—literally puts an end to sculpture.

What might have followed this ending in Szapocznikow’s work? We are left to speculate. What is clear as we look at her works now, however, is that it is necessary to tell part of art history anew. Szapocznikow speaks to us along with many near-forgotten or chronically ignored and excluded female artists, many of them from the Eastern-bloc countries—recent “discoveries” such as Geta Brătescu and Běla Kolářová are cases in point. This critical revision of art history is being implemented by only a very few museums and art institutions, among them the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which, under director Joanna Mytkowska, has made much of Szapocznikow’s archive available on its website.

In 2009, the museum mounted an exhibition, “Awkward Objects,” curated by Agata Jakubowska and Mytkowska, that put Szapocznikow’s sculptures in a constellation with works by Maria Bartuszová, Pauline Boty, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Paulina Ołowska. The major survey “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972,” curated by Elena Filipovic and Mytkowska—currently on view at the Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels—is in part a result of such initiatives and the attention they have brought to Szapocznikow’s oeuvre.

Considering Szapocznikow’s art reminds us of the stakes of such direct institutional advocacy. Szapocznikow went beyond the conventional idea of sculpture as a process of adding or taking away, and even beyond the rigorous formal analysis of sculpture’s relation to site that helped to expand the field in the 1960s. Instead, she questioned her métier and, step by step, set off to undo the work’s fixed material and stylistic parameters, learning by doing, working with rare determination through her own origins as a classical sculptor with an academic background. Toward the end of her life, this work of loosening up and debasing sculpture ran parallel to her grave illness and—as if in response to a life that had been, in many ways, in a permanent state of emergency—ultimately seemed to point to the possible transgression of death itself, a step beyond the threshold of the corporeal. When the body of sculpture was perfected and abandoned, a space opened up.

“Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972” is on view at Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels, through January 8, 2012; travels to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Feb. 5–Aug. 5; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, May 19–Aug. 5; Museum of Modern Art, New York, Oct. 7–Jan. 28, 2013.

Adam Szymczyk is Director and Chief Curator of the Kunsthalle Basel.