New York

Jacques Lipchitz

Marlborough | Midtown

In 1959, at the time of a succession of triumphant campaigns across Europe, Lipchitz wrote of his “débuts réalistes et leur suite progressive vers cette ossification de 1915–1916” (Lipchitz to Sandberg, Director of the Municipal Museums, Amsterdam). It is this “ossification” and the evolution of “une sculpture aussi pure que le cristal” that above all else has been honored in the present near-comprehensive view of Lipchitz’s first Cubist battery. The exhibition traces the sculptor’s arresting (yet, for the period, orthodox) adulterations of Salon Motif plus Cubist rudimentariness to the open and rapid cires perdues of the later 1920s known as the Transparencies. These may be viewed as an attempt on the sculptor’s part to alleviate the turgid and predeterminist character which atrophies Lipchitz’s work after that period. (The same can also be said of Zadkine’s sculpture after 1930.) From the 1930s on, with rare exception, Lipchitz’s Cubist vocabulary is a glove which fits all too snugly. The fantasy of the Transparencies may have, in turn, set the groundwork for the redeeming studies of the Virgin for Notre Dame de Toute-Grâce, Assy, which is treated freely and organically, like a pomegranate.

Still, Lipchitz’s phrase, “realistic debuts,” is intriguing. Doubtless he refers to his Woman and Gazelles, first conceived in 1911 as a single woman and a single gazelle but expanded in 1912 to include the symmetrically responsive second animal. Exhibited in the Salon d’Automne of 1912 this work was enthusiastically greeted and Lipchitz, an escapee from the Czar’s harsh conscriptive laws governing the military service of Jews, became the Young Man to Watch. (Paul Manship did more: he copped the piece entirely for his intensely Herculaneumesque knock-off, the Dancer and Gazelles of 1914, an exquisite example of American Ecole des Beaux-Arts sculpture, shown with equal brouhaha at the National Academy of Design in 1916. Ultimately the grouping would become the official mantel clock and over portal throughout the 1920s and ’30s.)

Lipchitz was still to carry the derivative motif and academic references into 1914. The celebrated Rencontre, a symbolic and mechanistic Adam and Eve, posited a solution almost identical to the Rock Drill of Epstein and Chagall’s Homage to Apollinaire. The Woman with The Serpent (1913) still clings iconographically to the Salon motif echoing Franz Stuck and Laocoön, or his sons, struggling with the serpent in either the Hellenistic marble or the El Greco copy, while nodding at the infant Hercules strangling the serpent. By 1914, after having absorbed the deep lessons of Black African carving and the masklike features of Benin bronzes, extremely decorative and catalytic liberations began to make themselves felt in Lipchitz’s sculpture, relating to similar modes of attack (especially where the Spanish Dance is concerned) in work by Henri Laurens, Archipenko and Natalia Goncharova.

These decorative and thematic motifs were tenaciously held but, by 1915, vast differences became sensible. Recognizing, at last, the pathetic fallacy of his view of Cubism (held by all except Picasso and Braque), namely, the terror of renouncing or underplaying a representational or literary focus, Lipchitz determined to dare the inconceivable. He created a body of highly abstract “figures”—they were still called Personnages—actually confrontations of elemental geometrical forms “enlivened” by only minimum anthropomorphic touches: circles (eyes), two vertical units (legs), triangulated prisms (noses), central verticals (spines), and the like. This view of Lipchitz, this “ossification” or flirtation with total abstraction, has been magnificently facilitated by the present exhibition. This corpus, easily the most theoretically stringent of Lipchitz’s entire production, becomes, to my view, the model for the last great sculpture of the master, the Totemic Personnage of 1926–1931.

Robert Pincus-Witten