New York

Jacques Lipchitz

Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture reflects the difficulties that a conservative, essentially representational artist found himself in when faced with the innovations of Modernism. He initially attempted to reconcile conventional modeling—the human hand intensifying human meaning—with then-unconventional Cubist abstraction, which converted the figure into an ironic suggestion that mocked its human interest and ultimately into a “transcendental” construction that canceled it out altogether. In midcareer, however, Lipchitz fell back on the modeled figure as a humanistic end in itself. He came to see abstraction as a way of enhancing the figure—of making it archetypal—rather than of dispensing with it by elaborating it as a play of forms. His later expressionistic art became problematic when it no longer bore any relationship to advanced artistic concerns. Lipchitz became blind to the issue abstraction poses: how to subtly imbue abstract form with human meaning without stereotyping or reifying either.

Twentieth-century abstraction suggests a paradoxical artistic truth: that when form becomes readily readable in a figural manner, or, on the contrary, when it is abstracted to the point of human meaninglessness, it loses its vitality and its ability to convince. Their dialectic collapses, and both the human and the artistic lose credibility. The point is to stay in between—neither all too human nor positivistically formal.

Thus, Lipchitz’s most artistically innovative works are also his most humanly innovative, in that they convey a new sense of our condition. Dating from around 1915–17, these works fuse Cubism and Constructivism in his so-called “machine” esthetic, turning the figure simultaneously into a dynamic robot and into aspirational architecture (it looks like a science fiction model for a skyscraper). Perhaps the most original work of this period is the phallic, obelisklike Sculpture, ca. 1915, a piece that demonstrates how form can become intensely invested with desire without becoming cliched. But neither this piece nor the others escape the fact that they are “postexperimental”—that they are characterized by a codified and applied Cubo-Constructivism. Lipchitz’s advance was always belated. He was quick to believe and eager to become avant-garde, but he lost faith in artistic advance once the resulting esthetic novelties were assimilated. I take his regressively representational, if genially abstract portrait Gertrude Stein, 1920, as an indication of his disbelief. Her static, pompous, idollike but peculiarly hollow appearance suggests that Lipchitz unconsciously felt that the avant-garde had become self-glorifying and had passed its peak.

By the end of the ’20s, modeling returns with a vengeance (it had never been completely abandoned). The figure, now primeval and prophetic in form, becomes heroic and narrative. Mythological themes—mostly biblical—abound, and basic human motifs, such as that of the mother and child dyad, are mythologized. Lipchitz’s last works are realized in a muddled, generalized modern style and are subliminally sentimental if overtly dramatic. However, by this time Lipchitz’s tendency to dramatization seems somewhere between a caricature and a shell of itself. In my opinion, Lipchitz, by trying to universalize the Jewish experience as the epitome of human suffering, foreclosed on his sense of artistic possibility. But now and then, as in the hollow helmetlike Head, 1932—a small, unpretentious work that goes against his general tendency to heavy-handed grandeur—he achieves a rare esthetic lucidity, an integration of theme and form that makes his work cutting, if not entirely on the cutting edge.

Donald Kuspit