New York

Richard Stankiewicz

Zabriskie Gallery

“Richard Stankiewicz: The 1950s” was the sort of curated gallery exhibit one rarely finds these days: a well-chosen survey of a brief, crucial period in an artist’s career, selected and mounted so convincingly that it actually changed one’s sense of the work’s origins, intentions, and art-historical significance. Stankiewicz’s dealer from the early ’70s until the artist’s death in 1983 presented his sculptures in an atmosphere of subdued elegance that at first seemed at odds with the works, which are compact, slyly animated assemblages of rusty urban iron-and-steel junk. Amid these elegant surroundings, however, the pieces seemed to glow from within, their oxidized surfaces taking on a velvety, cocoa richness: transformed from an art of detritus into, simply, art.

When Stankiewicz began exhibiting in the early ’50s, the use of junk material was considered transgressive, and his work was brutally honest about its Dumpster origins. This exhibition, which included loans from museum collections (including the Whitney’s Kabuki Dancer (1954–8), 1954) as well as important work from private holdings (Tribal Diagram (1953–5), 1953, and The Golden Bird is Often Sad (1957–12), 1957), suggested that Stankiewicz’s work is as much a product of European tradition as it is of the New York School—an appropriate enough observation, considering that Stankiewicz worked in Paris during the early ’5os at the Atelier Fernand Léger and in the studio of Ossip Zadkine. Clearly the quiet humor of the work—this one looks like a bug, that one a bird—suggests the whimsy and caprice of the unconscious in a manner similar to that of the Dadaists or later Picasso. The meticulous finish of the work, too, is entirely European: Tribal Diagram (1953–5), 1953, may have a Rube Goldberg–like American vitality, but in its tightness and elegance it resembles a three-dimensional Paul Klee. Girl With Long Hair (1954–6), 1954, kookily describes a free-spirited American beauty, but the compositional elements (bedsprings, steel pipe) suggest a subtler, slightly nasty, Dadaist wit; Figure (1956–6), 1956, confronts us with an ugly hunk of welded iron; but squint and you might make out a pinheaded nude by Miró. Similar Cubist and primitivist influences abound, and thanks to the artful arrangement and selection of works, they were entirely visible in this small, jewellike exhibit.

By creating a grouping of works that deemphasized Stankiewicz’s known strengths (his sly visual humor, his daring use of radically poor and unstable materials) and concentrating instead on the works’ previously underrecognized secondary qualities—the high level of craft and workmanship, the thoroughness and meticulousness of his vision, and the clear link to a number of twentieth-century European masters—the show suggested a new way of understanding a recognized talent. Yet the exhibition succeeded in doing so without altering the resoundingly moody atmosphere created by these mouldering pieces, many of which seemed, despite their inherent whimsy and the elegance of their surroundings, to sulk in the limelight. For the work is at heart disturbingly melancholy, the product of a man who seems to have been profoundly aware of mortality, transience, and waste. These slowly disintegrating sculptures, fashioned from gleanings of the urban hinterland, have stoically outlasted their maker not as the transgressive statements he originally intended, but as luxury objects: each transformed by time and commerce into a chilling memento mori.

Justin Spring