New York

Alina Szapozcinikow

BROADWAY 1602 | Uptown

“Ontological poverty” is a phrase Alina Szapozcnikow once used to describe the immanent instabilities of the human body. A single example of impermanence in the world, for Szapozcnikow, it was nonetheless human composition—flesh, blood, and bone—that was “the most fragile” site. But such delicate constitution, as the artist saw it, allowed for a complex range of emotions and experiences. For while (or better, because) ontologically impoverished, the body was consequently “the only source of all joy, of all pain and of all truth.”

Szapozcnikow was no stranger to such radical antinomies and body/mind complications. Born in Kalisz, Poland, in 1926, the Jewish artist, most of whose immediate family died while she was young, was held in Nazi death camps during the German occupation. Having survived the Holocaust, she concentrated, in the late 1940s and early ’50s, on producing representations of workers, but as she became increasingly critical of the Stalinist regime, her more or less straightforward sketches and sculptures (often produced for public commissions) ceded to experiments in abstraction with overtly emotional subjects and handling. Working in a variety of media, she also experimented in all manner of production. Sketching, casting, printing, and photographing, she moved toward a kind of organic vocabulary that—while flirting with “pure” abstraction—steadfastly refused to relinquish all ties with representation.

By 1963, by which time Szapocznikow had moved to France, the artist’s work showed traces of the group of people with whom she was in dialogue: the core members of the Nouveaux Réalistes, as well as the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Annette Messager. But however strong her affinities with these figures, the practice that Szapocznikow crafted during the ten years she lived and worked in France was wholly distinct. Using her body as a specimen, she repeatedly reproduced its contours and plumbed its depths, but in doubling herself, she was also dissembling any notion of the “self” as stable. Darkly humorous and feminist in implication, her renderings recast parts of her own body as useful domestic tools: Her 1966 “Lampes-Bouche” (Illuminated Lips) were cast polyester resin replicas of the artist’s rosy lips perched on a stem and illuminated by small bulbs. She liked to imagine such products as eventually mass-produced, and in this vein, her 1968 “Ventre-Coussins” (Belly-Cushions), which reproduce in spongy polyurethane the soft round section of Szapocznikow’s lower torso, were prototypes for items meant to be piled up and lounged on.

Though Szapocznikow’s work is celebrated in Poland and known fairly well in Europe, it has yet to be widely shown in the US. In the small but airy rooms of Broadway 1602, Szapocznikow had her first solo show here, a small but fierce miniretrospective. Photosculptures, 1971 (previously shown at 2007’s Documenta), consisted of twenty black-and-white photographs demonstrating the ways such simple acts as gum-chewing can leave strangely touching traces of human physicality. Here too are works like Dessert III (Coupe de seins) (Dessert III [Bowl of Breasts]), 1970–71, a gang of cast polyester breasts that flips between traumatic prosthetic and vulgar gag. That Szapocznikow had been diagnosed with, was being treated for, and would soon—at the age of 47—die of breast cancer matters a great deal to the reading of this piece, and the artist dealt directly with this situation in wrenching drawings that she produced detailing the aftermath of her surgeries. Yet however much the artist’s work responds to the ineffable pain that can be dealt to the human body, it relishes, too, the unexpected riches born of such a state of poverty.

Johanna Burton