New York

Jacques Lipchitz, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1942, bronze, 24 1/2 x 28 1/2 x 16".

Jacques Lipchitz, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1942, bronze, 24 1/2 x 28 1/2 x 16".

Jacques Lipchitz

Marlborough | Midtown

Jacques Lipchitz, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1942, bronze, 24 1/2 x 28 1/2 x 16".

“Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture before 1914 was banal,” Douglas Cooper writes, and “the late-baroque style he [cultivated after] 1928 has led to works which are more vigorous than artistically meaningful.” For Cooper, curator of the seminal 1970–71 exhibition “The Cubist Epoch,” Lipchitz produced important sculpture only in the short period between those dates, when, under the influence of Juan Gris and Henri Laurens, his works embodied the narrow category of Synthetic Cubism. This exhibition at Marlborough—which was curated by Kosme de Baraño, former Executive Director of the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, and which included roughly fifty sculptures made between 1911 and 1972, some small studies, some human-size—brought Cooper’s judgment into question. It did so in part by suggesting the aesthetic limitations of the works he praised, and in part by revealing that art must rise to the challenge of the metanarrative to achieve lasting significance; Lipchitz’s did so throughout his career, but most forcefully after he introduced his so-called late-baroque style. According to some thinkers, metanarratives are meaningless, fraudulently universal. But the metanarratives in the Old and New Testaments and in Greek mythology apparently remained meaningful to Lipchitz, and indeed they continue to remain meaningful—bespeaking universal truths, or at least constant concerns and themes—to many people.

In 1925, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset famously delineated what he called the “Dehumanization of Art” in modernity. This condition, Ortega explained, made a decisive appearance with Analytic Cubism, a movement that lacked the “all-too-human”—it did not bespeak the great themes of human life, whether mediated by age-old narratives or not—and therefore could never be truly great, let alone of lasting appeal. Arriving at a similar conclusion, Lipchitz realized—as Picasso himself did—that Cubist abstraction was only a means to a representational end, however strange the end might seem to everyday eyes. As an end in itself, Cubism became a dead end.

I think Lipchitz’s post-1928 “baroqueness” bespeaks the artist’s engagement with the Expressionist and Surrealist currents then running through modern art, explored in an attempt to introduce traditional narrative art, with its moralized suffering, to the Cubist paradigm. For Lipchitz, “baroque” also meant energy: an energy that at its best had a kind of muscular fluidity, energy that was Abstract Expressionist in its intensity. Indeed, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1942, inevitably brings to mind the conflictful works Pollock was making at the same time, or de Kooning’s late figurative sculpture. The tormented Hagar in the Desert, 1969, speaks, metaphorically, to the tormented ’60s—epitomized by 1968—not to say our ongoing desert wars. Lipchitz’s works always have a peculiarly contemporary resonance, as if they were made originally in response to public issues, as indeed they may have been.

Already in 1921, with Repentant Magdalene—a small masterpiece—Lipchitz was trying to integrate Cubist abstraction with what might be called biblical humanism. Cubism alone was too constraining, narrow-minded, and finally not up to the task of conveying human majesty, human suffering, and the need for redemption—or so Lipchitz’s late works, infused with their baroque sensibility, tell us.

Donald Kuspit