New York

Seymour Lipton, Germinal #2, 1953, nickel silver on steel, 70 x 16 x 16".

Seymour Lipton, Germinal #2, 1953, nickel silver on steel, 70 x 16 x 16".

Seymour Lipton

Driscoll Babcock Galleries

Seymour Lipton, Germinal #2, 1953, nickel silver on steel, 70 x 16 x 16".

At the 1958 Venice Biennale, the American pavilion featured installations by exemplary Abstract Expressionists of the time, including two sculptors: David Smith and Seymour Lipton. A comparison of the artists’ oeuvres is instructive. Both Smith and Lipton made vaguely figurative works, but whereas those by Smith tended to be thin and attenuated, Lipton’s had a bulky if oddly hollow presence; whereas Smith’s surfaces were textured, Lipton’s seemed weirdly agitated; and whereas Smith handled his metal gently, Lipton brutally hammered it, as though to shred its skin. Lipton, who died in 1986, didn’t just use his medium (typically steel or brazed Monel metal coated with nickel silver). He sought to experience a lived, even existential encounter with it.

The seven welded sculptures in “Seymour Lipton: Structural Metaphors, 1951–1964,” evince a sinister intricacy. The geometric, morbidly mysterious Labyrinth,1964, looks to be worked to death—perhaps flayed. The menacing Germinal #2, 1953, composed of three modular pods and crowned by petals, recalls both Brancusi’s Endless Column and a carnivorous plant, a Venus flytrap ready to swallow any insect dumb enough to be ensnared by it. Threshold, 1981, the most recent sculpture on view, recalls a portal to another world. Like Germinal #2, Threshold is quite large; the other five sculptures in the show—The Garden, ca. 1951–52; Protector, ca. 1957; Diadem, 1960; Pointed Mask, 1962; and the aforementioned Labyrinth—are much smaller, more compact, more intimately intense, and more overtly dramatic. All the sculptures are off-putting, intimidating, yet oddly insular—self-enclosed even though Lipton exposed their inner space.

Diadem must have been worn by the Queen of the Underworld. With its threatening protrusions, the crown resembles a sea urchin. It stands on three of these spikes, suggesting that it is a figure as well as an object, this ambiguity adding to its perversity. Augmented by two curved pieces of metal, the work cast a strange shadow on the gallery wall, as if to affirm its darkness.

Protector also has a dangerous presence. Like a snapping turtle, it looks ready to clamp its prey between its two curved jaws, to cut them to pieces with its teeth. Pointed Mask, meanwhile, resembles a disemboweled corpse, its monstrous ribs revealed. The Garden looks even more damaged. Composed of jagged, abstract forms that hang together seemingly precariously, it feels on the verge of collapse, evoking a feeling of instability that nonetheless fails to jeopardize its sense of autonomy and integrity. To say Lipton’s AbEx sculptures have a biomorphic and primitive character is to understate their animalistic fierceness—they generate a profound and immediate transference. Here, three accompanying drawings—boldly black figures on white paper—confirmed the enduring vigor and emotional depth of Lipton’s vision.

Donald Kuspit