Alina Szapocznikow, Noga (Leg), 1962, plaster, 7 7⁄8 × 19 5⁄8 × 25".

Alina Szapocznikow, Noga (Leg), 1962, plaster, 7 7⁄8 × 19 5⁄8 × 25".

Alina Szapocznikow

I didn’t know it at the time, but the day I went to see “To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972” would be, in light of the Covid-19 lockdown, my last day on the streets of London for a long time. Soon, we would be told to hide our bodies away, sick and healthy alike, until . . . I didn’t know when. At the gallery, I encountered striking evidence of the human body in all manner of states: ailing, productive, joyful, anarchic, in pieces, enduring. The word indexicality well describes the turn Szapocznikow’s works took in the decade leading up to her death in 1973. Their forms not only resemble but bear the direct imprint of the body parts—limbs, mouth, torso—that made them; and in visual terms they point to the embodied and temporal contexts of their making, like the pronouns and adverbs I, you, here, there, then, now.

The first of the works Szapocznikow made by taking a cast from her own body was Noga (Leg), 1962, an alabaster-white plaster limb—bent at the knee, toes curled under just slightly. A plaster mouth, philtrum to chin, Untitled, 1964–65, balanced on a thin, tulip-like stem. A thick cluster of unfired pink clay mouths, Forma II (Form II), ca. 1964–65, twisted and bent like a gnarled branch. Across two walls hung Fotorzez´by (Photosculptures), 1971/2007, twenty mesmeric black-and-white photographs of chewing gum masticated into various shapes—amorphic, stringy, tooth pocked—and placed on thin shelves and concrete ledges. Shown in 2007 at Documenta 12, they have often been seen as Conceptual photography. Here, alongside casts of the artist’s mouth that made them, the photographs were reminders that while the bodily traces we see in the artist’s sculptures—both concrete and photographed—are now inert, they were not always so: Material has been laboriously manipulated and preserved. As the artist wrote, “Chew well then. Look around you. Creation lies just between dreams and daily work.”

Biography drags after Szapocznikow like a phantom limb, threatening to eclipse a practice as rooted in materiality and experiment as it is in the individual life experience of a body and mind. Born to a Jewish family in Kalisz, Poland, in 1926, she survived two ghettos and three concentration camps, as well as tuberculosis, before dying of breast cancer at age forty-six. Her work has frequently suffered from being interpreted too literally, theorized as representations of trauma or of psychic wounds. But every encounter I’ve had demands the opposite: The abstracted figuration Szapocznikow pursued in this later work, which hovers between the real body and its imagined or felt states, demands nuanced reading. We have the body truncated, unheroic, beguiling, as in her colored polyester resin lamps, mouths, and breasts lit from within—glowing sentinels pink, flesh colored, black, crimson. The body that grows where it shouldn’t, whose parts we cannot integrate, appears unnatural but unsettlingly erotic, tactile, as in two works titled Tumeur (Tumor), both made around 1970, consisting of lumpy mounds of resin and gauze, with ruby-red lips straining to the surface from within. Or the body that is extracted, flattened, and pressed, like pale somatic flowers, in Herbier bleu I (Blue Herbarium I), 1972.

These visceral works seduce and repel in equal measure: Isn’t that what having a body is like, anyway? It must be said, for it is too easily forgotten, that the sick body still lives. It is productive, just like the healthy one; its passions, its desires for boldness, love, sex, a body beyond the here and now, are not quelled. Szapocznikow’s sculptures are like relics or votives, offerings that exceed the mortal body “to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage,” as she wished. They are the fragmented body, her fragmented body, not as something that fails or is torn, but as a thing that escapes the burden of wholeness: The fragment can incarnate bodily integrity once we know, in our marrow, that such integrity never existed to begin with.