Art review: ‘Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone’ at Hammer Museum
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Alina Szapocznikow, who died at 46 in 1973, is a Polish sculptor little known outside her home country. Her work ranges from traditional Expressionist figures in plaster, bronze and cement to inventively grainy images that she called photo-sculptures. It has been garnering some attention in small gallery exhibitions in Europe and New York in just the last five years or so.
Now, a traveling retrospective has arrived at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Near as I can tell it is Szapocznikow’s West Coast solo debut.
The show and its comprehensive catalog do an admirable job of introducing the development of her sculpture, which went a long way in a relatively brief period, while also sorting out her often harrowing life. ‘Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972’ does not reveal a major artist; however, for American audiences it does significantly broaden the horizon of Eastern European art during an era still shrouded in Cold War mists and myths.
After World War II, most European sculpture picked up threads of two already established directions, both interrupted by the cataclysmic conflict. A smaller contingent continued to explore geometric abstraction, even though the refined, idealist aspirations of Constructivist sculpture could seem credulous in the aftermath of Auschwitz and the nuclear bomb. More common was sculpture whose roots in Surrealist nightmares and Expressionist anxieties embodied those traumatic realities, wounds still fresh and unresolved in the public mind.
Szapocznikow was among this larger coterie. The show opens with distorted figures such as ‘Exhumed’ (1957), a human torso that has been put through horrendous trauma.
With its severed limbs, blurred face and pitted surface, ‘Exhumed’ recalls everything from the ancient lava-encased corpses of Pompeii to the newly charred bodies of Nagasaki. Nearby a large gnarled and torqued hand made from gray plaster and iron filings stands atop a waist-high metal rod, made as a model for a ‘Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.’ ‘Shattered,’ an upright, irregular skin of dark polyester pierced through by metal bars, moves into a more abstract vein.
These grim works are deeply internalized Expressionist sculptures, skillful if conventional. Their visual rhetoric is familiar from contemporaneous sculptors as diverse in specific style, quality and renown as Alberto Giacometti, Olga Jancic, Marino Marini, Elizabeth Frink, Kenneth Armitage and even Henry Moore. They set the parameters of Szapocznikow’s art for the next 15 years, although her tone would take a salutary shift toward something more sardonic and barbed by the late 1960s.
Her art speaks from Szapocznikow’s own extremely difficult experience. Born into a family of Jewish doctors in 1926 in Kalisz, one of Poland’s oldest cities, she was barely a teenager when Hitler’s armies invaded from the west and the Soviet Red Army attacked from the east. During the war her family was incarcerated in grim ghettos and concentration camps primarily in German-occupied Poland (her brother died at Terezin, Czechoslovakia). Because her father was a dentist and her mother a pediatrician, they were often pressed into hospital service.
Finally separated from her family and convinced they were dead, Szapocznikow went to Prague after the war. Forging papers, she began to study art. Moving on to Paris, she came down with a near-fatal case of tuberculosis. Over the next decade she was reunited with her mother, married twice, adopted a son, divided her time between Warsaw and Paris and began to develop a following in Communist Poland. In 1969 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The three short years before her death may have been her most productive.
The two most distinctive aspects of Szapocznikow’s art emerged after her 1963 return to Paris with her second husband, graphic artist Roman Cieslewicz, and her son, Piotr Stanislawski. One is her inventive choice of materials -- resin, rubber, raw wool, paper, polyurethane and more. The other is a corresponding sense of humility. Fragile materials replaced enduring bronze, cement and stone -- the official sculptural stuff of the ages -- to suggest the vulnerability and transience of the human body.
The show, jointly organized by the WEILS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, includes 63 sculptures and reliefs and 51 works on paper. The most engaging are an eccentric group of spindly lamps, each less than 2 feet tall, in which mash-ups of lips and breasts in colored polyester resin seem to blossom like extraterrestrial flowers atop lanky stems.
Reminiscent of Joan Miró's clay figurines of the 1950s, these sculptures were designed to be mass-produced for the home. Their electrical wiring for soft, table-top luminescence yields a distinctive Pop edge. Stylistically they’re related to French New Realist artists around the influential critic Pierre Restany, who had befriended Szapocznikow. New Realists were busily tearing apart and reassembling fragments of billboards, magazines and other mass-produced goods; Szapocznikow, with her clever use of casting techniques, adapted the fragmentation strategy to her longstanding interest in the ephemeral body.
Still, as Szapocznikow searches for a means by which to express her singular interest, her art can feel forced, the show as a whole rather monotonous. Too often the sculptures appear contrived, a generalized representation of an inner life of turmoil.
Large, elegiac wall reliefs awkwardly composed from bundled clothing, crumpled newspapers and old photographs, all embedded in translucent resin, unsuccessfully attempt to give form to the physical and psychological deterioration caused by bodily tumors. An ornamental, pedestal-bound Rolls Royce -- carved from pink marble and sporting a golden phallus in the place of its Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament -- is a unique foray into social commentary whose feminist reversals are achingly simplistic. (It’s the maquette for a never-realized version, meant to be twice life-size.)
The show’s high point, in addition to the lamps, is the aforementioned photo-sculpture. Humble doesn’t begin to describe it. Made while she worked on the unfortunate Rolls, each of the 20 black and white prints shows a simple wad of chewing gum pulled into an abstract shape, resting on a plinth like a Brancusi abstraction and photographed in close-up like an anthropological specimen under scrutiny.
Some recline luxuriously. Others dangle precariously. Still others sit upright and poised, as if probing the dark, silvery space around them like curious insects.
Their disarming material is inspired. Certainly eccentric for sculpture, chewing gum is a casual emblem for the quiet, ruminative anxieties embedded in time’s passage. It’s a long way from bronze and marble, but for Szapocznikow’s art that’s a good thing. ALSO:
-- Christopher Knight
Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972, UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through April 29. Closed Mon. www.hammer.ucla.edu