ALINA SZAPOCZNIKOW Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972

THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | OCTOBER 7, 2012 – JANUARY 28, 2013

Sculpture Undone is a small but thorough retrospective of the work of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973).  The artist, who was Jewish, never publicly discussed her experiences in the Łódź ghetto or in Auschwitz and several other concentration camps. Rather than drawing the immediate conclusion that Szapocznikow’s work is a silent assessment of the low-point of humanity, one might choose to explore alternate readings of rebirth and transcendence, which seem equally as viable.  Still, the work on view at MoMA bears the scars of someone who has seen the worst possible things in life. “Femme Illumine” (1966-67), an armless, headless figure with a lit bosom and a bouquet of brightly colored casts of breasts sprouting from the neck, is both grotesque in one reading and gorgeous and radiant in another.  Szapocznikow enjoys toying with the macabre and colliding it with the classical.

The exhibition opens with the short film “Trace,” made in 1976 by Helena Włodarczyk.  The film offers an equivocal picture of Szapocznikow by presenting her work through a series of vaguely threatening camera angles to a discordant and jarring soundtrack.  One experiences an immediate sensation of discomfort; the sculptures—the tortured creations of an artist who suffered her whole life and then died young—are presented within the context of a bleak urban space.  Yet Włodarczyk ‘s film isn’t really a fair start to this show: only a step further into the galleries, “Difficult Age” (1956), a delicate and probing life-size figurative bronze of a young girl with carefully modelled features, challenges the viewer to reassess where the artist’s sense of beauty lies.

Szapocznikow emerged from classical training in Paris in the late 40’s and found herself faced with an emerging movement of monumental abstract sculpture, as exemplified by Giacometti and Moore.  Instead of allying herself with any movement categorically, she chose to use both contemporary tropes and traditional methods for her own purposes.  The unpredictable resulting oeuvre is tinged with Szapocznikow’s darkly mischievous sense of humor. “Goldfinger” (1965), a chimeric entity comprising cement limbs and a car’s suspension system could easily be read as a monster of modern technology; the title of the piece and its glittering pigmentation refer to Shirley Eaton’s death by gold paint in the 007 film released the year before.  But is it, more importantly, a reference to Rodin’s seemingly casual habit of dismembering bodies, without an ounce of malice, for the practical purpose of focusing on a gesture?

A room of lamps initially presents a terrifying spectacle of glowing lips and phosphorescent breasts on tenuous stalks, a Ridley Scott dystopic vision of a nightmare garden.  But the series “Lampe-Bouche” (1966) is a collection of sultry red mouths, an erotic double pun on lips and flowers.  The creepiness of a body part perched at the end of a sprout is due, in part, to our own rejection of corporeal death.  “Petit Dessert 1” (1970-71) takes the artist’s obsession with the mouth even further, presenting the lower half of Szapocznikow’s face in a glass dish with a splash of custard. This again is Rodin-like and gesture-oriented, as if the mouth is about to speak or blow a smoke-ring, not forever silenced.

Szapocznikow’s “Belly Cushions” (1968) strike a similar balance between gruesome and sweet.Initially intended for mass production, the polyurethane pillows cast from the artist’s stomach present an initially disturbing version of an object or character, perhaps the denizen of an abattoir—but this is superseded by notions of fertility and by childhood memories of resting one’s head on Dad or Mom’s tummy.

In large part, the many graphic works presented in the exhibition seem like vehicles for Szapocznikow’s three-dimensional work. The artist’s late experimentation with combining images and sculpture led to both some of the most successful and some of the more hackneyed pieces in the retrospective.  “Madonna of Kruzlowa [Motherhood]” (1969) is a simple juxtaposition of images of the Virgin Mary, taken from what appears to be a Memlingesque panel painting, laminated into a bulbous rubber form, and contrasted with naturalistic cast breasts.  The piece seems weakened by the artist’s reliance on a Northern Renaissance image; the dainty medieval aesthetic does not adjust well to the artist’s warmer and messier style.  “Pamiatka Souvenir” (1971), one of Szapocznikow’s very few Holocaust-related works, presents a larger snapshot of a smiling girl encrusted with abstract forms, themselves laminated with images of the yawning toothy mouths of dead victims.  Despite the work’s tragic content, the artist makes a truly black pun on the idea of the smile, but presents on the other hand a more heartening idea of a little girl rising above death.

Contributor

William Corwin