Strong, Sweet, Sorrowful Sculptures by Alina Szapocznikow
Alina Szapocznikow at Andrea Rosen Gallery
31 October – 5 December 2015
525 West 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 627 6000
There is no such thing as easing yourself into the sculpture of Alina Szapocznikow. From the moment you step into the eponymously titled show of her work, currently up at Andrea Rosen Gallery, you will be deeply provoked, moved, and unsettled. Szapocznikow’s Piotr (1972), a six-foot tall sculpture of the artist’s son, confronts the viewer upon entry. Made when he was 18 and Szapocznikow was suffering from breast cancer, to which she would succumb the following year at age 47, the work is a resin cast of her only child’s nude adolescent body. Formed in a vertiginous pitch, the sculpture cannot stand on its own and must be supported by a Plexiglas brace in order to be displayed. The emptiness of the space behind Piotr suggests a void, like a pieta with the mother figure subtracted, the son left dangling in space.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Szapocznikow spent good deal of her life enduring profound trauma. Born in 1926, when she was a teenager the Nazis confined her for years to the Jewish ghettos in Poland before she was imprisoned in a series of concentration camps during the Second World War. She managed to persevere through all of it. Several years after the war’s end, Szapocznikow contracted tuberculosis, from which she languished for months, nearly dying. Survival came at a cost to her fertility — she was unable to bear children afterwards (she and her first husband adopted Piotr Stanislawski).
In great part because of what she suffered, Szapocznikow had an uncommon fearlessness about the body (both hers and others’), and strove to leave a physical imprint of it, as well as the memories it contained, embedded in her work. Though she occasionally used the bodies of others, Szapocznikow most often applied the casting process to herself. Her breasts, lips, and legs recur in her sculptures. Disembodied from the whole, they serve as relics from the body of a person who seemed to preternaturally intuit the brevity of her life. This stunning show, exquisitely installed, offers a great breadth of Szapocznikow’s objects and the secrets they reveal when spent in contemplation of them. Each work on view here is wisely given ample space to breathe, and the act of scrupulous looking will yield generous, intimate fruit.
In Stèle (Stele) (1968) a bubble of black, polyurethane foam encases a set of resin-cast lips and knees. The lips are colored black and the knees are bent, protruding from the foam, so that it appears like a crouched human figure mainly hidden from view. Beneath this form, laid perpendicular to the knees, is a set of diminutive legs, cast in the black foam. A full circle around the work reveals another set of the same small legs adhering to the sculpture’s verso, while across the tops of the resin-cast knees a fetal shape, also of foam, is splayed. It’s so subtle that it is easy to miss, but the realization of this amorphous form drives straight to the gut — Stèle (Stele) is a mourning totem.
The informe that is alluded to in Stèle (Stele) is made fully manifest elsewhere, as in Sous la Coupole (Under the Cupola) (1970), a sculpture devastating in its total and contained abjection. Two nebulous blobs of polyurethane foam, in different shades of dismal brown, squat across from each other on the floor like competing piles of shit. A nylon pantyhose stretches between the two, each end of the stocking submerged into each pile. Szapocznikow routinely sunk personal items of clothing or other objects into her sculpture, often so deeply that they are rendered nearly unrecognizable. You can almost smell disintegration emanating from the two heaps while the intestinal stocking is meanwhile an activated life force, valiantly resisting the decay that is pulling it in both directions.
If the sorrow that unfolds seems too much to bear, the back room of the gallery, given over to Szapocznikow’s “sculpture-lamps,” offers some literal and metaphorical relief. She was known for a mordant wit, and the sculpture-lamps, while still being potent vessels of physical memory, are of a lighter tenor. Illuminowana [L’illuminée] [Illuminated Woman] (1966-1967), a plaster body with glowing breasts of sugary pink, and a seashell of blue resin, impressed with Szapocznikow’s lips where the head should be, stands like a warrior at the entrance to the room. Elsewhere, small, table-sized lamps of lips and breasts sit atop pink, phallic columns. One’s eyes are drawn to the corner, from where the large Kaprys-Monstre [Caprice – Monstre] [Caprice – Monster] (1967) radiates. The sculpture, a central element from which spring forth four long, thick, tube-like protuberances, glows a deep blood red, lighter at its core. It appears at once both slimy and inviting, and the viewer is compelled to examine it closely, pondering the folds and crevices of its aortic pipelines. Kaprys-Monstre is suffused with a defiant vitality; it pulsates with life. Her pus and blood have long drained away, but Alina Szapocznikow, flouting death, is still present.