Europe's Winged Victory

John Haber
in New York City

Alina Szapocznikow and A Disagreeable Object

A Jew in Europe, she somehow escaped death in World War II and found herself, no longer a child, in a cultural capital of the world. Her sculpture seems burdened by memory and anxiety—not least of her own body, in shades of black, white, and gray. And its assertion of a woman's presence has given it influence well beyond the few works, if any, that most Americans could ever have seen. Yet she hated to be defined by literal associations and feminism.

She introduced materials new to art—or even, at the time, to industry. And her influence seemed certain to grow after the 1960s, when biomorphic sculpture held out a new art for others as well, but her career came to a premature end. She died of cancer, and one wants to read that into her art, too. Her retrospective may come as a shock, and so may what it says about contemporary artists seeking to recover Surrealism. Oh, and did I saw that her name is Alina Szapocznikow? Are you surprised? Alina Szapocznikow's Small Dessert I (Kravis Collection/estate of the artist/ADAGP, photo by Thomas Mueller, 1970–1971)

Can sculpture still shock? "A Disagreeable Object" takes its title from Giacometti, with a reminder of what that leaves out. Can art conceivably recover the conscious terrors and unconscious murmurings of Surrealism? Giacometti's carved wood may look like a penis, a relic, a fetish, or a sword. Either way, it has been around way too long for comfort, especially with the hint of eyes at its base and spikes along its tip. As he shows, long after art has lost "the shock of the new," with its familiarity and staying power for a wider audience, it can still get under one's skin.

Modernism's teeth

Were you thinking when I began of Eva Hesse? It is hard not to, for all the differences. Hesse, whose 2006 retrospective unfolded at the Jewish Museum, escaped Germany as an infant on the eve of war, rejoining her parents in New York. Szapocznikow, born in 1926, survived the camps, to study first in Czechoslovakia and then in Paris. She returned to Warsaw as a mature artist, but died in 1973. Where Hesse died three years before of brain cancer, at only thirty-four, the Polish sculptor fell to breast cancer, and work of her last few years bears such titles as Tumor.

Maybe more to the point, you have almost surely never heard of her. All but unknown in the United States, she is having a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, with more than one hundred works. Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska, who organized the show at the Hammer Museum in LA, put the loss of recognition down to "biographical determinism" and "a foreclosure of meaning." They see a revolutionary—rather, in fact, like Hesse. They insist on her ambiguous forms wrested out of male control, materials unfamiliar to sculpture like resin and polyurethane, imagery like lamps and lips at a time of Pop Art, and softer wrinkles in the years before her death. They call it "Sculpture Undone."

Sculpture in her hands, though, was not going anywhere. One meets a wonderfully self-possessed woman and artist, but a woman and artist ultimately trapped in the past—and not just her own or Poland's. She keeps circling back to her first experiments and their roots in early Modernism. She turns away from household materials from almost the moment she finds them, and she has few thoughts of consumer culture. Maybe it could hardly be otherwise in Soviet-occupied Europe. Even her lamps seem like designer relics of the 1950s.

Watching her develop is fascinating nonetheless. She has a sure hand, as in the meticulous realism and echoes of Henri Matisse in a self-portrait sketch that opens the show. Her first nudes have blank gazes, simplified shapes, small or hanging breasts, fluid outlines, thick feet, and missing limbs familiar from the School of Paris and its primitivism. Invariably women, they have a decided dreaminess, but also the physical cruelty of an amputation. Self-assertion comes, at least at first, with a decided essentialism. A self-portrait has the weary air of "O life, O time."

A bodily obsession arises naturally not just after the war, but also in Paris amid another movement not so well known in America, the New Realism of Arman and Pierre Restany. A giant deformed hand responds bluntly, the curators observe, to a thumb by an artist named César. Blocky thighs still characterize a woman sculpture who really did claim a brand of Pop Art, Nikki de Saint Phalle. Yet Szapocznikow is also experimenting on herself, as with a white cast of her own leg. The unique traces of a monotype on paper teach her abraded surfaces. On video she confidently chisels away like one of the boys, but more often she adopts plaster and plastic cement.

She is also developing ambiguity and maybe even a sense of humor. A kneeling figure that puns on knees, breasts, and buttocks, and stomach folds conveys a similar puzzle. It becomes hard to tell a ballet from abstraction, materials from patinas, deformation from gesture. Szapocznikow models a pink Rolls-Royce in Portuguese marble, hoping for a commission on twice the scale, and wraps a sculpture in nylons. She photographs chewing gum, as "photosculpture," boasting in French of "what extraordinary collections of abstract sculptures pass through my teeth." And she introduces her greatest note of color, in lips.

Polish Spring

That note makes for her brightest and most overflowing work. Lips and artificial flowers multiply atop a thin woman, like a store mannequin with too many parts. No longer red, they rest in a glass dish, pursed as in a plea for life, in one of her last works. They also share the dish with the appearance of yellow fabric, made of resin, as a Small Dessert. Yet they are never a passive offering. Compared to Yayoi Kusama, Szapocznikow never surrenders bodily sensation to male private parts.

The lips bring home, though, how little she really changes after all. At the very end, a figure falling rigidly back may seem a presentiment of death, but she used the pose at least a decade before as well. The more colorful sculpture has something of the boldness of Pop Art, but the same veiled faces and exposed body parts as ever. She incorporates auto parts twice, one pipe a bit like a rhino's nose, but she never returns to the hardware store. The gleaming translucency of resin in foam seems less like post-industrial materials than ancient amber. The lamps amount to a brief aside, thankfully so, and it hardly helps that they include lit-up breasts.

Connie Butler, who organized the show for MoMA, has no trouble finding parallels in the cutting edge of the 1960s or beyond. Hacked limbs feature in Paul Thek. Alternately winged and tormented bodies mark especially women, such as Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Bontecou, Huma Bhabha, and Kiki Smith. Still, those names belong to a different world than the one behind the Iron Curtain. They live at once within the unconscious, on the surface of things, and in mass culture. Hesse gains her impact by softening the repeated structures of Minimalism, but Szapocznikow never knew the grid.

She lives in a world centered on Paris, where Meret Oppenheim anticipated Small Dessert I with her fur-lined teacup in 1936. One can see the gold hood ornament of her Rolls-Royce as Pop Art or feminist assertion, but it comes straight out of the "Futurist Manifesto": "a racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace." Szapocznikow's world, of course, was also made by history, but she is not a political artist or a museum's Polish Spring. She shares encrusted, headless bodies with a more famous Polish sculptor, Magdalena Abakanowicz, but she is not in search like Anri Sala of the tragedy or future of Eastern Europe. She emerged from a concentration camp, but her figures do not.

Nor is that necessarily a bad thing. It looks inward—for the imagination, for her striking self-possession, and for a way to survive. It avoids the curatorial foreclosure of meaning, and it invites Surrealism into the present. It allows the chewing gum to look creepy-crawly and the lips to look red. It avoids only negative associations with the unconscious or with sex. It can become precious all the same.

Museums have been shifting the center of postwar art from New York, in part as a way of rediscovering its legitimacy or theirs—and Eva Hesse be damned. Think of "Global Feminisms" or the summer's abstract painting at the Guggenheim. It can come at the price of complacency, and so can Szapocznikow. At the very end, she is more haunting than ever. Her face in black peers out from resin, and crumpled, flattened sculpture really do invoke fabric. She just cannot help looking a little wistful.

Agree to disagree

Sure, art may speak of "A Disagreeable Object," in a group show called exactly that, but why? With a scrotum the size of basketballs, it could offer a model for men everywhere. Are they large enough? Are they sufficiently clean and symmetric? But even if Martin Soto Climent and the twenty others at SculptureCenter have not, one has to admit: they have balls.

The curator, the Center's Ruba Katrib, sees artists "still struggling," all the more so after a financial crisis and advancing technology. Still, the work stays personal rather than political. Climent hangs his two basketballs in stockings and calls it Tight Game. (He shoots! He scores!) He also turns a white hairpiece into a mop, but even then it seems comfortingly mundane and playful rather than what Julia Kristeva called horror and abjection.

Where Katrib invokes Alberto Giacometti and the Freudian "uncanny," sculpture is more and more at home. Art is still haunted, from what Sue Beer (in tribute to Kristeva) called Black Sun to what another Long Island City curator called "The Horror Show." Ever since Minimalism, though, the everyday is a place to play. And ever since Andy Warhol, that means the place not of the unconscious, but of mass culture.

"A Disagreeable Object" has its share of toys, from basketballs to Alexandra Bircken's tapestry of looped magnets. Michael E. Smith assembles Bic pens into a cross between a blue spider and a middle finger salute. More the pity that SculptureCenter lacks a gift shop. Even Alicja Kwade's madly rotating wall clock seems a must for today's households.

Others turn found objects into collectibles. They appear on shelves for the artists known only as FOS, slung over a towel rack for Ann Cathrin November Høibo, or covered with earth and tar. Camille Henrot may thus make a golf club or a vacuum cleaner a little harder to recognize, but she humanizes them as well. Alicja Kwade obliges seven mirrors to slide down a wall as if progressively melting. And Johannes VanDerBeek fills an entire basement corridor with his biomorphic neckties and furniture.

Charles Long, after his turn for kids in Madison Square Park, turns an old typewriter ball into the head of a gigantic seed pod. He makes nature less a threat than an object of nostalgia. Others retain a sense of beauty whatever the estrangement, like Susanne M. Winterling with a peacock feather or Anicka Yi with bubbles preserved in a perfume bottle. Alisa Baremboyn starts from a strainer and a UBS cable "with gender changes." She ends in the blue of glazed ceramic against the wall.

A sense of nightmare or of wonder?

Life keeps bubbling up, while just at the edge of one's field of vision. I want to find something disagreeable about Laura Reboli's dolly shot down an empty warehouse. I want to fear Ian Cheng's nude dance, Matthew Ronay's clutter, or Talia Chetrit's women photographed just behind and beyond a door. Mostly, though, I want to reach out and touch. I want to find something awesome in a white circle of sneakers by Pamela Rosenkranz. Yet mostly I want to start the game.

For all the show's international cast, violence stays just off-frame. Andro Wekua's miniature house hints at a Florentine villa or a guardhouse. One may recognize as a memory of the civil wars in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union—but only if one has seen her latest in Chelsea.

Is Freud all the more relevant in today's economy, or is he lost in a chain of postmodern associations? Art these days takes the disagreeable in stride. Sarah Lucas makes a nice pendant to Climent, adding tights and fluff balls to concrete blocks. She calls them Moon, as in rear end. Her grotty sculpture is everywhere these days, though.

That includes an entire show of disagreeable humor at the Flag Art Foundation, along with such predictable transgressions as Mike Kelley and Richard Prince. Can they seriously call it "Funny"? Cindy Sherman had her retrospective, including her prosthetic flesh and burial in garbage, without an outcry. Andreas Slominski makes an entire show out of human and animal sperm. And one might never notice.

So can art still shock? Maybe, or maybe one is just too used to anything, in a wider culture as in art. Or maybe early Modernism was itself unique. It was a time of singular consensus, but also a singular turning on the middle class and the past. When a politician has pretended to shock since, as with "Piss Christ" and elephant turds, it is to score points and move on.

Maybe it says something that SculptureCenter's exit signs and electric meters start themselves to seem more sinister. Or maybe that says something on behalf of "A Disagreeable Object." In the longest and most mesmerizing video, Aneta Grzeszyowska attempts to reunite her head and torso with her arms and legs. She could have found her worst nightmare or her sense of wonder.

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"Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 28, 2013. "A Disagreeable Object" ran at SculptureCenter, through November 26, 2012, Andro Wekua at Barbara Gladstone through November 3, "Funny" at the Flag Art Foundation through December 15, and Andreas Slominski at Metro Pictures through October 27.


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