Richard Stankiewicz Sculpted With Scrap, But It Wasn’t Junk

The American sculptor Richard Stankiewicz (1922-1983) was one of the more accomplished artists of his generation-and not only in America-yet we’ve had to wait an awfully long time to see a major museum trace the course of his development with the attention it deserves. Now, at last, in the exhibition called Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz , which Emmie Donadio organized at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., we have the exhibition we’ve long been waiting for. Ms. Donadio has also written a fine essay for the beautifully produced book that accompanies the show, which can be seen for just a few more days at the AXA Gallery in New York. And the Zabriskie Gallery, which has long been a devoted supporter of Stankiewicz’s work, has supplemented Ms. Donadio’s exhibition with a smaller show of 12 sculptures, some of which are seen here for the first time.

In the introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibition, Adam D. Weinberg gives us an unusually frank account of the dismal fate of Stankiewicz’s reputation. Mr. Weinberg is the director of the Addison Gallery who has now been appointed to the directorship of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he formerly served as a curator. While acknowledging that “Richard Stankiewicz’s sculpture is now generally off the art-historical radar,” he reminds us that “[t]here was a period, however, from the mid-1950’s until the mid-1960’s when his reputation and contributions had great currency.” Mr. Weinberg also tells the following story: “While digging through the files at the Whitney Museum, I discovered a letter written a decade earlier by Virginia Zabriskie to Tom Armstrong, then the museum’s director, imploring him to consider organizing a Stankiewicz retrospective. At that point I realized Zabriskie, who has been Stankiewicz’s dealer since 1972, had been the torchbearer in her commitment to Stankiewicz’s sculpture. It is largely due to her persistence that this book and exhibition are now becoming realized, and it is to her that this effort is dedicated.”

It was inevitable, I suppose, that Stankiewicz’s sculpture would be tagged as “junk art,” for discarded scrap-iron “junk” was indeed the principal material he used in his welded constructions. Yet there is nothing at all junky about the sculpture itself, which, to the contrary, abounds in vivid images and beautifully wrought forms.

Though we tend, for good reasons, to associate welded-iron sculpture with the aesthetics of abstraction, Stankiewicz was not an abstract artist. As some of his titles indicate- Warrior , Grass People , City Bird , Marionette , Machine People -he was a figurative sculptor who brought an engaging sense of humor and the absurd to the vocabulary of abstract form. People, landscape, cityscapes, insects, natural history and the man-made world provided his cosmopolitan imagination with a wide range of subjects.

Too many subjects, executed with too fine a wit, perhaps, for getting ahead in the art world of the 1960’s. In those days, the art world seemed divided between the votaries of Minimalism and the champions of Pop Art, and Stankiewicz’s talents had nothing in common with either. Having studied with Hans Hofmann in New York and then in the ateliers of Fernand L├ęger and Ossip Zadkine in Paris, Stankiewicz had little sympathy for the radical reductionism of Minimalism or the recycled vulgarities of Pop Art. Ms. Donadio speaks of his sculpture as “objects of elaborate fantasy and whimsicality,” and Stankiewicz himself wrote of aspiring to create “the extraordinary object, the one with presence.” All of this suggests that he placed himself and his artistic ambitions in the mainstream of Modernism; it’s no secret, of course, that many people on the art scene today are determined to consign Modernism to the trash can of history.

My guess is, however, that there’s a younger generation out there that will be delighted to discover in Stankiewicz’s sculpture a rich inventory of “extraordinary objects” of a kind that are now largely missing from so-called “postmodern” cerebral inanities. In other words, I think it’s quite likely that Ms. Donadio’s exhibition will spark a revival of interest in Stankiewicz’s extraordinary achievement.

It was one of the many sadnesses of Stankiewicz’s difficult life that he died before arrangements could be completed for what would have been his first solo exhibition in Paris; the good news is that Ms. Donadio’s exhibition will travel to the Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, in the fall of 2004. Meanwhile, Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz remains on view at the AXA Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, through Sept. 25. Richard Stankiewicz (1922-1983) closes at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, on Oct. 18.