Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) enjoyed the kind of career that, from this distance in time, belongs as much to the realm of legend-the legend of the international avant-garde in an age of totalitarian terror-as to the history of art. Born in Lithuania when it was still a province of the Russian Empire, he rose to become one of the stellar figures of the School of Paris in the period between the two World Wars, and then entered upon a new career in the United States when he fled the Nazi occupation of France in 1941, one of the many European artists, writers and intellectuals who found refuge from Hitler’s genocide in New York.
By that time, he was already well known to the American art public. Even before Lipchitz’s first solo exhibition in Paris in 1920, Dr. Albert Barnes had commissioned the artist to create a series of Cubist reliefs for the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Penn.; and in 1935, the Brummer Gallery, which had introduced the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi to New Yorkers in the 1920′s, performed a similar service for Lipchitz, effectively confirming his place as one of the major talents of European modernism. Today his work can be seen in virtually every museum that exhibits 20th-century sculpture.
Yet it’s my impression that Lipchitz’s sculpture no longer commands the kind of attention, admiration and understanding that used to be accorded it as a matter of course. Indeed, our understanding of sculpture itself seems to have suffered some kind of occlusion. In an age of “postmodern” shocks and gimmicks, when a sliced-up animal carcass or almost any “installation” of randomly selected objects is acclaimed a sculptural triumph, even an art as highly accomplished as Lipchitz’s risks being misunderstood as old-fashioned, a relic of that moribund tradition, modernism. It was one thing to have eluded Hitler’s death camps; it remains to be seen whether high art of this order can survive the tyranny of kitsch that reigns supreme in so many sectors of the contemporary art scene.
On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine a better survey of the artist’s work than the Marlborough Gallery’s Jacques Lipchitz: Sculpture and Drawing, 1912-1972 . From the earliest work in the exhibition-the elegant Woman and Gazelles (1911-12)-we know we’re in the presence of a master. But at this stage of his artistic development, Lipchitz was a master more attuned to tradition and his regular visits to the Louvre than to the radical innovations of the modernists. This abruptly changes, however, with his plunge into Cubism and his face-off with African sculpture, from which he emerges into the front rank of the European avant-garde.
Yet Lipchitz was never to become what might be called a doctrinaire avant-gardist. Even when he ventured into open forms, as in the marvelous Pierrot and Harlequin bronzes of the mid-1920′s, and subsequently experimented with so-called semi-automatic sculptures, his affinity for tradition made itself felt, though his idea of tradition was soon derived as much from his visits to the Trocadero-the museum of primitive art, now called Musée de L’Homme-as from the Louvre.
Even in what might be called Lipchitz’s “middle period,” he reverted at times to more conventional styles, abjuring open-form and automatism for direct carving of a monolithic stone mass in the very fine granite of Reader I (1919), and producing a very traditional and very beautiful bronze portrait head of the French writer Raymond Radiguet in 1920.
It’s in the work of his last, most prolific and, alas, most popular period that some of us begin to have our problems and doubts about the quality of Lipchitz’s sculpture. As he grew older and more celebrated, Lipchitz began to be more captivated by the “great man” concept of the sculptor as prophet and visionary-one of the many unfortunate notions that Rodin bequeathed to the 20th century. He seems to have entered into a dream in which he would go beyond Rodin to compete for the honor of becoming the Michelangelo of his era. He turned heroic subjects derived from biblical epic and classical mythology-the prodigal son, David and Goliath, Prometheus, the rape of Europa, etc.-and as this fantasy of greatness expanded in his own mind, Lipchitz’s sculpture became more and more swollen into bulbous and orotund masses that exerted an enormous appeal for an uncomprehending public. As a result, he was swamped with commissions that produced some of his-and his period’s-worst sculptures, and more than a few of these now litter the urban environment as beloved public sculpture.
It’s pretty much a rule of thumb that when modern sculptors try to compete with Michelangelo, they produce parodies of Rodin-and that was Lipchitz’s dismal fate. The more he attempted to invest his sculpture with titanic meaning, the more it resulted in a rhetoric that could no longer support the weight of its pretensions.
When we look back on Lipchitz’s sculptural oeuvre , it’s always among the smaller-scale works that we discover his masterpieces. This is true of his drawings as well. It was only when he aspired to some ultimate greatness that he ceased to be a master of his medium.
Jacques Lipchitz: Sculpture and Drawings, 1912-1972 remains on view at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, through March 6.