New York, NY...In a brief but explosively inventive career, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973) radically reconceptualised sculpture as a vehicle for exploring, liberating, and declaring bodily experience, from the ecstatic, to the harrowing, to the uncanny. Beginning 29 October 2019, Hauser & Wirth will present To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962 - 1972, a selection of sculptural works that together survey the expressive force of the Polish artist's material innovations in the last decade of her life. This is the gallery's first solo exhibition devoted to Szapocznikow since undertaking representation of her estate in May 2018.
The details of Szapocznikow's biography have been well documented. Born in Poland to a Jewish family in 1926, she survived the horrors of concentration camps as a teenager. In the postwar years, moving from Prague to Paris, she ultimately abandoned the Socialist Realism endorsed by the Polish government, as well as the prevailing winds of modernist abstraction, to embrace Surrealist tendencies and the Pop-influenced New Realism of the Paris avant-garde, championed by Pierre Restany. Working furiously as she cycled through phases of artistic growth, Szapocznikow engaged themes related to the body with full intensity. She succumbed to cancer in 1973, at the age of 46. In the last decade of her life, Szapocznikow's pioneering engagement with new materials acquired particular focus and force, yielding works that dramatically challenged the traditional language of sculpture and presaged approaches central to art today.
To Exalt the Ephemeral begins with one of Szapocznikow's seminal works, made in 1962. Noga (Leg), a plaster cast of the artist's right leg, marks Szapocznikow's shift away from the mere representation of the human body to a tangible imprint of her own personhood. Here, a single limb, detached from the larger structure that has defined it, becomes a symbol of individuation and a vehicle of pleasure, while nodding to the mechanical forces that commodify the female body. By the mid-1960s, Szapocznikow began to incorporate mechanical elements and car parts into her work, resulting in Człowiek z instrumentem (Man with an Instrument) (1965), which, in its evocations of Marcel Duchamp's readymades, further suggests the artist's interest in the connection between mass-production and the body.
Building on the idea of reproduction, Szapocznikow experimented with new industrial materials, including polyester resin and poured polyurethane foam. The artist explained, 'Plastic materials seem perfect to me for attempts to express and capture our age because of their repetitive possibilities, their lightness, their colours, their transparency, their inexpensiveness. The age of modular multiplication, of swift mass consumption, of automatic repetition. These symptoms that are so characteristic, so superficially gay and so sadly monotone and moving. I hope to be able to explore deeply the problem of the repeated module, in direct contact with the module's industrial reproduction.'1
Through her material experiments, Szapocznikow generated a series of lamps, exemplified here by the Lampe Bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1966) works, functional sculptures of glowing female lips extending from elongated stem-like bases. Although the artist lived and worked in Paris at the time, her focus on malleable material as a proxy for the body firmly positions her among contemporaries practicing in the United States, including Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, and Lynda Benglis, as well as noted friend Louise Bourgeois, to whom Szapocznikow dedicated and gifted two of the lamps on view. A survey of the exhibition's first floor culminates in the life-sized Femme illuminée (Illuminated Woman) (1966-1967), and Kaprys-Monstre (Caprice-Monster)(1967), works that affirm the artist's interest in indexing the relationship between personhood and objecthood.
Szapocznikow's exploration of plastic as a means of seriality could be viewed as antithetical to traditional hierarchical values of sculpture. She circumvented this dichotomy by deploying the language of commodity culture to create works that are unique. An integral component of Szapocznikow's practice was her mastery of new materials and techniques. Thus, she produced most of her work in her own studio rather than outsourcing fabrication to a factory. By focusing on an intimate, tactile relationship with her mediums, Szapocznikow was able to push the experimental boundaries of artistic gesture, resulting in such works as 'Souvenirs'. On view on the gallery's second floor, these sculptures, radically integrate polyester resin, glass, wool, and photographs that capture both personal and collective histories-images ranging from a picture of Alina as a child, to a photo of a female victim of a concentration camp, to a portrait of 60s icon Twiggy. The 'Souvenirs' suggest mementos-or memento mori-for an ambiguous new era.
The 'Souvenirs' predict the artist's 'Tumors' and subsequent 'Fetishes', begun at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, incorporating resin, crumpled newspaper, clothing, and other personal items, and photographs. Casting her body once again, the artist manifested the anxiety and existential challenges of illness into these forms, resulting in Łza (Tear) (1971). Composed of a single luminous breast suspended from a support of gathered lace, cast and sealed in resin, Łza (Tear) presents the fragmented body as a site of joy, fear, trauma, eroticism, and fetishism, conjuring the sanctity of a relic. These themes are reasserted in the 'Herbarium' series, most explicitly in Glowa Piortra (Head of Piotr) (1972), wherein skin-like layers of polyester resin cast from her son's body parts are flattened. The result simultaneously evokes the Romantic tradition of pressing flowers and the combined ecstasy and abjectness of the Shroud of Turin.
Szapocznikow's final works express her pointed desire to engage with something deeper and ineffable, physical and psychological, the symptoms of bodily experiences and the traces of what we leave behind. This desire is summoned in her 1971 self-portrait made of resin and gauze, a compelling prefiguration of her own death mask that poetically indices one of her earliest body casts. She wrote, 'Despite everything, I persist in trying to fix in resin the traces of our body: I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering, and all truth.' 2
As an extension of the exhibition, To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962 - 1972 is accompanied by a publication featuring essays by Margot Norton and Pavel Pyś.
Supplementing the show, two historical films featuring the artist and her work will be on view at the gallery during hours of operation.
About the Artist
Born in Poland to a Jewish family in 1926, Alina Szapocznikow survived internment in concentration camps during the Holocaust as a teenager. Immediately after the war, she moved first to Prague and then to Paris, studying sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1951, suffering from tuberculosis, she returned to Poland, where she expanded her practice. When the Polish government loosened controls over creative freedom following Stalin's death in 1952, Szapocznikow jumped into representation. By the 1960s, she was radically re-conceptualising sculpture as an intimate record not only of her memory but also of her own body. Szapocznikow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1969, a turn of events that shaped her later sculptural and photographic efforts. She died in Paris in 1973.
1 Alina Szapocznikow, 'Le materiaux plastiques...[sic]', Paris 7 March 1968, Allegra Pesenti (trans.), 'Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone 1955 - 1972',New York NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2011, p. 108.
2 Alina Szapocznikow to Pierre Restany, 27 March 2019, in 'Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture Undone 1955 - 1972, Filipovic, Elena, Joanna Mytkowska, andAlina Szapocznikow (New York: MoMA, 2011), p. 28.
Press release courtesy Hauser & Wirth.