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Sculptor Alina Szapocznikow's work got better as she got worse

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

Tumeurs personnifiées (Tumors personified), 1971. © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, and Agencja Medium Sp. Z o.o. Agencja Medium / Medium

Her name was Alina Szapocznikow, and she was a Polish sculptor. The most astounding thing about her show at the Hammer is its spectacular voyage of self-discovery. Her life of pain, disrupted relationships, illness and the final anguish of a 4-year death by cancer.

She passed through all the phases of mid-century modern plastic arts—even including a friendly Teddy-bearish bronze Stalin monument and photographs of her own used chewing gum. Through spindly modern bronzes influenced by Picasso and Mailol that paralleled her native Poland’s rise from Stalinoid jackbooted Communism. And then in the 60s, she emerged into the magical garden she’d spend the rest of her life portraying, the world of her own flesh. Which gave her a new country to explore with mounting accomplishment until the untimely end in 1973. That brought us a final, simple self-portrait from her deathbed. Saying goodbye with a wave of a hand somewhat like a last frail gesture of a drowning person. But with a smile.

Over all the anguish of her immense body of work, her smile hangs, like the smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Or like her own over-life-size lips and chin, rendered in lifelike, glowing resin, an image that permeates much of her work, sometimes in stacks, once as a luscious sweet on a desert plate, complete with a representation of a yellow buttery sauce. In her own silent lips, she finds her own answer to cancer.

It is her answer to the world. Rosy, barely parted in a half-voiced plea, they are on the clusters of angelic faces, hinted in strange grotesque shapes like interplanetary conch shells, a strewing of human faced boulders on the ground, also suggesting, as did so much of the rest of her work in her last years, the tumor that was eating up her life. They glow quite literally from her signature pursed-lip table lamps and become interchangeable with roses.

Another recurring image: Growths on a leg that cover it like fungus on an old tree. Another is an assortment of human, really female, plastic abdomens, strewn around like the pillows that they actually are, in an imaginary room, on an imaginary, dark, Northern seashore.

Then there is the nude life size portrait of her 20-year-old adopted son, as traductive and yet as loving and gentle as American painter Larry Rivers’ nude of his mother.

But among the morbid foreshadowings, works of purest exuberance. Like the pink marble model Rolls Royce Phantom 2, her symbol of artistic vanity and success. She planned to make this over in double life size as some rich person’s monument to vanity and wealth.

She said, "This work or object will be very expensive, completely useless, and a reflection of the god of complete luxury. In other words, a complete work of art. If there exists a fantastic snob as who would order this work to be made and put it right on his private lawn to fete his guests and invite them for drinks on the marble seats, then my American dream will be accomplished."

Maybe someone may still take her up on it.

This is the first comprehensive show of her work in the US. It brings to us someone most of us have never heard of, a world figure, whose work was touched by, but stands apart from the world of 60s Pop. It runs through the end of this month at the Hammer in Westwood. Maybe you should go at least twice.

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