Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Seymour Lipton had no formal training in art. After graduating from Columbia University in 1927, he became a dentist. Within a few years, his interest in art prompted him to begin carving wood sculptures. Lipton’s manual skill as a dentist served him well in sculpting, yet he opted not to develop a style of anatomical realism. Rather, he favored the organic forms of other direct-carve sculptors, notably Henry Moore, whose works he saw in 1938. For more than a decade, Lipton’s carvings consisted of semiabstract forms with subjects alluding to the struggles of the poor and working classes during the Great Depression.
Like others of his generation—Alexander Calder and David Smith, for example—Lipton recognized that metal sculptures had more resonance in the Machine Age. He started bronze casting in 1940–41, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the use of metal was restricted to the war effort. So Lipton worked intermittently with sheets of scrap metal.
The last phase of the war—particularly the revelations of genocide in Nazi concentration camps and the nuclear devastation in Japan—prompted Lipton to address somber and ominous themes expressed in metaphoric terms. Imprisoned Figure of 1948 consisted of angular and pointed metal shapes enclosed in a rectilinear framework; without specific subject matter, it eloquently conveyed the fear and anger of persons held back by physical incarceration and other means.
In 1951 Lipton discovered the advantages of Monel metal, an industrial alloy available in strong thin sheets, which he heated and shaped into abstract forms. Using soldering irons and welding torches, the sculptor braised thin amounts of metals such as nickel, silver, lead, and copper onto the shaped surfaces. The variegated textures could range from coarse to delicate.
Lipton’s sculptures express the darker side of American society in the 1950s. On the whole, the decade was one of rebuilding after World War II; economic growth and increasing prosperity provided unprecedented opportunities for millions of formerly impoverished families. Yet the era was also marked by the anxieties of the Cold War, which spawned conflicts ranging from the war in Korea to McCarthyist persecution of liberals at home, from colonial revolutions in Africa to the Soviet Union’s brutal repression of the democracy movement in Hungary. Lipton’s abstract sculptures often convey a lurking sense of threat, like the creatures of nightmares.
Reflecting the sociological concerns of his time, Lipton wanted to express the emotional, psychological, and spiritual experiences of people as they tried to balance the conflicts in their lives: “Sculpture is used by me to express the life of man as a struggling interaction between himself and his environment.” Lipton developed a style predicated on tension between curved and straight elements, internal hollows and external shells. As the artist later said, he wanted to create sculptural equivalents for the “dark inside, the evil of things, the hidden area of struggle.”
Like many other sculptors in the decade after World War II, Lipton created abstract works that suggest human beings. The vertically arranged forms of Pioneer evoke a standing figure, with two long legs and a jumble of arms topped by a notable absence of a recognizable head. The torso terminates in a squarish flattened shape with two triangular tips suggesting nascent ears or horns.
While the title Pioneer implies a brave and bold leader, this figure is static, without forward motion. This contradiction may serve as a metaphor for the ambiguity of modern ideas and ideals—the heroic stereotypes of the past may not be as relevant in our contemporary world.
Compared to Pioneer, Catacombs is more abstract and architectonic. Nonetheless, the three main vertical elements may be seen as totemic figures clustered together, holding up a smaller fourth form, perhaps a child or ceremonial object. The grouping suggests a familial or religious ceremony, such as a baptism or burial.
Although there is no explicit narrative, the main forms consist of hollow, dark, inner areas enclosed by sheet metal gleaming in the light. Viewers may interpret the dichotomy as they wish: as outwardly positive persons harboring dark fears or ominous intentions, for example, or personages who are all surface and no substance, or as courageous survivors of great physical or psychological suffering, as indicated by the seemingly ravaged surfaces.
As is often the case, Lipton provided a title intended to provoke speculation and interpretation. The term “catacombs” refers to any underground cemetery but is mostly associated with the subterranean refuges and burial places of early Christians who hid from persecution by the Roman Empire. The three “figures” each consist of a single concave form, entirely hollow. We may deduce that these metal personages are lacking in substance or that their physical bodies are merely temporary shells, as many religions believe.
Like Pioneer from 1957, this sculpture is another of Lipton’s totemic figures, but Guardian appears more ominous. The “body” consists of a solid rectangle below and an open one above. In abstract terms, the lower rectangle’s solidity may convey a subliminal impression of strength. Mounted in the opening above is a massive hollowed spherical form, suggesting a head (though not specifically a human one).
The eyeless head consists mostly of a huge gaping maw, as if the monstrous creature is roaring a warning or about to attack. The sculpture seems to inspire fear, rather than reassurance. Perhaps it is an agent of harm, but the title asserts a more positive meaning: guardian connotes a protector. Lipton’s sculpture may be a modern equivalent of the massive, scowling warrior figures that flank the entrances of Buddhist temples in east Asia. Those guardians deflect evil away from the temple, providing a safe sanctuary within. The more intimidating their appearance, the more effective they are in protecting the weak from harm, the good from evil.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.