Essay by Valerie Fletcher

A native of Chicago, Donald Lipski attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then earned an MFA in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After teaching art at the University of Oklahoma from 1973 to 1977, he moved to New York.

Like the Dada artists of the 1910s and 1920s and the pop artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Lipski uses ordinary objects from daily life—things easily recognized but not necessarily having a single or specific intended meaning. He is best known for extensive arrangements of found objects on the white walls of galleries. Usually they appear to have little or nothing in common, and Lipski’s humorous and perplexing titles may enhance or mask meanings, such as Xalupax (1980–88) and Rodin Rodinadanna (2000).

Some juxtapositions present more direct implications, as in Med-i-vac, a medical rescue device that Lipski covered with razor blades. His Broken Wings sculptures in 1986 were made from dismantled airplane parts. The locale in which a sculpture was conceived can sometimes be directly relevant, as it was for Tobaccolage, made during Lipski’s residency in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the composition consists entirely of objects related to the making and marketing of cigarettes.

Unlike formalist artists, whose goal is visual beauty, Lipski’s approach to art is primarily conceptual; that is, he seeks to express ideas and elicit viewer reactions. The visual appeal, however, remains strong and tantalizing.

The West, 1987

Because Lipski uses found objects not merely for their visual attributes but more importantly for the associations that viewers might make in response to them, his sculptures invite speculation. The West consists of two spherical buoys, each measuring five feet in diameter. Such buoys can mark deepwater shipping channels and are often used to indicate where large commercial and military ships may anchor offshore. Their normal place is floating on open bodies of water. Now situated on dry land, the buoys are no longer functional, like fish out of water. Instead of providing secure anchorage to ships, the two buoys are shackled uselessly to each other.

To the blank surfaces of the metal buoys Lipski glued brand-new pennies. But the artist deliberately corroded them, perhaps an allusion to how quickly things become outdated. By incorporating actual money into this sculpture, Lipski invites us to speculate on possible meanings. Pennies are the smallest denomination of American currency and therefore may be considered the foundation of our affluence, even though we tend to ignore pennies as being of no importance.

Lipski made another sculpture of a single buoy, its surface covered with gaming dice. He titled that work Bad Buoy —a whimsical pun alluding to the casinos on cruise ships that operate offshore where American gambling laws do not apply.

The title of The West is less easy to decipher. As a term in American culture and geography, it refers to the western half of the United States, but this sculpture does not suggest the frontier West of cowboys and cattle. More likely, the title refers to the military and commercial ports of Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. In fact, Lipski obtained the buoys from Seattle harbor.

But Lipski’s art is not about mere facts. “The West” may refer to the broader political usage, meaning any European-based culture. In that context, the pennies could allude to the predominance of capitalism in Western values or the global reach of the American dollar.

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.