Donald Lipski, The West

Donald Lipski, The West, 1987. Painted steel, corroded copper pennies, and silicone adhesive, each sphere 60 inches in diameter. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation, Inc. Gift (Seymour M. Klein, President), 1988, (1988.90a,b). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Audio Transcript

Valerie Fletcher: Born in Chicago, Donald Lipski moved to New York in 1977. There he digressed considerably from what was then the dominant mode in large-scale sculpture, which was geometric, abstract, constructed steel compositions. Instead, he picked up on the ideas of the dada artists of the 19 teens and 20s and of the emerging pop artists in the 60s— that is to use objects or elements from ordinary life, often cast-off materials no longer being used, things that can be recognized but no longer having their original function and not necessarily having any single specific meaning.


Lipski is best know for his indoor installations in which he would take a whole wall in a gallery or museum, sometimes a whole room, and arrange dozens and dozens of objects from top to bottom, left or right across the walls. These objects sometimes had a clear connection, conceptually at least; sometimes a visual connection. But it was up to the viewer to extrapolate from them some kind of meaning. In some cases, the context in which the sculpture was created is relevant. For example, when he was the artist-in-residence in Winston-Salem he made a wall piece called Tobaccolage, which is kind of a combination of the terms tobacco and collage because all of the objects on the wall had to do with the making, using, and selling of cigarettes.


The West from 1987 consists of two large steel buoys, that is the markers that float in the water offshore or in major rivers. In this case, Lipski obtained them from the harbor in Seattle and he bolted them together. So right away we have to ask ourselves, what does he mean by taking two objects that normally float fairly freely on water and are now bolted together resting on dry land?


Furthermore, the surface is encrusted with pennies, which he has glued all over the surface. All of the pennies were dated 1987, that is their new pennies and yet, they’ve been deliberately corroded just as the ships buoys are corroded form being in the water. Then there’s the overall shape of two large spheres or balls connected together. Is this some reference to personal relationships? Is this about marriage or other human connections? That’s pretty much of a stretch considering that these are not figurative sculptures. Lipski’s approach to art is conceptual. He seeks to express ideas and to illicit speculation among viewers as to what these objects may mean.

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Donald Lipski, The West, 1987.

American, born 1947


Like the Dada artists of the 1910s and Pop artists of the 1960s, Donald Lipski uses ordinary objects from daily life—things easily recognized but not necessarily having a single or specific intended meaning—and assembles them in whimsical and surprising ways. He is best known for extensive arrangements of found objects that appear to have little or nothing in common, often using humorous and perplexing titles to enhance or mask meanings. 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 consists of two spherical buoys, each measuring five feet in diameter. Such buoys mark deep-water shipping channels and are often used to indicate where large commercial and military ships are permitted to anchor offshore. Their typical 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 surfaces of the metal buoys Lipski glued regular pennies that he deliberately corroded, alluding to the predominance of capitalism in Western values and the global reach of the American dollar.


A certain conversation starter, The West combines items that offer visual allusions, inviting the viewer to engage in the mental work of supposing. For some, the title of the piece implies unchartered territory, while the suggestive shape of the buoys hints at the brut force and masculine energy that is needed to conquer the unknown. The pennies attached to the surface of the sculpture—heads on one buoy and tails on the other—suggest the odds of a great gamble. Like much of Lipski’s sculpture, understanding The West is similar to teasing apart a poem—multiple meanings can be coaxed out and revealed over time.

Donald Lipski, The West, 1987. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Donald Lipski, The West, 1987. Photo by Marsha Miller.

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