Seymour Lipton, Catacombs

Seymour Lipton, Catacombs, 1968. Nickel-silver on Monel metal, 83 × 68 × 32 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 1986 (1986.276.3). Photo by Dror Balinger.

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audio transcript

Valerie Fletcher: Seymour Lipton, unlike most artists did not set out to be a sculptor or a painter or a printmaker. Rather he is set out to be a dentist, and indeed was quite a successful one. However, working with his hands in dentistry led him to work in carving, especially in wood and he reacted against the precision of his dental work to devise forms in wood that were more abstract, usually organic in the sense that they resembled forms from nature. He avoided sharp angles. He avoided realism.

After about a decade and a half of carving works, Lipton was profoundly affected by what was going on in the world in the 1940s. In particular in 1945 and 46, the revelations of what atrocities had occurred in World War II profoundly shocked him. In particular, news reel footage of the concentration camps in Germany, news reel footage of the nuclear devastation at Hiroshima caused him to rethink what his goals were in sculpture and he shifted to making abstract works that were more representational in form. That is, they suggest but do not depict figures and they require a certain amount of examination by each viewer to figure out what it is they are seeing.

He worked no longer in carving but in direct metal; that is, he worked in sheets of an alloy called Monel metal and he would take a soldering irons and welding torches and add nickel, silver, copper and other metals to the surfaces to create a kind of intriguing texture that would catch the light but also sometimes had slightly creepy overtones as if they were kind of monstrous skins.

One figure here called Pioneer from 1957, suggests a standing figure with a torso and legs and a kind of jumble of crossed arms. The title itself, Pioneer, suggests something very positive, an adventure, someone blazing a new trail. The figure itself, however, is very static and remote. What this means is perhaps something to consider as a paradox, a pioneer who goes nowhere.

The next work, Catacombs, is far more complex and it may be seen as a purely abstract construction, but if you look at it one might also see three or more figures. Perhaps three figures holding up something between them, a child, an object. The title is puzzling. Catacombs suggest a burial place and yet, these are all upright standing figures. They are, however, hollow. They’re merely empty shells.

And then the final work, the latest in the group, Guardian, is truly ominous. It is essentially a standing rectangle, but in the upper part, this huge, gaping, open mouth, this bizarre, spherical, hollow head leans forward as if to threaten us. One can see in it indeed a threat, but the title Guardian suggests that this is a threatening figure that is hostile only to evil or to negative things. It is guarding us, those around it, from harm.

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Seymour Lipton, Catacombs, 1968.

American, 1903-1986

In 1951 Seymour 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 rods of nickel, silver, lead, and copper onto the shaped surfaces, simulating variegated textures, ranging from coarse to delicate. Midway through his career, Lipton began creating small, metal armatures as models for full-scale sculptures. Stating that “you can’t turn a drawing around,” Lipton fabricated three-dimensional sketches from thin sheets of metal, spot-braising joints with a small torch.

Compared to Pioneerthe sculpture Catacombs is more abstract and architectonic. Although there is no explicit narrative, the main forms consist of hollow and dark inner areas enclosed by sheet metal gleaming in the light. The three main vertical elements resemble totemic figures clustered together and holding up a smaller fourth form, perhaps a child or ceremonial offering. The grouping suggests a familial or religious ceremony, such as a baptism or burial. 

The last phase of World War II—particularly the revelations of genocide in Nazi concentration camps and the nuclear devastation in Japan—prompted Lipton to address somber themes expressed in metaphoric terms. As with many of his works, Lipton chose a title that provokes speculation and interpretation. The term “catacombs” refers to any underground cemetery but is most often associated with the subterranean refuges and burial places of early Christians who hid from persecution by the Roman Empire. The three “figures,” each of which consist of a single, entirely hollow, concave form, found an environment in which to thrive. Viewers might deduce that Lipton meant to represent these physical bodies as temporary shells, a belief that is common to many religions.

Seymour Lipton, Catacombs, 1968. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Seymour Lipton, Catacombs, 1968. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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