Seymour Lipton, Guardian

Seymour Lipton, Guardian, 1975. Nickel-silver on Monel metal, 96-3/4 × 39-3/4 × 26-1/4 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 1986 (1986.276.4). Photo by Dror Balinger.

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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, Guardian, 1975.

American, 1903-1986

Seymour Lipton, a self-taught artist, found inspiration in nature, machinery, and the human figure. Reflecting on the sociological concerns of his time, he wanted to express the emotional, psychological, and spiritual tensions of balancing conflict: “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—an aesthetic that is the direct result of his choice of medium.

Like Pioneer, this sculpture presents another of Lipton’s totemic figures; however, Guardian conveys a more ominous tone. The “body” consists of a solid rectangle below an opening with a massive hollowed spherical form that suggests a head with a gaping maw. Although the eyeless head appears to be roaring a warning or about to attack, the title Guardian asserts a positive meaning of protection.

Throughout his career, Lipton created a series of monumental, heroic sculptures as expressions of the basic idea of human existence, of the view that life is precious but fragile, and of the belief that strength is necessary in order to protect it. The more intimidating the appearance, the more effective Lipton’s pieces are at conveying a sense of protection for the weak against harm, the good against evil. Of his sculptures, the artist said, “Man is still an animal. This was shown to us in the past, but the war showed it up more definitely, more clearly. I used all the means at my disposal…to find images of horror. Subsequently, however, I came to feel that Hell below wasn’t the whole story, that man had hope.” 

Seymour Lipton, Guardian, 1975. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Seymour Lipton, Guardian, 1975. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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