Seymour Lipton, Pioneer

Seymour Lipton, Pioneer, 1957. Nickel-silver on Monel metal, 94 × 32 × 30 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Albert A. List, 1958 (58.61). Photo by Christina Murrey.

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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, Pioneer, 1957.

American, 1903-1986


Seymour Lipton graduated from Columbia University in 1927 and became a dentist. With no formal training in art, he eventually began carving wood sculptures. Lipton’s manual skill as a dentist served him well as a sculptor, and he developed a style that diverged from anatomical realism. Like others of his generation—for example, Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and David Smith (1906–1965)—Lipton recognized that metal sculptures had more resonance in the Machine Age. He started bronze casting in 1940–41; however, 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.


Like many other sculptors in the decade after World War II, Lipton created abstract works that suggest, rather than literally depict, human figures. The vertically arranged Pioneer evokes a standing form, with two long legs and a jumble of arms topped by the absence of a recognizable head. While the title Pioneer implies a brave and bold leader, the figure is static without forward motion. This juxtaposition may serve as a metaphor for the ambiguity of modern ideas and ideals—namely that the heroic stereotypes of the past may not be as relevant in our contemporary world. 


Lipton’s sculptures from the 1940s express the darker side of human nature. By the 1950s, however, his work had begun to suggest regeneration and rebirth. In this context, Pioneer can be viewed as representing the cyclical process of life and death. On the whole, the 1950s was one of rebuilding, growth, and prosperity; yet the era was also marked by new anxieties, including the Cold War and conflicts in Korea. Thus, Lipton’s postwar abstract sculptures often convey the fragility of life with a lurking sense of threat.

Seymour Lipton, Pioneer, 1957. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Seymour Lipton, Pioneer, 1957. Photo by Christina Murrey.

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