by Dr. Lori Verderame
Lipton was interested in art as an adolescent. Although his high school teachers wanted Lipton to pursue art, his parents encouraged him to study electrical engineering at the Brooklyn Polytechnical Institute and later to pursue a course of study in the liberal arts at New York’s City College. After college, Lipton continued his education in the field of dentistry. In 1927, Lipton graduated from Columbia University’s dental school with and shortly thereafter established a successful practice in his New York City.
Abstract Expressionism, the major modern art movement in the United States after the Second World War, catapulted American artists to the forefront of the art world. New York replaced Paris as the world art center and the Abstract Expressionist artists who worked in the city became known as members of the New York School.
While post-war painters including Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell shared the spotlight, the era’s sculptors received only modest critical and popular acclaim. One of the movements most influential and prolific sculptors was the New York native, Seymour Lipton (American, 1903-1986).
Although Lipton has been viewed primarily as a technical innovator for his employment of the rust-proof alloy called Monel, his works derived from the broader context of post-war American society. The best known scholarly investigations of Lipton’s work devote attention to his studio practices and his innovative method of constructing large-scale metal sculpture.
In the late 1920s, Lipton became interested in a period of intense self-training in sculpture. By 1932, Lipton had worked primarily in carved wood and produced many carved pieces. His early wood pieces showed similarities to the artistic production of the American direct carvers. Lipton’s works depicted the struggles of the common man and other social realist themes. Lipton made powerful sculptural forms of the working class experience.
Producing works grounded in the themes of the post-war period, Seymour Lipton’s sculptures parallel those of the “giants” of Abstract Expressionist painting such as Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Lipton had a strong link to the intellectual circles of New York during the 1940s and 1950s. His educated manner, diverse interests, and broad-based subject matter sustained him for sculptural ideas throughout his long career.
World War II and Post-War Renewal
Following the early phase of his career, Lipton refined his technique. By the 1940s, after much experimentation, his sculptures based on images of war became more abstract. The post-war notion of rebuilding society, searching for hope, and finding good over evil remained ever present in Lipton’s forms. World War II and its aftermath provided the roots for his avian images, hero figures, and natural forms.
By the 1950s, a stylistic breakthrough and new thematic approach occurred almost simultaneously. Lipton’s avian images drew upon his knowledge of birds, raptors, and airplane technology as he was a member of the Audubon Society and had a strong interest in military planes. His hero sculptures showed an interest in the philosophy and literature of the time period as they were based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that contributed to the philosophical introduction of Carl Jung’s ideas into American culture. For Lipton, nature’s forms related directly to the 1950s interest in rebirth, rejuvenation, and rebuilding society after the war. Images of plants and other natural forms demonstrated Lipton’s theme of rebirth.
Modern Tools and Techniques
New technology, materials, and processes paralleled the new means of expression for the New York School sculptors. The highly textured results achieved by the use of the oxyacetylene torch related to issues of the post-war period. The innovative pieces that surfaced during this era related to pre- and post-war American society. For instance, the sculptors had experienced a world filled with chaos from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s; they chose manipulated metal as a means of expression. The sculptures including those by Lipton were based on predatory forms, raptors, mutant plants, and other organisms, and the heroic figure derived from a war torn world.
Using metal almost consistently by the 1940s, Lipton had rejected traditional carving techniques and employed the tools and materials of the modern era for his sculpture. Perfected during World War II, the oxyacetylene torch came into widespread use. Portable and inexpensive, this torch burned hotter than any other pre-1945 torch. The oxyacetylene torch was responsible for producing highly textured surfaces in metal. To devote himself fully to his art, he retired from his successful dental practice in 1955 and worked to create sculpture full-time.
Lipton developed a new technique of brazing nickel-silver rods onto joined sheets of Monel metal. After many attempts, Lipton achieved a method for his technique and made his sculptures’ surface rust-proof. It is believed that as early as 1943-44, that Lipton worked almost exclusively in metal. His constructed metal pieces consisted of hollow interiors encased by thin metal shells. The hollow metal shells allowed for his sculptures to be lightweight. From about 1947 through 1951, Lipton experimented with different types of metal and a variety of joining and soldering systems.
Lipton’s Career Popularity
Lipton was viewed as an important figure in the development of modern sculpture. The 1950s also brought Seymour Lipton critical praise as he was seen as a major force in American art. By 1958, 150 museums owned sculptures by Seymour Lipton and in that same year, Lipton’s works adorned the United States Pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Lipton’s participation at Venice established his international reputation and solidified the 1950s as a decade filled with major accomplishments. The 1950s was a decade when Lipton’s work achieved maturity and received long-awaited recognition. His sculptures from this decade are some of the most thought-provoking and stimulating of his career.
The prevalent post-war themes discussed remained in the minds of the Abstract Expressionists as they matured. As other art movements were ushered in through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the horror of the Second World War remained foremost in the minds of the Abstract Expressionists and specifically, Seymour Lipton. Lipton never abandoned his interest in the war as a theme for his sculpture. Lipton’s work of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s continued to address the same themes of flight, nature and the horror of war that were evident earlier. These late career pieces from the 1970s and 1980s demonstrate certain obvious relationships to World War II and the threat of the end of the world.
Three crucial themes recur within Lipton’s work and these concepts will be considered in the scope of his career sculptural production. The themes include nature’s forms, avian images, and figurative sculptures based on the hero. Through a study of Lipton’s work, viewers will come to understand his dedication to the themes and feelings associated with America’s post-war period. An examination of Lipton’s prominent and recurring sculptural themes demonstrates that his ideas, in fact, parallel those of post-war American painters, anthropologists, and writers. The ideas expressed by Lipton through his work place him firmly within a post-war context, reflect his main artistic interests, and recur throughout his career.
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