Alina Szapocznikow’s (1926 – 73) mutilated sculptures of human figures are visually assaulting. The twelve works on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, from the 1960s and ’70s, are characterized by obscene bodily imagery that conjures gut-wrenching torture, human suffering, eroticism, and death. Szapocznikow is part of the impressive constellation of post-war artists that includes Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, though her work has not received the degree of recognition it deserves. Alina Szapocznikow is a powerful demonstration of the artist’s fluid oscillation between Surrealism and Pop art. This exhibition could signal a start to amending a significant art-historical oversight.
On ViewAndrea Rosen Gallery
October 31 – December 5, 2015
There are two rooms in the show, coordinated around Szapocznikow’s compelling agendas—a thoughtful curatorial gesture that allows one to identify the artist’s breadth in her materials and subject matter. The first room houses a collection of organic-looking sculptures that evoke corporeal and psychological trauma; the second, by contrast, contains works of eroticism and orgasmic pleasure. In these works the artist amalgamated casts of human bodies, photography, cement, polyester resin, and textiles such as wool, denim, and nylon to create fragmented forms of the human body. They respond to both her imprisonment in concentration camps during the Holocaust and her battle with breast cancer, which killed her, prematurely, at age forty-six.
Piotr (1972) is striking and instantly sobering. A life-size representation of Christ’s emaciated body, Piotr rests in a slumped position that echoes the Pietá, but instead of luminous marble for the flesh, Szapocznikow rendered it in a rugged plastic texture with gashes running laterally along the body. Though a nod to the Old Masters, it is a far cry from Michelangelo’s Pietá: Piotr sparks sadistic meditation on bodily trauma and its psychological impact.
This work sets the stage for more allusions to human suffering; Alex (1970), recalls the inhumane violations of the body and privacy. This ambiguous human figure stands in megalithic amplitude with printed photographs that spawn an androgynous being: in the front, a woman’s face (the artist’s portrait), a voluptuous belly, and a man’s genitals are shown vertically. Torched drapery wraps around the figure in a failed effort to cover its exposed body. With similar sentiments, Stele (1968) is shaped as a tomb; it depicts the emaciated legs of a child extending horizontally from a shallow grave, while a woman’s lips and thighs protrude from the black tombstone. Her lips and pelvis are deliberately sealed shut with the same black material as the grave, suggesting women’s verbal and sexual submission.
The solemn temperament quickly dissolves when we are met with radiant sexual forms in the adjacent room. Illuminated Woman (1966 – 67) exposes the female nude with her breasts aglow by pink light, her toes painted, and a single breast and lips in place of her head. Displayed alongside in similar form are erotic sculptures that could function as lamps. Sculpture-Lampe (1970) and Sculpture-Lampe VI (1970) each depict breasts and lips where bright red and yellow lights beam from within as they bloom from a massive penis shaft.
Perhaps legible as allusions to the sensuous cycle of a woman’s arousal by the male body, they also conventionalize a woman’s libido—just as the lamp is turned on, the woman is also “turned on.” These bold sculptures of carnal sensuality refute censorship of the female body and sexuality.
Because the show is separated by works of pain and works of pleasure, it first appears as a modest sample of the artist’s work, but it is much more complex. In fact, these works expose Szapocznikow’s capacity for marrying polarizing motifs of human suffering, bodily fragility, and women’s sexual pleasure. Her mutilated forms conjure the body’s ability for drastic physiologic manipulations and, as a proto-feminist, she wrought out erogenous organs as a means to normalize the female body and reflect on the social and political problems for women in the post-war era, which still resonate today.