Monday, January 9, 2012

Master of Suspension

What a treat to come upon the lighter-than-air, suspended breaths of wire by sculptor, Richard Lippold. Having just gorged myself on the thick, lusciously brushed fare at MoMA’s de Kooning banquet, I fully appreciated the visual palette-cleanser thoughtfully provided at the show’s exit.

Lippold, who died in 2002 at age 87 was usually involved with constructions of a much higher order (literally). Working with architects like Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson, his work can be found suspended from the ceilings at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the lobby of the MetLife Building (formerly Pan Am) and in the Grill Room of The Four Seasons restaurant.

And yet, however “public” Lippold’s art may be, very few people seem to have ever heard of him—which is especially surprising given the thorough and systematic rediscovery of all things mid-century.

Left: The Four Seasons, Grill Room
Right: 'Orpheus and Apollo,’ Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center. (via Carthalia)

Lippold’s LA Times obit describes the laborious production of the pieces and their dismissal by an imperious critical elite.
"The Sun," commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953, used nearly two miles of wire filled with 22-carat gold, held together by 14,000 hand-welded joints. It took three years to create and caused a sensation, although not all authorities were impressed. "Not sculpture, but a kind of charade of sculpture which, while hinting at vast conceptions, makes its points very much as window decoration catches the eye," wrote critic Hilton Kramer in Arts magazine.

For more on just how little Hilton Kramer thought of the sculptor (and the patrons who commissioned him), read the New York Times piece from 1968, “The Phenomenon of Lippold, Our Foremost Public Decorator.”
In a 1959 design review of The Four Seasons, B.H. Friedman at first seems to enjoy the Lippold installation over the bar (along with the companion piece over the mezzanine). “At a distance, both have a surprising visual density-intensely illuminated, as they are … and almost invisibly supported by fine wires. When one walks closer, or sits at the bar, they become delicate and airy.

Then, clearly feeling guilty about the pleasure taken, Friedman quickly denounces them.
But neither up close nor at a distance do they work as sculpture. There is no sense of emotional content or of spacial conquest. They work, rather, as decor, and in this context they are overwhelmed by the scale and opulence of their surroundings …They become simply another "good design" appointment
The revival of his work by a younger generation has been hampered as well. It seems that the results of this painstaking construction requires a commensurate level of maintenance. In 2009, the Times reported on the restoration of a Lippold piece in Rhode Island with a budget of $475,000. Even works that come up for auction at low prices go unsold, due to the cost of ownership—restoration, installation, and maintenance.

And remember those two miles of wire used in the Met's “Sun?” Lippold was scammed by the supplier who delivered gold-plated wire instead of the gold-filled wire which was ordered. The result was an eventual corrosive interaction with the other metals and the piece now sits boxed in the Lippold Foundation awaiting replication.

I’m not sure how long the Lippold pieces are on display at MoMA, but the De Kooning show ends January 9th.

The plan for the Four Seasons piece is in the collection of MoMA. (Detail, below, via Haute of Control)

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