The abstract expressionist sculptor Seymour Lipton (1903–1986) represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1958. In the following decades he had a number of important solo exhibitions across the country, including a show of recent sculpture at the Johnson Museum in 1973. The exhibition on view here, almost half a century later, highlights his drawing practice with more than thirty conte crayon sketches and prints for realized and unrealized sculptures across his career. The majority of these works on paper were donated to the Johnson over the past fifteen years by the artist’s sons, Michael and Alan Lipton.
Trained as a dentist, Lipton was largely self-taught as an artist. He began to explore sculpture by working in clay, which soon expanded to include wood, using direct carving techniques that allowed for the spontaneity of expression he was looking for. In the 1940s Lipton abandoned wood and started to work in brass, lead, and bronze. The sculpture Exodus (1946), included in this exhibition, is a great example of an early work in cast bronze that shows the influence of surrealism that Lipton shared with many abstract expressionists. While the term abstract expressionism gained acceptance in the late 1940s as a way to identify the New York avant-garde movement, it quickly came to denote a painting style, relegating sculpture to the margins. Lipton, however, was part of a group of artists referred to as direct-metal sculptors, whose use of the welding torch made the immediacy and chance effects possible, which at least nominally affiliated them with their painting colleagues. Other sculptors in this group included David Smith, David Hare, Herbert Ferber, Frederick Kiesler, and Ibram Lassaw. (A good example of Lassaw’s work from our permanent collection is on view on the first floor.)
In 1949, Lipton invented his characteristic technique of brazing bronze and nickel silver rods onto sheet metal. At first, he used sheet steel as a base and then, from 1955 on, Monel metal, a rust-proof white-bronze alloy. The sculptures Sibyl (1960) and Redwood (1956) are good examples of Lipton’s experimentations with various metals. His unique process provided him with a wide range of surface color and texture, and allowed him the flexibility to create open and solid shapes of any curvature—as shown in the many sketches on display here—making evident Lipton’s lifelong interest in loosely metaphoric organic abstractions. While he completed a number of large outdoor commissions, the scale of his work remained essentially human.
This exhibition was curated by Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern and contemporary art.