Though it may seem common, it's almost impossible to get rediscovered. There is likely a handful of novels equal to Moby Dick in some fusty East Coast atheneum ready to be undusted and perhaps actually read by an intrepid librarian. Even discovery is not enough — the thing has to feel necessary and current, and a whole host of somebodies has to spend a whole lot of time proving to the world (which doesn't like to be told so) that it missed something.
In most cases it almost feels a small conspiracy of accidents and historical events that keeps significant art shadowed, as was the case of Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow (pronounced Shuh-posh-ni-kof), whose work is at the Hammer Museum through April 29. And once reclaimed, it becomes easy to anoint by biography to justify the artist's importance: who they knew, important career affirmations, or what part they played in history.
Let's hold off momentarily on biography, a too-easy crutch for this compelling artist, but let's say at least that she died around 35 years ago and was rarely heard of outside Poland for most of that time. To examine an artist, perhaps an extraordinary one, it's better to start with the sculpture itself.
Restless, erotic and strange, the work of Alina Szapocznikow is downright carnal. Bodies and their parts bulge and glow, encased in billowing soft foam, seductively curving and gently folding, placed in odd settings.
The sculptures beg to be touched: A dessert plate is piled full of candy-colored breasts. An alluring midriff is molded and cast as a foam pillow, and I feel half-creepy for wishing to own such a pillow, a prototype that the artist at one point intended to mass-produce, along with her lamp sculptures. A series of photographs, titled Photosculptures, shows droopy chewing gum molded by teeth and set in various forms and poses, looking goopy, gross and kind of funny.
There is a generosity, a play in these works. The pillow and its temporary folds made permanent are a titillating celebration of whoever's midriff it was cast from.
Traces remain of traditional training, the seemingly old-fashioned variety, rarely found in art schools of late, which relied heavily on the human body and its forms to teach skills in crafting sculptures of clay and plaster, wood and stone. But Szapocznikow's work acknowledges that body art depicts fetishes in addition to ideals, and breaks classical forms of the body into something that is modern and erotic.
Many of her sculptures show body parts that have broken off in a way that feels both familiar and naughty, as if they could be either found fragments from shattered Roman statuary or leftover fetish toys from recent and rollicking goth orgies.
Those familiar forms can be weird, wonderful, necessary and quite sexy. As Szapocznikow wrote in 1972 (translated from the French in the exhibition's accompanying catalog): “I want to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage.”
Her sculptures are cast around actual living people, but the parts can be pulled off, broken and flattened, made into pillows and lamps. All of which has a sensuality but also a kind of horror.
There can be something creep-show unsettling about Szapocznikow's work. No matter how artfully crafted or fetchingly fleshy and waxy soft the materials, the dismantled body parts repulse, as well as attract. In sci-fi lamps, plump, feminine lips glow, disturbingly disembodied as they grow from the lamps' curling stems. The snarling teeth of open-mouth vases grip fresh flowers.
Are these sculptures fairy-tale fictions, abandoned characters from The Labyrinth or outtakes from Dante's Inferno, an ossified gaggle of some very sexy sinners whose body parts have been made into common household objects? Are these the kinds of things found in the houses of serial killers? Or even the overseers of concentration camps?
One well-publicized cruelty to come out during the post–World War II criminal tribunals was the affinity of the commandant of Buchenwald and his wife for lamp shades made of human skin, and other objets d'art crafted from the bodies of their various victims.
This is probably the right moment to introduce some biography. Szapocznikow was born in 1926 in Poland to a Jewish family. She spent her formative years being transferred among enforced ghettos during the German occupation, and, when these were liquidated, among three Nazi concentration camps.
After the war, she settled first in Prague, later returning to Poland, and then shuttled back and forth between Poland and France, spending her last decade in France before dying of breast cancer at the age of 47.
She had numerous exhibitions at various significant European institutions, including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and as the representative from Poland at the 1962 Venice Biennale.
Life and work intersect always with Szapocznikow, the vibrancy of her work always marked by the suffering of her history. Even her death in 1973 likely was caused by the toxicity of her materials, which were employed without any protection.
Though bearing the markers of a significant career, after her death, Szapocznikow's work became largely unknown outside Poland.
It wasn't until recently that an army of critics and curators (including, of course, Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska, who organized this exhibition) championed the artist, posthumously, into wider consideration.
Given the fragility of the work and the limited oeuvre of an artist whose life was cut short, this is likely to be the only presentation of Szapocznikow's work to come to Los Angeles for a long time, if ever again.
Even after all that effort to rediscover artists like her, the grand results of those rediscoveries can themselves be ephemeral, like this traveling retrospective, happening only over a few months at a spare few museums.
Historically, the contradictory tensions in Szapocznikow's work made it hard to drop her neatly into one major category or another. The common objects she intended to mass-produce from casts of women's body parts had the generosity and democratic attitude of pop but also the dark, subterranean sexuality of surrealism.
There is something tragic and dark and fucked up in her work — but also full, sensual and affirmatively human. Pendulous between sexuality and sorrow, Szapocznikow's aggressive erotics also show a tenderness.
ALINA SZAPOCZNIKOW: SCULPTURE UNDONE, 1955-1972 | Hammer Museum | 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd. | Through April 29 | hammer.ucla.edu