Not far from the massive cliffs of Carrara, Jacques Lipchitz is building a monumental sculpture. When it is unveiled later this year at Columbia University, it will stand, at forty feet in height, as the largest bronze in America.
His seventy-ninth birthday, observed last summer, thus found the sculptor thinking bigger than ever, though historically his place in twentieth-century art was assured in 1916, when he cut a hole in his Man With a Guitar and pierced the solid volume of classical sculpture. At twenty-four, he joined Picasso’s revolution, and as the sculptor member of the School of Paris, carried Cubism into the third dimension. But it was later, under the pressures of the 1930s, that his flat Cubist planes burst into those bulging forms which characterize his best-known work; forms, said one critic, “of daemonic vitality that through years of personal and artistic upheaval, have celebrated the most expansive of human emotions.”
Those forms have grown bigger as the artist has grown older, and he is now at work on other monuments for Philadelphia and Israel. To make them, he has taken up residence in Pietrasanta, where one of Europe’s finest foundries is located. Lipchitz, who has lived for twenty years in Russia, thirty in France, and thirty in America, appears to be thriving in this Italian town. He enjoys the company of his artigiani apprentices, whose ancestors quarried marble for Michelangelo.
I spoke with him in his studio there, shortly before his birthday. He wore blue denim overalls for the occasion, and a new beret on his long gray hair. Physically, he resembles his sculpture; he is powerfully built and fairly overwhelms you with his vitality. His large hands and shoulders are unbent by age; only his right index finger is strangely misshapen by seventy years’ labor, accumulated daily, pressing on bits of wax to build up his models. His manner can be gentle, almost rabbinical, yet he can be suddenly stirred into enthusiasm, regaling his listeners with anecdotes so crammed with everyday life that you understand why he rejected abstract art.
I asked him, mainly, to talk about his life—a life so marked by sudden, violent change that it seems to prefigure, in unexpected ways, the change-filled lives of young people today. He ran away as a teenager from a middle-class Jewish home and lived among the Paris hippies of three generations ago. At the outbreak of race war, he fled for his life. As a sculptor, he witnessed the destruction of his work on three occasions: first, when a rightist French regime ordered his Prometheus smashed to bits; later, through the bureaucratic bungling of a South American government; and again, when a flash fire obliterated several years’ work in forty-five minutes.
In 1941, he fled the Nazi occupation of France, and sailed to America aboard a Portuguese ship. He had with him $20, a handful of drawings, and a halffinished sculpture called Flight. He remarried there and built a new studio. When that one burned, he built another, as far out in the countryside as his Paris studio had been when Le Corbusier designed it in 1924. His first child was born when he was fifty-nine. At seventy-nine, he’s building monuments.
Lipchitz is certainly no proselytizer. “I’m a workman,” he says. “I work with my hands—not with words.” But my feeling about him is that anyone who has lived as long as he has and ends up building monuments has something to tell us. Lipchitz says he’s building a roof over his life; what I wanted to know was how he built up to it.
Arking: Your seventy-ninth birthday finds you at work on the largest undertaking of your life. Why did you decide, when you were nearly eighty, to devote yourself to monumental sculpture?
Lipchitz: Because no one ever gave me such commissions before! I’ve always wanted to build monumental sculpture; I’ve pictured it for years. But happily, the chance didn’t come too early.
L: Yes, I say happily, because I wasn’t ready for it. Now I can say that. You know, when I was young, I was mad that nobody asked me; today, I’m glad that nobody asked me.
A: Why not? Was it a question of technique?
L: Well, technique counts. Sculpture for me—it’s so : vast, so enormous; it’s taken me seventy years to
learn what I know. I’ve handled my work in every
way possible. I’ve learned from my experience, from the past, from history . . . and whether I am a good sculptor or not, I do know everything about my craft. But it’s not just that. It’s—well, when I was young, I wasn’t so stable, not so sure of my ground.
I was searching a lot, trying things out. Schools, rules, formulas, theories. It took a long time to— work free of that.
A: Do you work as much now as sixty years ago? L: Now I work more. I work more because I enjoy myself more. This forty-foot-high monument—it’s so big, so new. There’s so much to imagine, to envision and foresee. Often now, while I’m working, something happens unexpectedly; I say, “That’s interesting,” and then I pursue it and see where it leads.
And it’s always a surprise; it’s always such a joy.
But I couldn’t have taken such chances before—not with such clarity, not such a big piece—mot when was younger.
A: Can you tell me how it was, when you were younger? How it was when you started? For example, your leaving home as a teen-ager to study art in Paris: did you have to disobey your parents to do this?
L: I certainly did! My father, anyway. He wanted me to be an engineer. He was a building contractor, ; and rather wealthy. He wanted me to go to technical
college and then into the business with him. Well, since all the art schools were in Paris, I knew he’d never sign my passport application. So with my mother’s help, I forged some papers to be smuggled across the border, and took off for Paris without telling him. I was eighteen when I got there in 1909. A: That must have been about the same time that other young men your age—Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi, Chagall—were also leaving their parents’ homes for Paris.
L: Well, some got there before me, some a little later. But I didn’t meet them all right away; I couldn’t even speak French.
A: Was Paris, then, a big break for you?
L: Oh, it was a total break, total and sudden. Really, I was the child of a bourgeois background; my parents’ home was very religious, middle class, comfortable. Paris was like another world. I felt I had to learn to walk again.
A: Did you realize before you left that it would be such a break?
L: I didn’t realize anything. I only wanted to study sculpture. That I was breaking away from my home, my parents—that understanding came later. I tell you, I had such a single-minded desire to go to art school that I would have done anything, I would have gone anywhere. It was the only thought I had in my head; I didn’t look beyond it. You know, in any situation where you want to do something with all your heart, you don’t think about its significance in your life; you just go ahead and do it.
A: When you arrived in Paris, what was the first thing you did?
L: I got a room to sleep in. Then I went to see a family friend who owned a printing shop. “You want to be a sculptor?” he asked. “What can I tell you? Go to school, to the Academy of Fine Arts.” “How do you go?” I asked. “I don’t know. Find out.” So, I found out: you walk to the address, you inscribe yourself, and you go to school. That’s how I started —and it was painful, very painful.
A: Why painful?
L: Because it was all so new. First of all, at school, for the first time in my life, I saw a girl, a naked girl, a model. All during classes, I thought about her and not about my sculpture. My teacher came over to me: “Do you want to be a professional?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “Then just copy the anatomy.” But can you imagine, I went absolutely crazy, looking at this girl, a beautiful girl—all naked! But then, you know, I settled down and really did concentrate on my sculpture. I signed up for a workshop in stone carving, I attended medical lectures in anatomy, I took private lessons from professors at the Academy.
A: Did you have to work on the side in order to earn money?
L: At that time, actually, I had plenty of money because my father had relented and was sending me an allowance. But two years later, his business failed and he told me to decide whether to come home or to stay on alone. Of course I decided to stay on alone, but it was hard, very hard. I didn’t know that to eat, you had to work! So I found a job at the railroad station at night, unloading crates of food for the market. At 5 A.M. I went to sleep for three hours and then I reported for morning classes. Finally, I fell ill with the first symptoms of TB—but that turned out to be a good thing because it released me from military service in Russia. So I managed to cure myself and kept on working at the same time.
A: It sounds rather arduous.
L: Then you don’t understand. Nothing was too difficult for me because I had this passion to study sculpture.
A: Why do you feel that academic training was useful?
L: Because I learned to handle tools, how to model, how to carve. But classes were over by noon, and then I’d make the rounds of the museums. I’d take onion sandwiches and stay for hours, drawing.
A: What did you think you could learn from museums?
L: Everything! I was a kid from the provinces; I didn’t know anything. For example, from the day I first arrived in Paris, I made a habit of combing the flea markets for small, cheap pieces of primitive art. They were plentiful then. Well, there was one piece that I bought very early which I was sure was Egyptian. But two years later, I saw a piece exactly like it in the Trocadero Museum, labeled not Egyptian but African. Imagine, I didn’t even know that Africans made sculpture.
A: But you had liked that piece instinctively and bought it.
L: Yes, I had instinctive tastes. But I was completely raw. By schooling myself in the museums, I was defining my tastes, and linking myself up to history, and to the world.
A: What was your own work like at that time?
L: Well, frankly, I was disgusted by most of the art then being produced around me. I didn’t even like Rodin; I couldn’t understand him. In the museums, I was always drawn to the beginnings of each cycle—the beginnings of Greek art, of medieval art: the archaic, primitive stages. So in my own work, too, I was simplifying, abstracting, taking away, until at one point I came very, very close to doing totally nonobjective art. And this provoked a real crisis in me, a real emotional and physical crisis.
A: What was that?
L: I can tell you exactly. One day, the French writer Jules Romains visited my studio. He paused before one of my more simplified, abstract pieces. “Precisely what do you want to do?” he asked me. At that time —it was 1915—I was influenced by certain new theories, and I answered very slowly, “I want to make sculpture as pure as a crystal.” Well, he looked at me ironically, and said, “Just what do you know about the crystal?” And in that very instant, I felt a terrible, sharp sting. I was still smarting from his remark after he left. I began to think, “What do I know about the crystal? Well, I know it’s a symbol of nonorganic life.” And then it struck me: nonorganic life? But what do I want with nonorganic life? That’s a dead end; it isn’t life. I want to celebrate organic life, human life. You see, this sudden feeling punctured all the theories I was so engrossed in, and pushed me into an emotional crisis, a physical crisis. I felt in danger, like a soul was going away from me.
I became quite ill, and remained ill for a month. I was, you know, plagued with doubt. I felt I had lost my solid ground, that I had to start from the beginning and ask simple questions. I said, my father— what does he do? He takes a brick and he builds a house, and it’s good and solid and cozy to live in. While I, on the contrary, I was taking a house and reducing it to a brick. Was that what I wanted to do? And so, I took the other way, the way of representational art, art that involves the life of man. It was a terrible crisis, but when it was over, I stood on solid ground and I knew my work then would have a foundation.
A: Was that before you became involved with Cubism?
L: Yes, after that period, I worked steadily for a year. Then I had a show, signed a contract, and got involved with the people in the Cubist group—Juan Gris, Picasso, Picasso’s friend Braque. I was glad for this, because in the period when I was floundering, the Cubists’ was the only art then being produced that appealed to me. But it wasn’t until I had worked out certain things on my own—that crisis I spoke of— that I could join in.
A: How close-knit was the group? Did you influence each other’s art?
L: Yes, Cubism then was a real collective effort. For example, one day Juan Gris came to my studio, all excited about a bunch of grapes he had just seen in a new canvas by Picasso. Well, the next day Gris painted a picture with Picasso’s grapes—but he put them in a bowl; the day after, Gris’s bowl was in a painting by Picasso. Actually, there was a lot of exchange between us, even between painters and sculptors. I was incredibly close to Gris; for a long time, we were as close as brothers.
A: I’ve read that you and Gris quarreled at one point.
L: Yes, it’s true we quarreled. He was a marvelous man, my best friend. But his health was deteriorating —none of us knew it—and this made him very edgy and difficult. For example, one day I went to visit him, and on the easel I saw a painting which, like all his work in 1916, looked as though an earthquake had struck it; you couldn’t distinguish a thing. “Oh, Juan!” I exclaimed. “Don’t touch this painting. It’s finished, it’s perfect.” He lashed out at me: “What do you mean? You’re insulting me! Can’t you see I haven’t put in the mustache yet?”
Later, when he was doing some stage sets for a Diaghilev ballet, I made a small criticism, and he flew into a rage. As a result, we didn’t speak for months, not even when we waited at the bus stop together. One day, though, I looked up and saw him walking toward me with his arms outstretched. “Jacques,” he said, “when two men have pissed together, they don’t behave like dogs! and with that, he embraced me. He was a good man; I was the bad one, because I didn’t go to him first. After that, we were friends until his death. But we d lost so much time. You know, I still have remorse about this, sometimes, in the night.
A: Was it some kind of lesson? About friendship? L: It was a big lesson. I became a better man. Oh, I learned a lot in those days. But I paid for every inch.
A: Your friendship with Picasso has endured to this day. How did you first meet?
L: That was interesting. A good friend of ours, Diego Rivera, first brought me to Picasso’s studio. It was in 1913, but Picasso was already very famous. What came out of his studio was, you know, the holy word.
When we arrived, Picasso was out, but Rivera showed me around. Suddenly he spied a new statue of Picasso’s—a small bronze cone with colored dots painted on it. “You see, my boy,” he exclaimed, “this is sculpture, not what you’re doing!” I was puzzled by the piece; I didn’t understand it. Shortly after, Picasso walked in, like a little mechanical toy with his genius, so jaunty and charming. i decided to ask him about the piece. I said, “Mr. Picasso, do you consider that a painting or a sculpture?” He looked at me sarcastically. “And you, dear sir,” he said, “can you say what makes a painting and what a sculpture?” I was on the spot. “No, sir,” I said boldly, “But l do know one thing: that’s not sculpture!” Rivera turned white, but Picasso was intrigued. “Why not?” he asked. “Just because it’s painted? Look at that African mask on the wall; that’s painted too.” I said, “Yes, sir, but that’s different. The mask is black, but under the eyes there are strips of white paint. The white paint is shadow—white shadow on a black mask. So it has a sculptural meaning, not a painterly one.” Picasso looked at me, a little astonished, but didn’t say a word. Out on the street, Rivera assailed me: “Imbecile! You’ve made a fool of yourself—and an enemy of Picasso.” Well, a few days later someone knocked at my door. It was Picasso; he said he was curious to see my work. We’ve been friends ever since, and I’ve never known him to be less than a friend.
A: Between you and Modigliani and Soutine—was there any special feeling because you all were Jewish? L: Well, everyone felt his Jewishness in a different way. Modigliani, for example, was temperamentally quite Latin—but he was very attracted by his Jewishness, the culture and history. One day I mentioned to him that there was a whole colony of young Jewish artists, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were quite poor and lived in one quarter because the lofts were cheap and they could speak Yiddish together. Modigliani was fascinated. So I took him to a reception held by a Friend who was living in Chagall’s studio, and there Modigliani met Chaim Soutine. They became inseparable, really devoted. Later some of these people organized the Society of Jewish Artists and elected me president. They wanted to talk about Jewish art and theory. But I was always against this narrow, chauvinistic approach. I said, artists are looking for universality. If you arc a Jew, then what you do is Jewish.
A: Some critics call Cubism the greatest art revolution in five hundred years. Did you and your Cubist friends feel like revolutionaries?
L: Oh, no, no, it was nothing like that. We felt more like workmen. We had this idea, and we worked at it like crazy; we worked to pursue it in every way we could, to push open each one of its possibilities. We had the chance, and we went ahead with it, that’s all. A: It sounds like you pursued the possibilities of Cubism as directly as you pursued the possibilities of Paris—without thinking about what you were leaving behind, or about what would come out of it.
L: That’s right, that’s how it was. You must act directly in art, as in life. It’s silly to worry about whether what you’re doing is, historically, a revolution. You should just love doing it.
A: So much has been written about the bohemian life then—the hashish, the absinthe, the wild parties. Much of it sounds like hippie life today.
L: Oh, of course; drugs, orgies: that’s nothing new. Bohemianism has always had its attraction. But don’t forget—the artists in our group, we had to be hard workers. We had so much to learn; most of us worked in our lofts from morning to night. When we met, we’d discuss and criticize each other’s work. There just wasn’t time for a wild bohemian life.
A: What about someone like Modigliani?
L: Yes, Modigliani—you might call him the most bohemian one among us. But even with him, it wasn’t just for the wild living. Actually, very early, he had become addicted to drugs and also to alcohol. He couldn’t do anything about it; besides, he was ill. Yet even in that condition he worked hard, though sporadically. Later he fell in love and found a dealer, and then he tried to settle down, to work more steadily. For all of us, art was the most serious thing in the world.
A: What about artists’ parties?
L: Well, certainly. When I lived in Montparnasse, I had open house every Sunday. Gris came, and Picasso, Rivera, Matisse, Max Jacob. We all sang, danced, cooked, quarreled. There was a fascination with the occult then, too; we talked about the mysteries, did experiments. Then we’d go out to cafes, to concerts . . . Nijinsky’s ballets, Cocteau at the theater. I’ll never forget the premiere of The Rite of Spring-, a woman threw a chair at the orchestra— she didn’t like such cacophonous music.
A: In 1924, though, you left Montparnasse and built your own house and studio outside Paris. Before that point, had it been helpful, as a young artist, to be part of a group as close-knit as the Cubists?
L: Yes, in the beginning. Cubism was, as I said, a collective search. We worked together to find a new syntax. But, really, I could never be part of a group, not completely. I felt then I had to work undisturbed. It’s hard to explain—I have to listen to what’s happening inside me, to my intuitions, and so, often, I need solitude. That’s why I’ve always thought of myself as . . . lonely, even having friends only in . . . certain moments.
A: Starting with Joie de Vivre and The Couple in the 1920s, the character of your sculpture changed. Were particular emotions involved in your work then? L: Yes, absolutely. It was from a decision, a need to make my art fuller, more complete. The formalism of Cubism—the grammatical approach—wasn’t enough for me. I was going through certain experiences in my personal life—very intense ones—and I wanted to speak; I wanted to tell my stories.
I had a sister who fell ill with TB. I brought her from Poland to a Swiss clinic, but I knew, we all knew, that she was dying. Then I was commissioned to do a large sculpture, and I decided to do something called Joie de Vivre—the joy of life, of living—to give her courage. She wanted to know all about it, and I wrote her constantly and sent her sketches. I brought her to Paris to see more doctors, but it was hopeless; three weeks later, she died. I felt, you know . . . hopelessly sad. I’d lost my father shortly before, and now, I’d lost my beloved sister. But from that came The Couple. It’s a couple making love, but it’s not at all an erotic thing. I was saying, “You, all of you, life is going on. Continue to make children. That’s what it is.”
A: Weren’t you tempted to portray death, or your own despair?
L: Oh, no, no. I am never desperate, not even before the most terrible things. For me, making art is a struggle against dying. Even today, the closer I come to dying, the more passionately I want as an artist to struggle against it. And that’s how I felt fifty years ago too.
You know, later, during another time of . . . death, I made a sculpture of a legless woman with a child clinging to her back, and with her arms raised upward. And after I made it, I remembered I’d actually seen such a thing—in Russia, fifteen years earlier. One night, in the rain, I heard a strange singing voice; it was coming from a woman, a legless beggar seated on a cart. The rain was streaming down her hair, down her back. It was dark. And her arms and face were lifted upward. She was singing. I never forgot it.
A: During the thirties, your work became more violent: struggles with monsters, mythological creatures locked in rape and combat. Were you reacting then to political events, as you’d reacted earlier to personal events?
L: Certainly. What was happening politically then— the rise of Hitler—was always on my mind; it had to influence what I did. Once, as a young man, I’d been thrown into a Czarist military jail; they thought I was a revolutionary. I was imprisoned for two weeks, and I never forgot the horror of it. Well, the thought during the thirties that people all over Europe were being shut up in jails—I had to react with pain and outrage. It was clear in my pieces that the monsters were the dictators. I made a David and Goliath and I put a swastika on Goliath’s chest. I made that very early, before Hitler came to power. It was exhibited publicly in 1934. I knew what I was risking; Fascist officials came to look around my studio, I had a lot of difficulties after that.
Later, in 1936, I was commissioned to do something for the Paris World’s Fair. It was for the Science Pavilion, and I made a Prometheus, bringer of fire and progress to mankind. But still, there were all those dictators, getting bigger. I’m for the power of the people, and I wanted my Prometheus to make this visible. I wanted to give him a sign, because I felt that the political question of our times could not be ignored. I had to react to it. So I took away his chains and I made him fight the vulture, and I put a Phrygian cap on his head. That was the emblem then of democracy.
A: How did the authorities react?
L: After the Exhibition, a huge plaster model of the statue was set up on the Champs Elysees. But that was 1937, and the Fascist agents were working all around us, trying to repress every form of dissent. The Prometheus was a target because it was so visible, so big. Well, first they mounted a slander campaign: front-page photos in Le Matin for five days in a row, saying how awful the sculpture was, that it was made by a foreigner, a Communist— everything they could think of. That only brought more crowds out to see it; with all that publicity, they were curious, you know. Then it became a scandal. They circulated petitions to the schools and academies, demanding that the sculpture be removed from sight. It was very simple; it was taken away. They came with trucks and took it down; they smashed it into pieces and took it away.
A: Were you present? Did you watch this?
L: Yes. i watched it from a—distance. I knew then that the times were such that nothing could be done. A: But it wasn’t until 1940 that you finally decided to leave Paris. How did you feel then?
L: Oh, i didn’t want to go. It’s strange, really; for eight years, I saw what was happening in Europe. But I never conceived of myself as leaving. I thought, you know, it can’t happen here; I was an artist, a Frenchman. Also, perhaps I was too rooted down to my house, to my studio and land. Finally one evening, friends came to my door; they said troops were marching on Paris, that i had to leave with them the next day and could take anything with me that I could fit into their car. Well, my wife and I sat up all night talking about what we would take; after thirty years in France, I had my art collection, a wine cellar with 600 bottles, a beautiful library, my studio full of sculptures . . . We were still talking the next morning when my friends came to get us. So we left like that —with nothing, with the clothes we were wearing. We couldn’t decide what to take, so we left everything behind. A: Once you’d finally left Paris, did you look forward to America?
F: Not right away. I left Paris only because I was forced to, and I went into hiding for a year in the Free Zone. But I didn’t want to leave France, not even when I was approached by the Rescue Committee of the Museum of Modem Art; they were helping European artists to escape to the United States. I was so ungrateful. You know, when Chagall was offered the chance to go to America, he asked whether there were any cows there. I was the same; I thought there were no trees, only skyscrapers. I couldn’t speak English, I thought I would die there. A: But once you actually stepped on the boat . . .
F: Then it was different. I was suddenly very— happy! I had $20 in my pocket, and under my arm I was carrying some drawings and one small plaster sculpture. That’s all. I knew I’d have to start all over—and I tell you, I felt free, completely free.
A: Was it the same sense of anticipation you’d felt when you’d set out for Paris as a teen-ager?
F: Oh, it was even better. I was nearly fifty, so the feeling was more complete, more mature; I could savor it more fully. And it got even stronger all through the trip . . . until finally when the boat turned and I saw the New York skyline coming right up in front of us, my feeling was one of extraordinary euphoria, the kind I’d felt only when I was let out of that prison some thirty years earlier. It was drizzling on the deck, and, I tell you, I had such full, extraordinary joy—I don’t know what to call it. After that, many times, in fact, I went to Staten Island and took the ferryboat back, just to have that feeling again. But it was never the same. Such extraordinary joy.
A: After you landed, was it hard to adjust? At the least, it meant a new language, a new house, a new studio . . .
F: Yes, it meant all that. But I had my work. I had only an overwhelming urge to get on with my work. So nothing was too difficult.
A: That’s what you said about your early days in Paris.
F: Yes, that’s right. But now I was stronger. I was a man, not a boy. I turned fifty that summer; I felt in my prime, in my full strength. I felt too the beginnings of maturity in my art. I had everything to look forward to, and I went ahead with my sculpture. Adjusting, as you put it, was much harder for my wife. She was a poet, writing in French. She wanted Paris. She resisted New York because it wasn’t Europe. So she always shopped for groceries on Macdougal Street, from the Italians . . .
A: What about when the war ended, and you had the choice of going back?
L: Oh, then, of course, I went back. That was natural; France was my home. But I left again in less than six months. I saw right away that it wasn’t the same. The first thing I found was that many dear friends, artists, were gone, were dead . . . Soutine, Max Jacob . . . murdered. And I found that a terrible spirit had come over France: mean, suspicious, chauvinistic. Even respected authorities, academicians—people, you know, of the highest education— I found them embittered, narrow-minded, intolerant. That’s how it was, after the war. If you criticized anything, they jumped on you. I spoke out on something, and the reaction was immediate: “There’s no place for you here. Go back to your redskins.” A: Something like “France: Love It or Leave It”? L: Yes, like that. That awful chauvinism. But it wasn’t only that. In the six months I was there, I too began to change. You know, I’ve told you, when I sailed to America, I thought everything—my house, my sculpture—was lost. And I felt marvelous, like a newborn baby. Well, when I went back I learned not everything was lost; only 30 percent. The rest was scattered all over France. People gave me addresses, names to look up. So I started running like—like a poisoned mouse, all through the country, to track down my things ... my books, my collection. I got into arguments; some objects I even paid for. But I felt, you know, these things were part of my life; they were mine and they had been taken away from me. And once I knew where to find them, I ran to get them back.
Well, after six months, I saw I was becoming so crazy and avid that it changed my whole mind about . . . holding on to possessions. I remembered how free I had felt when I thought I had nothing. So I made a clean break. I gave up my search and went back to America, for better or worse. And even today, when pieces from that period come out on the market, I just let them go.
A: Today, after almost thirty years there, do you feel any special affinity with America? Do you feel at home there?
L: Yes, certainly. After my return, I slowly began to have more success with my work. My wife and I were divorced in 1946, and I remarried in America; my first child was born. I took out new citizenship; I built a house, a studio. Yes, I feel at home there. A: How do you, a bronze sculptor, feel about living in an environment of planned obsolescence where many things, including much in art, aren’t built to last?
L: Aren’t built to last? But, nothing lasts. I believe, I’ve learned to believe, in movement. America is not detached from the world. The things that are happening—for example, with the students—are happening all over. And for me, it’s a sign of a change that must come.
You see, I live—I learned to live—in the present. Not in the past and not in the future. When I was young and people criticized my art. I’d say, “You wait and see. I’m working for the future.” But the future would come and then I’d have to say, “I didn’t work for that!” So I stopped talking about it. I live in and I try to exploit the present. And that’s the only thing that interests me.
A: Do you think sculpture at least should be built to last? You work in bronze, not in paper . . .
L: I think if it deserves it, it will last. For me, sculpture is a cosmic art; it has cosmic emanations . . . A: Even sculptures made from plastic? or from holes in the ground?
L: From anything, from anything; it doesn’t matter. If it’s made from paper, it works during the time it lives. It’s OK; for me, it’s like that. Maybe it’s because of my Jewish education. For a Jew, you know, everything is holy, everything.
A: How did you face up to the destruction caused by the studio fire that in forty-five minutes wiped out your first years’ work in America?
L: Well, the fire . . . the fire. My drawings, my studio, all my new models; yes, it was terrible. But, you know, I always push myself to understand the meaning of things, and so, I tried to understand the meaning of the fire. Why? Why? It seemed like such a terrible punishment.
A: You didn’t think it was only an accident?
L: Oh, no, no. For me, such accidents don’t exist. Even in my work, when I try to attach a piece of clay to a figure and it falls down, I stop and ask myself why it fell down. Because it’s weak? Because it’s unnecessary? Then it didn’t belong there. And this constant tension, this questioning, helps eliminate the parts that don’t work, that won’t hold up. It brings me down to essentials and gives me clarity to go further.
A: And the studio fire? What did you decide about that?
L: Well, at the time of the fire, I was working on a huge sculpture of the Catholic Virgin; it was commissioned for the Church of Assy in France. And to make this Virgin, I had great difficulties: emotional, religious ones. For a long time, it wouldn’t come; I couldn’t see how to do it. To make a sculpture, a Virgin, which people would pray in front of filled me with a kind of—holy fear. My thinking was paralyzed. Until one day I was in the subway going to the studio, and I saw, I saw, how I would make it. And immediately I sketched it out in my notebook. But later, you see, the authorities decided to change the designated setting for the sculpture, and so I agreed to change my design. I worked for a year on this altered design, building a huge model of wax. Well, right after the blaze I rushed to the studio and the first thing I saw, in the middle of all the debris and the smoke, was the towering wax model of my Virgin, burned away. And for me this sight was like a sign, a purge . . .
A: But surely not a punishment?
L: Yes, a punishment—because I hadn’t been faithful to my original design, to my vision. I’d felt it so strongly and I hadn’t been faithful to it. That’s how it struck me; the impact was terrible. I sank into a state of inactivity and doubt. I wondered if, inside me, I had come to the end. And then, then I knew I had to set my hand to something, even to just an arbitrary exercise. I knew I had to go back to the beginning, and start from something simple.
A: What did you do?
L: Well, a month before the fire, I had had an idea for a new experiment, a game. I had taken one of my tools—an ordinary chisel—and ordered wax molds to be made from it; the idea was to improvise different sculptures on that basic form— you know, by playing with it and seeing what happened, adding pieces to make a figure or whatever.
After the fire, the foundry told me my order was ready; they had fifty wax chisels waiting for me, and they also had a room where I could work. Well, the foundry was a four-hour train ride away, but I realized, you know, that I had to do something. So I decided that every day I would go to the foundry and that every day I would make a new sculpture, using the same chisel form, without thinking or planning. It was my way, you see—a mechanical way—of taking my own temperature, of testing how much creativity I had left inside me.
And it worked. It was wonderful. In my confusion, that chisel was a handle I could grab on to. Every morning, I’d take hold of the same basic model. I’d improvise; something happened unexpectedly and I’d race to catch up with it. It started some kind of imagination going; some inner machinery clicked into gear. Every day I reported to the foundry, and every day I could feel my confidence getting bigger. In twenty-six working days, I made twenty-six sculptures.
Then, on the twenty-seventh day, something big happened and broke the routine. At that time, the foundry was making a cast of a large, old bronze of mine. This was a delicate operation; it was May then, and very hot. One Monday morning—I had just arrived to make the twenty-seventh chisel—the foreman rushed in to tell me that the heat over the weekend had melted the wax mold. Pieces were falling down; it was almost ruined. Again I stood to lose another big model. The foreman knew about the studio fire and about my studies with the chisels, and he said to me, “If I were you, Mr. Lipchitz, I would just give up.” I tell you, T flew into a rage. His words so angered me that I started to shout. “What? Instead of helping me, you just stand there and tell me stupid things!” I immediately grabbed some tools and plunged in to work, propping up the big wax sculpture. And that was the moment I abandoned the little chisels. I no longer needed them. They had brought me out of my torpor, you see, but that big sculpture was like a catharsis; once I found my hands on it, I was on the road again. A: Since then, in fact, your pieces have been getting bigger and bigger, and now, of course, you’re building monuments. Yet this has meant, among other things, your moving to Italy, setting up a new studio, buying a new house, learning a new language . . . How do you feel about being uprooted again at seventy-nine?
L; But again, I don’t make such considerations. American foundries aren’t equipped to cast monumental bronzes. So I’ve come to Italy to do it. I want to make monuments, so I’d do anything, I’d go anywhere. I think about the sculpture, not about the adjustments.
A: The Columbia monument should be finished this year. What is the theme?
L: It shows a terrible struggle, a mythological struggle. When the university trustees first approached me, they said they wanted a monument for the front of the law school library that would, you know, signify law, I thought, they can’t expect me to make a blind lady holding some scales; they can’t expect that kind of thing from me. So I insisted on freedom to do what T wanted. Then I went to look at the site, and I felt something horizontal was needed. The idea of a bird with open wings came to me, then the idea of a flying horse— Pegasus, a mythological creature. So I made a lot of sketches and then decided to do the taming of Pegasus by Bellerophon. Bellerophon, you know, was this man who was absolutely crazy for Zeus’ daughter. He wanted to marry her, but Zeus wasn’t very happy about it. Zeus was a god, while Bellerophon wasn’t even half a god; he was a mere mortal. And to give his daughter to a mere mortal, well, Zeus was somehow reluctant, you know?
A; You sound like a Yiddish storyteller.
L: But it is a story, it’s a wonderful story. Here
we see the reaction of the human. Bellerophon
realized that if he would approach the gods, he had to observe and tame the wild forces of nature. For me, this human impulse reflects the urge toward all human creativity—art as well as law. Even in my work, I observe nature and I use it as a raw material to make my art. I don’t submit to it. And
all this, you see, reflects my feeling . . . my pas-
sionate admiration, for man, for his yearnings and possibilities.
A: Since conceiving the project several years ago, have you thought about your sculpture in relation to the subsequent events at the university—the student strikes and the police crackdown [of spring, 1968]?
L: Well, of course my natural sympathies are with the students. I’m with them. I have to be: I’m for the enlargement of human capacities in every way. After all, even in my work, my urge, my desire is to push open the possibilities of art, of sculpture; to work with it, not against it; to work outward, not inward. I feel this way about art, and I feel it too about life. What happened with the students at Columbia has happened all over the world. It’s a great human push; that’s what my monument is about. Perhaps the university will have some difficulty in understanding what I mean, in making it acceptable. I can’t know about that.
A: I know your daughter is a student at Barnard . . . L: Yes, that’s true. And ironically, it turned out that during the strikes, I was awarded an honorary degree from Columbia. There was a big ceremony, of course. My daughter attended, but she insisted on wearing her “On Strike” badge. And she refused to come to the reception at the president’s home afterward. She’s very independent. But good for her, I say; good for her.
A: What about students and art? I mean, so much contemporary art seems predicated on a rejection of everything that’s ever come before. When young sculptors come to you for advice, do you tell them they can still learn from the past?
L: Yes. But they don’t want to listen to me, especially the Americans. When painters come to me and I advise them to make copies from old masters, they’re offended. What? they say. I should copy? A: Do you still learn from the past?
L: Of course. What else can I learn from? Only from my experience—but the past is also my experience. As an artist, as a human being, I’m part of everything that’s come before me. The Greek man who made a sculpture had a thought, an intention; if I want to sculpt, I must try to know what this was. Also, you know, going to museums, building up an art collection—it’s history, but it’s humanity, too. I’ve always been, as I say, a lonely man, solitary, but I am not completely solitary if I have these pictures by all humanity spread out before me for me to know.
A: How do you react to criticism? I’m thinking in particular of the critic who said that Lipchitz would throw a handful of mud on the floor and call it sculpture. Did this disturb you?
L: No, I wasn’t disturbed by it; on the contrary, I used it. I said to the man, “Oh, you’re bothered by that? It sounds interesting to me. I never made sculpture that way before. I’ll have to try it.” And that’s what I did. I concocted a mixture of hot wax. Then I’d grab a fistful, and plunging my hand into water, I’d work it in my hand, making blind, arbitrary movements. When it hardened. I’d withdraw my hand and look at this lump. A lot of images would come to me, but one image would persist, would come again and again. And I’d choose that image to clarify. This experiment led to a whole new series of sculptures. I was crazy about it for a year’s time.
A: So for you this criticism wasn’t a threat, but an invitation . . .
L: That’s right. Sometimes I disregard criticism, and sometimes I see in it elements which can help me. I’m not against criticism; I listen. But what disappoints me is that most criticism is so narrowminded or ignorant. Sculpture—it’s so vast, so enormous. I’ve spent sixty years just learning what I know. And what I don’t understand is how critics can limit themselves to one tiny little corner, to pinheads. For me, things are so much—larger!
A: When you were younger, did criticism bother you more?
L: Oh, yes, of course. I remember one of my first shows in a salon in Paris. I was twenty-one years old. The critics came, and they said, “Here is an interesting newcomer from Russia. But what a pity his work is so imitative of Despiau.” Well, I was enraged; I didn’t even know who this Despiau was! So I went to look at his work and I found that, yes, we liked similar things. But that wasn’t the most important point about my sculptures; of course they could be criticized, but not for that reason. It was so irrelevant, and I wasted so much energy feeling offended. Today that kind of criticism wouldn’t even bother me.
A: Artists who’ve continued producing until a late age often say they become freer as they get older. Renoir, in his seventies, said he felt more confident, less hemmed in than ever.
L: It’s true, it’s true, it’s absolutely true. You don’t start free; you free yourself through work, through experience. When I said that I wasn’t ready for this monument before. I was talking about—freedom. Because, when I was young, I had to take precautions—measurements, scales, the Golden Section.
A: Was that the discipline of Cubism?
L: Oh, not only Cubism. Even before that. In 1913 T did a large piece that was very blocklike, very geometrical. Then someone pointed out that it corresponded exactly to a Renaissance treatise on geometrical sculpture. You see, I thought I was simply expressing myself, but in my unconscious I was adhering to fairly rigid and predictable geometrical precepts. I didn’t know yet what I had inside me, and so I had started from a limited, analytical, circumscribed basis. Later, there was Cubism, and the ideas, the theories helped me make my steps with more courage. But, as I said, I was taking precautions. Finally—and this wasn’t till much later —I began to feel disturbed, handicapped by these formulas. I felt they had become like taboos. I thought a lot about it, and I realized, after all, it’s my eye that must choose. And slowly I began to trust only my eye, to be more self-reliant. But it was cumulative; it took a long time to acquire that freedom.
A: Yet this idea of trusting your eye—it sounds so basic.
L: But you have to learn it. When you start out, you can be so distracted by particulars, by techniques. For example, forty years ago I worked out a new technique for making what came to be called “transparent sculptures.” Everyone said it was great because I was the first one to do this, and I was as proud as if I’d just invented a way of wearing a glove upside down. But later, only later, I realized that the important thing about my “transparents” wasn’t the technique; quite the contrary. And this realization made me humbler, and therefore stronger, because it took my eye off the technique and put it only on the sculpture.
T had to free my eye to see— the sculpture. And that’s why I say that an artist gets freer only as he gets older, and that a good way to judge a great artist is by judging whether his last work is the best.
A: You say you feel freest now, at seventy-nine. Do you also feel your current work is the best?
L: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know. T can’t judge myself, not at the moment. Yes, I have more confidence in my eye, in my hand—but if my work is good, if it’s bad, I don’t know— and I don’t care! I don’t think about it. I just love doing it. It’s such a joy, every minute. Like —when you are making love, you don’t think about the child that may come out of it.
A: Is that how you feel about making this monument?
L: Yes, yes. Tt’s so new, so big. It’s passionate, marvelous. I tell you, I’ve never felt as euphoric as I feel right now.
A: If experience, age, has made you freer in your art, has it changed you in your outlook too?
L: People expect old men to say they’ve mellowed. Actually, it’s true. When I was young, I was categorical, arbitrary in my attitudes. Like Analytical Cubism; then I thought the greatest thing about art was that it was man-made, not natural. I remember going to the first Futurist Exhibition and seeing Boccioni’s sculpture The Development of a Bottle in Space. I was very impressed by it, the theories behind it, and it helped me make certain steps with more courage.
Now, I know Boccioni’s bottle is stupid. A bottle is man-made; it doesn’t “develop”—that’s just an abstract idea. Two years ago, I saw another bottle. It was found in the lava at the foot of a volcano, and the fantastic heat had turned it into something as pliant as a flower. It had turned back into a natural thing. And this metamorphosis—the bottle turning into a flower from the heat—was so much more natural, and beautiful.
A: But ideas like the Futurists’, which you find unnatural, analytical, abstract, repeat themselves in cycles even today.
L: Yes, that’s true. In cycles. I’m old enough, you know, to know it goes in cycles. Yesterday you asked me whether, looking around me, any new things that are happening take me by surprise. My feeling is, no. No, there’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s the wonderful part. There’s only more of it. □