Ibram Lassaw Life and Art Periods

"The sculpture itself is reality, not an interpretation of reality."


Ibram Lassaw, one of America's first abstract sculptors, was best known for his open-space welded sculptures of bronze, silver, copper and steel. Drawing from Surrealism, Constructivism, and Cubism, Lassaw pioneered an innovative welding technique that allowed him to create dynamic, intricate, and expressive works in three dimensions. As a result, he was a key force in shaping New York School sculpture.


Rather than communicating a specific idea or representation, Lassaw sought to present a structure that was meaningful purely in itself and did not intend for his works' titles to shape audience interpretation of his sculptures.
Drawing on an interest in the internal structures found in nature, cosmology, astronomy, and technological construction, Lassaw aimed to entice viewers to lose themselves within his sculptures' complex interiors. This creation and enclosure of internal space later became prevalent in Minimalist sculpture.
Through his commitment to an intuitive construction of space and unconsciously driven application of melted metals, Lassaw developed an aesthetic similar to the instinctual painting compositions of his Abstract Expressionist peers, such as Jackson Pollock, who relied on a kind of trance-like automatism to structure their compositions.
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Sculpture in Steel (1938)
After experimenting with plaster, rubber and wire, Lassaw began working with steel, which became a frequent medium for the artist, along with other metals. Sculpture in Steel, composed of biomorphic forms, reflects the important influence Surrealists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan MirĂ³ had on Lassaw. This sculpture, Lassaw's first crafted from welded sheet metal, also reveals the distinct influence of Alexander Calder's mobiles. Around this time, Lassaw was also creating shadowbox sculptures and other works shaped around similar rectangular frames, beginning to develop pieces that depended on and created empty space as a structural element.
Steel - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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Ibram Lassaw was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1913 to Russian-Jewish parents. After briefly living in Marseille, Naples, Tunis, Malta, and Constantinople, his family settled in Brooklyn, New York, in 1921. Lassaw was very interested in art from a young age and worked in clay from the age of four. He also created animals and figures using pieces of tar from the street. The history of art fascinated him, and at age 12, he started amassing an extensive collection of clippings and art reproductions, eventually filling 33 scrapbooks.


Early Training

Lassaw had his first formal training in 1927 with classes at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, which later became the Clay Club (now the Sculpture Center) taught by Dorothy Denslow. At the Clay Club until 1932, Lassaw learned modeling and casting, skills that he refined during his year at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design (1930-31).

Ibram Lassaw Biography

In 1931, he also spent a year studying at City College of New York. Continuing to expand his interest in all forms of art, he pored over many issues of the influential Cahiers d'Art, through which he learned about the art of the Cubists, Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. He became particularly interested in the use of new and unconventional materials to create artwork, as well as in the concept of sculptures that either contained or were structured by open spaces.

Mature Period

Lassaw had started to experiment with abstracted forms in the previous years, but 1933 marked a definitive shift toward open-space based abstracted sculpture. The first of these open-space sculptures were created between 1933 and 1934, made from plaster on wire armatures. Beginning in 1933, Lassaw also became involved with the Works Project Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project and similar organizations. He co-founded American Abstract Artists in 1936 and later served as the organization's president from 1946 through 1949. During this time, Lassaw was working with a broad range of materials, maintaining his interest in untraditional media, particularly those that referenced technology, such as steel and iron. His sculptures from this period ranged from ornate and baroque to rectilinear and precise. Three of his open-space works, Sculpture (aka Pot Jumping Through Hoop) (1935), Sculpture (1936), and Sing Baby Sing (1937), all made using plaster and wire, were exhibited at the first group show of the American Abstract Artists, at the Squibb Gallery, in 1937. None of these works survive.

By the late 1930s, Lassaw moved from plaster or wood on wire to sheet metal and hammered forged steel. He also created shadowbox pieces that integrated illumination. In the 1940s, he began concentrating on rectilinear shapes, but his artistic focus was interrupted by army service; from 1942 to 1944, he served in the U.S. Army in Virginia, where he learned to weld while fixing army vehicles.

Beginning in 1946, following Lassaw's discharge from the army, the artist created a series of hand-painted "projection paintings." These miniature Abstract Expressionist paintings were applied to 2x2-inch glass slides that, when viewed through a projector, cast an array of colored-light images. Unlike abstract paintings, which could be rotated on the wall and viewed from four different perspectives, Lassaw's "projections" could be rotated and turned around, offering the viewers eight different possible vantage points. By 1949, Lassaw stopped producing these paintings and devoted himself almost entirely to sculpture, but he would revisit the medium later in life.

Ibram Lassaw Photo

Lassaw's return to sculpture also marked his moving away from purely geometric shapes towards biomorphic forms. He began integrating additional media, such as plastic and Plexiglas, also adding dye to the sculptures to integrate color. In 1949, Lassaw became one of the founders of The Club, the informal, but influential, discussion forum of New York School artists that included Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. By the early 1950s, he had purchased oxyacetylene welding equipment and identified the ideal medium for his mature style: using molten metal, he created sculptures "drop by drop," a method in which the red-hot metal, brought to varying degrees of temperature and consistency, was carefully directed through a funnel-like device. The resulting product was a type of spontaneous and instinctive sculpture similar to the action painting of his New York School peers. Lassaw had his first solo exhibition in 1951 at the Kootz Gallery. That same year, he sold his first major sculpture to Nelson Rockefeller, who eventually purchased ten more Lassaw works, all of them pendants. Lassaw continued expanding his welding work, adding color by treating the metal with additives, and integrating minerals and semiprecious stones. With the help of gallery owner Samuel Kootz, who facilitated most of Lassaw's commissions, the artist regularly showed works in group shows and enjoyed almost annual solo exhibitions at the Kootz Gallery right up until the gallery's closing in 1966.

Late Period

Ibram Lassaw Portrait

Lassaw created his first public commission in 1953, Pillar of Fire for Congregation Beth-El in Springfield, Massachusetts, and completed others including a wall sculpture, Clouds of Magellan, for Philip Johnson's Glass House (1953), Pillar of Cloud for Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island (1954), a monumental sculpture for the entrance of the New Arts Building at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (1959), and Elysian Fields for the New York Hilton Hotel (1963). Having purchased land in The Springs, East Hampton, in 1954, Lassaw moved there full-time with his wife in 1962. Other New York School artists frequented the area such as de Kooning and Pollock.

Lassaw taught at Duke University, University of California, Berkeley, Southampton College, and Mount Holyoke College during the 1960s and 1970s. While sculpture was his primary art form, Lassaw also continued to produce lithographs, drawings on paper, photographs, "projection paintings," and jewelry. By the mid-1990s Lassaw's eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer weld metals, but this did not stop him from working in other media. Lassaw remained in The Springs on Long Island and continued to work, even producing paper drawings right up to the late morning of December 29, 2003, less than 24 hours before his death.


Lassaw's innovative welding techniques, manipulation of diverse materials and fascination with creating space through sculptural forms distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries and predecessors, while at the same time connected him to the aims and concepts of Abstract Expressionism. He was a crucial part of the New York School, both artistically and socially, and instrumental in garnering attention for sculptural Abstract Expressionist work.

Original content written by Rachel Gershman
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"When working on a piece of sculpture I see only the immediate reality of the particular forms and colors that confront me . . . The moment of working to me is an engagement in life. The sculpture itself is REALITY, not an interpretation of reality."

"Direct sensual experience is more real than living in the midst of symbols, slogans, worn-out plots, cliches - more real than political - oratorical art."

"I never argue with the medium."

"It's what's there, not what is implied."

"Whenever something becomes a representation, I know I must carry it farther. I want my sculpture to be only its self, not something to be looked through in order to find the associative image."

Ibram Lassaw

Ibram Lassaw Influences

Interactive chart with Ibram Lassaw's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.



The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Three American sculptors: Ferber, Hare, Lassaw

By E.C. Goossen

Ibram Lassaw, Space Explorations: A Retrospective Survey, 1929-1988

By Ibram Lassaw

Ibram Lassaw: Deep Space and Beyond

By Ibram Lassaw

Ibram Lassaw, 90, a Sculptor Devoted to Abstract Forms

By Campbell Robertson
The New York Times
January 2, 2004

'I Want My Sculpture to be Only Its Self,' Says Ibram Lassaw

By Erika Duncan
The New York Times
December 18, 1994

Ibram Lassaw: The Sculptor as Explorer

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
September 11, 1988

Perspectives and Reflections of a Sculptor: A Memoir

By Ibram Lassaw

Source of Creativity: Discussion with New York School Artists of the 1950s

Conversation with several Abstract Expressionist artists, including Ibram Lassaw

La Voce della Luna presenta Ibram Lassaw

Interview with Ibram Lassaw in Italian
July 23, 2008

Matera: Antologica dedicata all'artista USA Ibram Lassaw

June 14, 2008

public art
Elysian Fields (1963)

Hanging metal sculpture in New York Hilton Hotel
1335 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY

The Glass House (1953)

Hanging relief sculpture in Philip Johnson's Brick House
199 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT


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Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
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Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and Kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
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Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, designer, inventor and writer. He is best known for his designs of geodesic domes, such as the ones at Disney's Epcot Center and the Montreal Biosphere.

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Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez was a Catalan-Spanish sculptor and painter. His best known early works were Synthetic Cubist paintings, and later in life turned to bronze and iron welding, creating many famous abstract sculptures. In 1927 he introduced Picasso to oxy-fuel welding and cutting techniques, and became one of the artist's closest confidantes.

Modern Art Information Julio Gonzalez
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian painter, photographer and teacher at the Bauhaus School. Moholy-Nagy was influential in promoting the Bauhaus's multi- and mixed-media approaches to art, advocating for the integration of technological and industrial design elements.
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Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
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Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
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Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
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Neo-Plasticism was the guiding philosophy behind the art of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and many of his peers in the De Stijl circle. Articulated by Mondrian in 1917-18, the approach stipulates the strict use of only horizontal and vertical lines; the primary colors red, yellow, and blue; and white, gray, and black.

Modern Art Information Neo-Plasticism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
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Herbert Ferber
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Theodore Roszak
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David Smith
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Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
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Franz Kline
Franz Kline
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Sculpture in Steel
<i>Sculpture in Steel</i>

Title: Sculpture in Steel (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: After experimenting with plaster, rubber and wire, Lassaw began working with steel, which became a frequent medium for the artist, along with other metals. Sculpture in Steel, composed of biomorphic forms, reflects the important influence Surrealists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan MirĂ³ had on Lassaw. This sculpture, Lassaw's first crafted from welded sheet metal, also reveals the distinct influence of Alexander Calder's mobiles. Around this time, Lassaw was also creating shadowbox sculptures and other works shaped around similar rectangular frames, beginning to develop pieces that depended on and created empty space as a structural element.

Steel - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Milky Way
<i>Milky Way</i>

Title: Milky Way (1950)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Milky Way is notable for signaling a new direction in Lassaw's mature style. With this work, he moved away from his rigid framed forms, reminiscent of Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism, to a more organic structure. His previous efforts using wire and plaster were often unstable, but he found a more effective solution in creating Milky Way by dripping melted plastic onto wire. Noting the lack of permanence of this work, Lassaw took the crucial step toward creating similar sculptures with bronze, silver and other metals. A fan of science fiction from a young age, Lassaw titled many of his sculptures with cosmological references, such as Milky Way. Yet, he chose the majority of his titles arbitrarily, with no intention of defining the sculpture's meaning with its name.

Plastic metal composition - Denise Lassaw Collection


Title: Kwannon (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: After 1951, Lassaw began using oxyacetylene welding technique to create his works, carefully adding molten metal one drop at a time, to a base structure as in the case of Kwannon. The discovery of this "drop by drop" welding method marked a major turning point for Lassaw and it directed his work for the remainder of his career. Not only was he able to create more structurally sound compositions in space, but the method allowed for more impulsive sculptural creation analogous to the action painting of his peers. The title Kwannon refers to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, reflecting Lassaw's long-time interest in Zen Buddhism, the philosophy of which infused much of his work.

Welded bronze and silver - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Counterpoint Castle
<i>Counterpoint Castle</i>

Title: Counterpoint Castle (1957)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Lassaw continued to expand the possibilities of his direct welding technique with Counterpoint Castle, directing the viewer's eye to both his labyrinthine structure and the empty space he created as a result, the latter being particularly important to his overall aims. He also paid close attention to color, relying on the metal's natural hues as well as adding acids, salts and alkaloids to create specific colors, such as the blue apparent in Counterpoint Castle. This work also reflects the juxtaposition of varied shapes in his metal creations; here he produced both extremely thin and thick sections. In later works, he developed these into heavier tubes and boxes.

Bronze and copper - Denise Lassaw Collection

<i>Banquet </i>

Title: Banquet (1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Banquet exemplifies Lassaw's structural use of forged metal alone, without an underlying structure, to produce even more spontaneously created sculptures. As Lassaw has written, "The work is a 'happening' somewhat independent of my conscious will.. The work uses the artist to get itself born." When building such sculptures, he had no final form in mind; in a way, he allowed the sculpture to construct itself. However, the figurative reference to coral reefs made the works in this series far more representational than the majority of his other sculptures.

Bronze - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Continuity #1
<i>Continuity #1</i>

Title: Continuity #1 (1979)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In addition to the sculptural works for which he is primarily known, Lassaw also produced many drawings, lithographs and works on canvas and paper, much of which demonstrated a spatial interest similar to that of his three-dimensional works. The forms created by empty space in Continuity #1 are as important, if not more important, than the lines themselves. Here, as in many of his works, Lassaw combined geometric and biomorphic shapes, drawing the viewer's eye into the maze-like composition.

Screenprint - The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.