SynopsisIbram 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 , 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.
ChildhoodIbram 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 tvelwe, he started amassing an extensive collection of clippings and art reproductions, eventually filling thirty-three scrapbooks.
Early TrainingLassaw 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 (1930-1931). 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 PeriodLassaw 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 1933-34, 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 1946-1949. 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.
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 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 PeriodLassaw 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 twenty-four hours before his death.
LegacyLassaw'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 . He was a crucial part of the New York School, both artistically and socially, and instrumental in garnering attention for sculptural Abstract Expressionist work.
Below are Ibram Lassaw's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Willem De Kooning
Years Worked: 1927 - 2003
Quotes"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."
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographyThree American sculptors: Ferber, Hare, Lassaw
WorksIbram Lassaw, space explorations: A retrospective survey, 1929-1988
Ibram Lassaw: Deep Space and Beyond
Perspectives and Reflections of a Sculptor: A Memoir
By Ibram Lassaw
Ibram Lassaw: The Sculptor as Explorer
September 11, 1988
The New York Times
By Roberta Smith
'I Want My Sculpture to be Only Its Self,' Says Ibram Lassaw
December 18, 1994
The New York Times
By Erika Duncan
Ibram Lassaw, 90, a Sculptor Devoted to Abstract Forms
January 2, 2004
The New York Times
By Campbell Robertson
La Voce della Luna presenta Ibram Lassaw
July 23, 2008
Images of Lassaw's work (in Italian)
Matera: Antologica dedicata all'artista USA Ibram Lassaw
June 14, 2008
Exhibition at San Nicola dei Greci in Matera, Italy (in Italian)
Websites about artist
Elysian Fields (1963)
Hanging metal sculpture in New York Hilton Hotel
1335 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY
|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.
ArtStory: Cubism Page
|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.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces 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 post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|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.
ArtStory: Alberto Giacometti Page
|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.
ArtStory: Alexander Calder Page
|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.
|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.
|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.
ArtStory: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Page
|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.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock Page
|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.
ArtStory: Constructivism Page
|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.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|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.
|Herbert Ferber was a 20th-century American sculptor and painter, loosely associated with the Abstract Expressionist school. Best known for his sculptural work, Ferber used welded and soldered metals to create open, abstract forms, which often evoked themes of conflict and spatial struggle.
|Theodore Roszak was a 20th-century Prussian-born American painter, sculptor, teacher and violinist. Roszak's work tended toward Constructivism then eventually Expressionism, but the majority of his work employs some form of abstraction.
|David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
ArtStory: David Smith Page
|Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg Page