No artist was more aware of the power and pathos of the human body, its ability to evoke the most primal of emotions from us, than Alina Szapocznikow. It’s no surprise then, that the Museum of Modern Art’s expansive solo exhibition, Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture Undone 1955-1972, reveals her supreme talent at “undoing” the human figure into shapes of her own imagining. But that’s not all. It also shows how the body of her inspiration — her own fragile contour — became her tragic undoing.

Nearly 40 years after her untimely death in 1973, at age 47, her permanent place in art history is still tentative. Though long celebrated in her native Poland, MoMA has mounted one of the first large-scale and overdue surveys outside of her own country, concentrating in particular on the mid-60s and early-70s. This postwar period was rife with a controversial jumbling of styles, from Surrealism, the Nouveau Réalisme in France, to the explosion of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art on our own shores. In the exhibition notes, Szapocznikow states the aim of the artist is to “exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage.” Abandoning a traditional approach, she used new and unorthodox materials in her sculptural search, frequently using castings from her own body — lips, breasts, and legs, for example — in fragmentary and provocative ways.

After traversing a long, dimly lit hallway with blowup photo stills — one of her cavernous studio in Malakoff, near Warsaw, another at the Querceta quarries in Italy — the visitor enters the first room of the exhibit. You immediately find yourself confronting a beautiful bronze sculpture from 1956 in the classical tradition. Titled Difficult Age, it gives us the graceful but defiant hand-on-hip stance of a young adolescent woman. The elegance of the lines is reminiscent of a Degas dancer, but the elongated neck and forceful ponytail is at once a jarring introduction to the surreal objectification of the body to come in later work.

Strolling away, you will not have to wait long to leave tradition behind. The eye is quickly drawn to a plaster cast of the artist’s leg (Noga, Leg, 1962). Though a fleshy embodiment in the thigh and calf, it is not at all idealized in the reworking; even the configuration of toes is all too human. It seems somehow abandoned, a discarded object in its facing-down position. Another hallway introduces us to Naga (Naked), a life-size, highly-distorted sculpture, tottering Giacometti-like on a spindly leg, the head flattened into a shape resembling an elephant’s ear. The process of fragmentation is well underway.

These works, prior to her move from Warsaw to Paris, anticipate her passion for experimentation with such materials as polyester resin, polyurethane, and plastic cement. Her readiness to embrace such innovation was a brave step. This exhibit in particular would have benefitted greatly by placing some of Szapocznikow’s key works in context with notes or photographs of contemporaries who shared some of her own obsessions. Eva Hesse, for example, was a true soul-sister. A German Jew, she fled Nazi Germany for America, exploring organic and sexual themes through industrial or everyday “found” materials. A Polish colleague of Szapocznikow’s, Zofia Rydet’s photo collages with mannequin imagery became an early feminist critique of gender. Later, the American sculptor Lynda Benglis, born in 1941, was celebrated for her poured latex sculptures and use of polyurethane and even aluminum. Today’s younger audiences are bound to be less aware of just how revolutionary it was to upend the traditional art world’s ideas of what constituted the proper mediums of creation.

By the time Szapocznikow created Goldfinger in 1965, named after the early James Bond film where a woman is killed by having her entire body covered in gold-leaf paint; it seemed as if her experimentation had no boundaries. In truth, this gold patinated cement display of two spread-eagled, leg-like shapes, with readymade car parts where the female genitalia would be, might have been less shocking in its day if a male artist had conceived it. One has only to look at surrealist Max Ernst’s painting of The Teetering Woman, a mechanical assemblage with pistons protruding from the subject’s head from 1923, to see the male ease at utilizing the female body as object.

In the catalogue introduction accompanying the exhibit, the curators Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska quote Niki de Saint Phalle, a key member of the Nouveaux Réalistes. She was also a woman who was incorporating menacing industrial-made objects into her work, paralleling the efforts of Szapocznikow. Dissatisfied with her mother and aunts as a child, de Saint Phalle abhorred the idea of being another “guardian of the hearth.” She “wanted the world and the world then belonged to MEN.” Fortunately for Szapocznikow, one man, Marcel Duchamp, the master of the enigmatic himself, recommended Goldfinger’s creator for a $2,000 grant — a generous vote of support at the time.

Szapocznikow had a lighter, more playful self that this exhibit shows to full advantage. One display offers a whimsical lineup of her Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) pieces. Red-lipped mouths of colored polyester resin teeter on their crane-necked bases, a real come-on tease to the viewer. Another enticing example of disembodied sexuality is her Petit Dessert I, which serves up another upturned mouth, swimming in what appears to be an egg custard on a glass plate. Less appealing but highly-charged is The Bachelor’s Ashtray, featuring a broken cast of a woman’s face, topped with an array of cigarette butts. Are they commercial, political or Pop-inspired? Yes, but these objects can also elicit a sense of something foreboding, even illicit in our response to them.

But the darker, more profound sides of this artist are yet to come.

The most important and revelatory experiments are housed in a large, brightly lit and open space holding works of every size and shape, covering countertops, walls, and floors. It’s easy enough to amble about, hesitating in front of individual works of one’s choice, even if many of the pieces seem arbitrarily placed. A background color scheme of chalk white and pale yellow prevails, suitable to a playroom — a happy house of horrors. It’s an interesting, even ironic design decision, acting as a counterpoint to the sober and sometimes grotesque examples of the body as disparate, even disintegrating parts.

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