Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972

Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972 

By Joanna Roche

The Hammer Museum

Perhaps it was her 1971 series Photosculptures, small-scale sculptures from chewing gum “shaped by the artist’s mouth” (and photographed by Cieslewicz) that made me realize Alina Szapocznikow could take any medium and transform it into a work of art that speaks of our own flawed and beautiful bodies, and of the nature of lived experience itself.

Most of us are new to the work of this Polish artist and Holocaust survivor. But because we know and love the work of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, there was a sense of recognition, a beloved familiarity in the exploration of Alina Szapocznikow’s work at the Hammer. But it was all new….

The body was Szapocznikow’s chosen form for expressing her deepest thoughts and experiences and her sculptures conveyed a sense of the body (mostly female) as both abject and as cherished. The artist worked in a diverse range of materials, including polyester resin, polyurethane foam, wood, gauze, and photographs (often embedded in resin). The tinted polyester resin casts of her own and others’ bodies are astonishing, “exposing her ‘exhibitionism’ (as she herself called it)…based on bringing the seldom-seen aspects of human life to view” (exhibition catalogue, 197). Szapocznikow’s casts convey at the same moment a sense of peaceful acceptance of (her/our) body and a deep melancholy—above all, we feel amazement about being human looking at her work.

Head­less Tor­so

Pho­to: © Zache­ta Nation­al Art Gal­lery

Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood)
Assemblage: colored polyester resin, photographs, gauze
16 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches
Société de l’Apostolat Catholique (Pères Pallotins), Paris
© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski /

2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Rilke’s wrote, “And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power.” This is not Apollo’s distant and classical body (Rilke’s subject in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”), but Alina’s body—and her son’s—and it is our bodies.

The artist died of cancer in 1973. Some of the most powerful works in this exhibition are pieces that engage her painful disease. Szapocznikow used her tumors as inspiration and as form for several works; they seem more intimate parts of her self than loathed things—although she knew this disease would kill her. Invasion of Tumors (1969), spherical objects in resin with embedded photographs, join rather than distance us from the artist’s body and her cancer. I silently wished that if I ever suffered as she did that I would still see my ailing body as beloved, not loathed. “You must change your life,” Rilke concludes. Alina Szapocznikow moves us to do so.

Herbier XIII, 1972 Polyester Resin

Courtesy of the National Museum, Krakow, Poland

Organized by WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, and the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, in collaboration with the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.