“All Art is Conceptual, but WOW!” Donald Lipski in conversation with Joyce Beckenstein
Donald Lipski’s SPOT (2018), a jaw-dropping 24 foot-high Dalmatian balancing an actual taxicab on its nose, sits outside Hassenfield Children’s Hospital at NYU-Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. How did this artist, well known for breaking his own rules or for working with no rules whatsoever, transition from a studio sculptor to one devoting himself to commissioned public art projects? As I would find out, for Lipski, a fabricated monumental public sculpture is really no different from his more familiar installations made of found objects, surreal wall-hung glass-handled axes, or necklaces with fish swimming inside them.
JOYCE BECKENSTEIN: I was always captivated by your early, incredibly modest sculptures made from things like twigs, bottle caps, and rubber bands. What started this fascination with the mundane and when did your “this is art” light go on?
DONALD LIPSKI: Ever since I was a kid I was making things out of whatever was around: taking apart a leaf, peeling the flesh off the veins; twisting a paperclip into a knot. When I got to graduate school at Cranbrook I started saving these things, thinking they had something to do with making art.
Funny how second nature that is to you: as we speak you’re playing with three pieces of string, winding them around one another.
This string fell off our deck’s sisal rug—I’ve done similar pieces as bracelets for my wife Terri.
Beyond your intuitive play with things, who and what else shaped your art education?
I didn’t think seriously about making art until graduate school. I was a history major at the University of Wisconsin. But somehow I took this ceramics course with the legendary potter, Don Reitz. I was hooked. At Cranbrook, I learned from Richard DeVore and Michael Hall to trust myself, to learn by just doing.
Robert Morris’s Notes on Sculpture influenced me, though at the time I found it questionable when he said that he was as happy working with tools and materials as he was sitting at a typewriter. But now I understand it. When I’m in front of a computer designing large-scale art I am just as focused as I was making things as a kid. John Baldessari was a big influence: His Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (1973), knocked me out! He also had a picture of a stump of a pencil and he wrote that it had something to do with art. I took that literally.
Your success was nothing short of phenomenal: an exhibition at MoMA by age 30. How did that come about?
Soon after I moved to New York in 1978, I had a show at Artist’s Space of thousands of my little sculptures pinned to the walls. I called the work Gathering Dust. Some MoMA curators saw it, loved it, and invited me to have a show. After that I was invited all over the place.
By the time you were doing this work many thought there was little that others from Duchamp to Warhol hadn’t already done with the object. Did that pose issues for you? How did your work add to the conversation?
Really? What can be done with objects is endless. I was fearless and blew away questions like that. One critic accused me of a Jimmy Stewartesque attitude: “Aw shucks, I’m just doing stuff,” but that is really what I was doing all those years. In 1990 at Pilchuck (Glass School) they nicknamed me ‘What If” because I would say, “What if we took this stick and put in molten glass, or what if we take molten glass and spill it in the stump of a tree?” Then, we’d find out.
You soon progressed from making palm-sized objects to making much larger works. What happened after Gathering Dust?
I was invited to Varna to show Gathering Dust in a US State Department International Contemporary Art exhibition, The Artist at Work in America, (1981). Bulgaria was a Soviet Bloc country at the time and while hanging out with local artists in the Artist’s Union, I learned that they worked with a tight set of rules. When I got back, I somehow threw out all the rules I had for myself. I had brought home a cast iron dumbbell I found and used it to replace the receiver on my dead home phone, then moved the work to the middle of an otherwise empty studio floor. Over the next months, that floor filled up. Tribeca was rapidly changing from factories and warehouses to living lofts at the time, and I started collecting things abandoned along Canal Street, fantastic things found in dumpsters—paintbrush handles, old ledger books, abandoned tools. I lugged them all up to my sixth-floor walk-up on Greenwich Street and used them to make the sculptures in the series Passing Time (1981), so titled because that is all I knew about what I was doing at the time.
Where did you put all this stuff you collected?
I took Louise Bourgeois ’s advice to young artists: “Get lots of storage,” and in 1983 moved into a huge studio—an old theater—in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a cavernous drive-in space. I was always attracted to obsolete things and I could now take “fertile” objects and, with no plan, really, amass this palette. It was effortless because I had this huge storage space.
Your eclectic arrangements of unrelated art objects contain many references to minimalist sculpture, and so much of your work proceeds along conceptualist lines. This is especially true of Building Steam (1982-87), a mash of minimalist, surreal and conceptual forms. How did this pared-down art coalesce within your much larger, complex installations?
I was deeply influenced by the minimalists and by conceptual art. Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, and others who used mundane and neutral materials moved me. Yet what was showing up in my studio was anything but. Though I often explored the repetition of simple objects, they were hardly neutral. There was, for example, the shit-load of razorblades I found and then used exclusively for The Starry Night (1994) at Capp St. Projects in San Francisco: 20,000 blades sliced right into the sheetrock, making patterns like magnetic fields. The blades seemed to disappear as you walked past them and saw them edgewise, but you would see their shadows which had more substance than the blades.
And conceptual art?
I think all art is conceptual, but Wow! The physical impact of those razorblades was breathtaking. Sometimes the conceptual is paramount. I once gave a blackboard performance at Cranbrook—I wrote, “Prove: √2 is an irrational number,” something I remembered from algebra class that impressed me as a kind of beauty I hadn’t known. You start by assuming it’s a rational number, and when you work it through, you contradict yourself.
I believe you’re saying that there was something beautiful in the flow of that proof that for you resonates with the oddly poetic relationships you find when you pick up two things, not rationally related, and put them together.
It is like a poet who puts surprising words together. Something wonderful happens. I wrap a rubber band around a safety pin to make something that’s more than the two things taken separately; or broken glass spilling out of a circle of buckets (Free Reef, 1987), or a crystal ball placed on a telephone (Building Steam #3170,1985).
You often talk about your work in terms of making things beautiful, and there is an uneasy beauty about razor blades sliced right into sheetrock walls. How do you define beauty in your works?
I don’t define it.
But can you talk around it?
(laughs) Ok, I made Water Lilies #32 (1990) that ended up at the Corcoran Gallery. I made it from glass tubes filled with roses floating in a preservative solution, sealed with stainless steel fittings— a beautiful piece. Years of exposure to sunlight turned the liquid a tea-color and bleached out the roses. Eventually everything turned black and opaque. The sculpture looked like a solid piece of stone, not glass, which I thought was particularly beautiful. But the Corcoran asked me to rebuild it. I did, putting it back into pristine form. I liked seeing it as it was on the day it was made. And I enjoy knowing that someday it’ll turn black again. We all die.
Serendipity and intuition fuel most of what you do,yet you did go through a particularly political phase. Will you talk about that?
Not much of my work is blatantly political, except the flag pieces that I made on the eve of the Gulf War. In 1989 many ideologues were pushing for an anti-desecration flag amendment and I thought that was a laughably stupid idea. So when The Fabric Workshop and Museum asked me to work with them I said, “Ok, let’s do a flag show—which became the series Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue? (1990). Their artisans made mountains of flags for me, and they hooked me up with the Humphrey Flag Co. in Philadelphia that gave me bolts of uncut flag fabric. I used the flags the way I use any other material: I wove together the stripes, wound them around tools, bound them into books, and rolled them into balls. I made a huge flag ball, eight feet in diameter with slick nylon flags.When the show came down, I wanted to soften it up, so I asked Hillwood Gallery at C.W. Post College if I could keep it on the grounds where it would weather. After two years it became more and more faded and fragile, more and more moving and beautiful. It was slated for a show at the Whitney. But after a news conference during which Representative Peter King protested the piece, someone slashed it to pieces with a box cutter. It was still bright on the inside, like an eviscerated deer, and there was something compelling about the insanity of someone who, presumably thought I was disrespecting the flag, attacking flags with a knife.
You rely on others to produce many of your large-scale works. For someone who’s “hand” is so apparent, is this difficult? How did this come about?
Organically. Things would come up: using seamstresses for the flag works, or working with companies like Verdin Bell for my installation, The Bells (1991). When I moved from New York to Houston in 1992, I unloaded all the things I had amassed in my studio and dumped them in the Grand Lobby of the Brooklyn Museum for an exhibition, Pieces of Strings Too Short To Save (1993)—eight truckloads of odd and wonderful things: masonite packing cases for artillery shells, giant ceramic funnels, an old amusement park ride, and hard candy packed for fall-out shelters. Once all those things were gone, my art started happening more in my mind, and that went hand in hand with my discovering the computer.
What was the first public work?
Tom Finklepearl, back then the director of the art program for New York’s schools, invited me to create a sculpture for a new school in Washington Heights. I came up with The Yearling (1993), a life-sized horse looking out from atop a giant child’s chair. But the people in Washington Heights, a Dominican neighborhood, did not embrace the piece. A Yeshiva across the street had fought the building of the school for years. One man had offensively said, “Why spend good money to educate animals?” It was mentioned that the horse was a symbol of oppression for the Dominicans, since the conquistadores had horses. It wasn’t going to happen. My first lesson in public art. The Yearling wound up outside the children’s wing of the Denver Public Library.
Yet you kept at it.
Some clients are great. Others are skittish, or afraid of appearing foolish. But if the situation is good and the budget is adequate, I will work through it. Listening is important. Learning about a situation makes the art better. An example is my recent installation, SPOT (2018), for the Hassenfield Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Medical Center. The piece is a 24’ tall Dalmatian balancing an actual New York City taxicab on its nose. My original presentation featured a teddy bear cuddling a taxicab, a toy holding a real object as a toy. Everyone loved the idea, but as I talked with the staff, one doctor said the teddy bear seemed a bit babyish. That got me thinking: I had only thought about the kids as my audience, yet about 1000 people work there, and it’s for them too. The big dog, rather than the cute teddy bear, conveyed nobility and the attributes of a great doctor: focus, patience, skill, sweetness. It was a better piece because I was listening.
The scale of “SPOT” makes a big impact, but more compelling, I believe, is the way in which you think of scale metaphorically. Here—as you did with The Yearling—you approach the subject through the lens of a small child for whom the world looks huge. But on another level, the scale of childhood—sick children in particular—is psychologically huge, and that is something that resonates in the work. Scale and proportion play a likewise compelling role for the piece you did in Boston for The Cathedral Church of St Paul, The Ship of Pearl (2013).
The church, built 200 years ago as a Greek Revival temple, was a prominent edifice on Boston Commons until surrounding buildings dwarfed it. A planned pediment sculpture was never completed. I was commissioned to design one. I wanted to work with the proportions of the Greek Temple, and those proportions derive from the Golden Section, a mathematical ratio that the Greeks considered to be “divine” because it exists throughout nature and, when applied to architecture and sculpture, it produces dynamic symmetries that the ancients associated with the promise of a harmonious universe. This brought me to a slice of chambered nautilus shell that now completes the pediment. Its “golden spiral,” so evocative of all that is harmonious, represents a spiritual presence that is not religious. This was important because, while this is the cathedral for the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, it is wildly welcoming. It hosts Chinese and Muslim congregations. They have regular services for the homeless. It is truly a sanctuary for everyone.
All these wonderful projects must give you an enormous amount of satisfaction, but as I notice that you’ve now completed the delightful little woven charm you started when we began our conversation, I wonder— do you miss the hands-on experience of working alone in the studio.
Oh, I do get my hands dirty from time to time. My studio is again filled with things. There is for me no real difference between what I did then and what I do now. I do it for me. Yes, I listen to clients. Yes, I work with budgets, engineers, and architects. But it’s so satisfying. Instead of my palette being the physical objects in front of me, it’s anything I can imagine. I’ve found great people to work with. It’s like magic—I dream something up, and bang, it’s there!