What could be more apt than celebrating the wonderful career of Marvin Lipofsky with a special exhibition coordinated by Duane Reed for SOFA Chicago? Besides the usual reason—he deserves it!—there are further intriguing factors here that link this artist and this venue. Marvin Lipofsky and SOFA Chicago share a lot of interesting similarities that can enrich our sense of both artist and art fair.
To begin with, Chicago. Both Marvin Lipofsky and SOFA Chicago can claim that city as their place of birth (sort of). SOFA Chicago has been a significant art fair in Chicago since 1994 and has literally come to maturity here, as did Marvin Lipofsky. He was born and raised in Barrington, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago, and subsequently attended the University of Illinois in downstate Champaign/Urbana for his BFA, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his MFA, where he studied under Harvey Littleton. While Lipofsky is universally recognized today as a significant California artist, where he has lived and worked since 1964, his roots are Midwestern, and every visit he makes to SOFA Chicago is a chance for him to come home, and this project an opportunity for SOFA Chicago to celebrate one of our own.
SOFA Chicago and Marvin Lipofsky, as central aspects of their being, also without hesitation offer glass as a sculptural medium of the very highest sort, as a vehicle of artistic expression that has for a generation now etched a significant chapter in contemporary art. As an artist Lipofsky has delved into the special sculptural and optical nature of glass, made a virtue out of the collegial nature of its fabrication into sculpture, and, as we’ll see, been an ambassador throughout the world for its dissemination while remaining observant of local traditions. SOFA Chicago has become, of course, one of the major platforms for gallery owners who specialize in representing sculptors who work in glass and other materials to meet their collector base, and SOFA Chicago is today the central convening point for practitioners and enthusiasts for glass. In countless panel discussions, exhibitions, workshop demonstrations and the like, SOFA Chicago has become an active player in our understanding of glass as a sculptural medium.
And SOFA Chicago and Marvin Lipofsky also share a determined internationalism. Last year, for example, galleries from Italy, Turkey, Korea, Norway, Australia, Israel, Argentina, Belgium, Japan, France, Canada, Germany, England and Scotland exhibited at SOFA Chicago, as did galleries from all over the US. That’s great, and it reflects the degree to which the art market is a global phenomenon. Marvin Lipofsky, though, was global before global was hip, and to date has fabricated sculpture in glass in 21 countries as well as at dozens of sites in the US, and the peripatetic nature of his inquiry has become a great part of his legend.
After all, with the possible exception of Leroy Neiman, no visual artist has probably traveled more as a fundamental part of the creation of his or her work than Marvin Lipofsky. Lipofsky is certainly a road warrior who has worked hot glass in China and the Czech Republic and just about everywhere in between. Beginning in the 1970s Lipofsky began to use the invitations he received to visit hot shops abroad and around the US (in his role as a distinguished practitioner and professor at a series of schools in California) as central activities in the fabrication of his work. He visited those hot shops, and instead of seeing that as a kind of extracurricular respite, Lipofsky fine-tuned it into how he creates the raw material for the sculptures he’ll complete in California. Instead of a few days Lipofsky usually stays on site a week or so, and has his hosts prepare a group of wooden molds and forms he’ll use to work the hot blown glass to his desired ends. Then Lipofsky shows up in Bulgaria or New Orleans (he’s done both), assembles a crew from students or the faculty or glass workers there, and gets to it. He enjoys the unpredictability of this working environment on the road; it’s like jamming with a new set of musicians at a new venue each time, and Lipofsky gets refreshed by the techniques of his temporary collaborators, by local concerns and traditions, and somehow the milieu of his experiences of that place, be it Poland or New Zealand (yes, he’s done both) is somehow imbued into the work he begins there. The hot glass is blown and then the wooden implements begin to do their work, ceaselessly bending and molding the taffy-like glass toward his desired ends. He makes the glass bubble into something Baroque, cursive and mellifluous, concaving and convexing through space with a delight in visual restlessness. Then it’s all shipped back from Toronto or Israel (yes, both) to Berkeley, and there in his studio Lipofsky spends months doing coldwork, grinding, sandblasting, cutting, washing with acid, polishing, arranging and rearranging, all toward the final articulation of what he wants from each piece. These then get presented as groups, named for the place of their origins—The Russian Group, The Kentucky Series, The Czech Flowers, etc.--and exhibited as such (examples from each of these is on view in this exhibition in Chicago), originally somewhere around a dozen sculptures in each group.
Lipofsky is undoubtedly one of the great color field painters of contemporary art, if we’ll overlook the awkward detail that Lipofsky doesn’t make color fields and isn’t a painter. But since the 1970s he has been engaged in a wonderful and restless pursuit of the subtle and evocative possibilities in chromatics, bending and torqueing color in space, making color flow to and fro as both optical and volumetric form, plastic and curvy, sinuous and sensuous, and everywhere taking advantage of the special nature of glass to have color within it, not atop it, making color into form. He’s a hue-man, a dappler, in his work color flows and then suddenly erupts, or gets busy and then moves slowly, and the bulbous and curvy nature of his pieces invite transitioning rivulets of coursing and rippling tone. He makes color breathe while always giving it a lissome and attentive shape. Lipofsky’s sculptures are smallish, intimate in scale, something you hunker down over, filled with multiple subtleties of changeling color that shift as you move about his work and as light moves through and around it. His sculptures variously suggest sea forms, shells, jellyfish, somewhat akin to eroded aqueous or natural forms that freely seem turn in on themselves, but also invite intimations of the recesses of the body, with passages of rich interior and exterior interplay that everywhere alludes to organic origins.
This exhibition is another indication that these are honeyed days for Lipofsky, and it’s been wonderful watching him transition into a kind of eminence grise, a sage and art world veteran whose experiences and memories comprise a full history of modern sculpture in glass. It’s particularly appropriate to celebrate that journey here, where he was born and raised and educated. While it remains a good idea to keep an eye out for Lipofsky at an airport near you, let’s savor this triumph in our midst, and thank Duane Reed and SOFA Chicago for reminding us how a local lad went out into the world and made good.
(Author’s note: Some aspects of the above were first published in “Appreciation: Marvin Lipofsky” in art ltd. Magazine, May-June 2015)