Friday, October 3, 2008


I recently had the great opportunity to talk with the head of the Richard Lippold Foundation, who is restoring the brilliant sculpture in Walter Gropius' Pan Am Building.  I wasn't sure if it was even still there, but he said they would remove it "over his dead body."  It's really an incredible piece, and what occurred to me is that Lippold was really doing Installation Art before there even was such a thing.  Lippold's pieces weren't sculptures created for a certain application, they were fully determined by and designed around the architectural spaces where they would be placed.  No one was doing work like this in the 1950s.

The Pan Am piece is occasionally rumored to have started out titled The World, but this is incorrect.  It was only ever known as Flight, and it's beautiful, but it's gotten extremely dusty over the years.  The golden sphere at its center got fully blackened by patina and environmental circumstances in as little as five years.  They're meticulously cleaning it up to restore it to its glorious original beauty, and hopefully improving the lighting to showcase it to its best advantage.

His The Sun was the first piece by a living artist ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1956.
When you look at it in the context of the ancient Middle-Eastern rug designs in the room where it was intended to hang, it appears to be even more brilliant: capturing the same geometric precision and complexity, but in three dimensions.  

In around 1976, it was taken down to the National Air & Space Museum in DC, where I'm fairly certain I may have seen it as a young kid.  I do distinctly remember visiting that museum, but I was probably so overwhelmed in general that I have no specific memory of this piece.  In any case, it's also being completely restored according to Lippold's original drawings and plans, and will eventually be reinstalled at the Met, allegedly.

I'm actually kind of surprised that more people don't talk about Lippold, because his work was really astonishing in a lot of ways, but evidently he rejected the commercialism of the art world in his time and the fame that might accompany it.  That attitude may have contributed to his not being more widely discussed.

I also got to see one of New York's truly hidden treasures.  It's a Lippold piece called Winged Gamma inside the Park Avenue Atrium.  
The building is somewhat bland unfortunately, but got an overhaul by Edward Durrell Stone in 1981, when the piece was installed.  Stone carved a cavernous atrium out of the center of the building, what was originally an air shaft.  In this atrium hangs this sculpture, which is twenty stories high.  It's absolutely astonishing.

I still need to see the Lippold piece hanging over the bar in Philip Johnson's Four Seasons Restaurant in Mies van der Rohe's Seagrams Building, but that's for another post.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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