“If Jacques Lipchitz is not the most overrated sculptor of the twentieth century,” sniped art historian Barbara Rose, “he is certainly in the running.” It was 1972 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, Jacques Lipchitz: His Life in Sculpture seemed “to go on endlessly,” for Rose. Like so many “miles of stuffed kishka,” all the sculptor’s “bulges, lumps, nodules and protrusions” left her with “a bad case of esthetic indigestion.”
There had been a time when such words would have devastated Lipchitz. But the elder artist—Lipchitz turned 80 the year before—had learned long before even the most damning critical reviews had value. When starting out in Paris, another critic had written: “We have a newcomer by the name of Jacques Lipchitz, who is very promising, but [his artwork] looks too much like that of [Charles] Despiau.” Lipchitz hadn’t studied with Despiau and, in fact, had never even seen his work. Telling an older friend of this “injustice,” Lipchitz heard back: “My boy if you get such criticism every day for a year’s time, you will be famous.”
And so it was. By 1972, even through her indigestion, Rose admitted Lipchitz was “widely considered a major artist.” His role in the development of modernism had been undeniable. Lipchitz had seen the salons of Paris in the 1910s and 1920s. He had forged the avant garde with friends and acquaintances including Constantin Brancusi, Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, André Derain, Ernest Hemingway, Max Jacob, Le Corbusier, James Joyce, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine. He socialized with and sculpted Gertrude Stein. He sold his art to Albert Barnes.
To television producer Bruce Bassett, who had met the artist in 1967, Lipchitz’ life was a heck of a story, one worth telling in a documentary, but even more. “I wanted to share him with the future,” wrote Bassett in an unpublished essay, My Life with Jacques Lipchitz. “And since I was in media, I began to think of a way of doing it. One way was to do a film [Portrait of an Artist: Jacques Lipchitz] which ran on PBS. But what about the rest of the material? Another 400 hours was going to go on the shelf, and no one would see it.” Bassett envisioned “a machine,” a computer, that would allow Lipchitz to interact “with future audiences about his work, his ideas…”
He talked over the project with the artist. “There is a new machine coming,” said Bassett. “It is not here yet, Jacques, but it will be. I am conceiving your life as a mosaic of experiences. Each chip might represent a sculpture you created, pieces you collected, your relationships with your fellow artists, the tension in Europe that you survived, changes in the direction of your work, et cetera. Our new machine would instantaneously match people’s questions to the appropriate chips of your story. Our machine would make it possible for people to talk to our mosaic of your life.”
The idea “intrigued” Lipchitz, who, in his day, was no stranger to the cutting edge. “When we first came to Paris early in the century,” he responded to Bassett,” we looked around to see what was…happening in other fields. It was the machine age. Man was flying. … God did not give man wings on which he could fly, but man through his imagination found a way. … So we artists had to create monsters. But we had to create them so well that if Mother Nature looked over our shoulder to see what we were doing, she could say, ‘Look what man had gone off and done! He is cutting himself from my apron-strings to assume his own special adolescence.'”
The interviews, hundreds of hours of them, were completed not long after Lipchitz’s 80th birthday in 1971, just in time to include in the Metropolitan retrospective. The museum created “a special educational installation that makes use of the most up-to-date audio visual techniques.” Sculptures were “accompanied by Mr. Lipchitz’s own words, telling the story behind their creation, their place in the evolution of his style, and the ideas that inspired them.”
Critic Barbara Rose found the mix of artwork and video far from inspiring. As she saw it, the Met had concocted “some ghastly media experiment, ill-advisedly funded by IBM,” where “television sets with The Master in living color expounding on his art” littered the galleries. Rose found “the voice of Lipchitz resounding thought the show…an idiotic distraction.”
Lipchitz died the following May and Bassett spent the rest of his own life—he died in 2009—searching for a museum or a broadcaster to embrace his and Lipchitz’s creation. As computing evolved and the Internet grew up, the project seemed less futuristic and more plausible. Finally, in 2012, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with its own collection of 153 Lipchitz sculptures, mounted what Bassett and Lipchitz had envisioned more than four decades before.
Go ahead. Ask Jacques Lipchitz a question. There’s nearly no end to the stories he’s ready to share with you.