Ibram Lassaw - Biography and Legacy
The Springs, East Hampton, New York
Biography of Ibram Lassaw
Ibram Lassaw was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1913 to Russian-Jewish parents. After briefly living in Marseille, Naples, Tunis, Malta, and Constantinople, his family settled in Brooklyn, New York, in 1921. Lassaw was very interested in art from a young age and worked in clay from the age of four. He also created animals and figures using pieces of tar from the street. The history of art fascinated him, and at age 12, he started amassing an extensive collection of clippings and art reproductions, eventually filling 33 scrapbooks.
Lassaw had his first formal training in 1927 with classes at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, which later became the Clay Club (now the Sculpture Center) taught by Dorothy Denslow. At the Clay Club until 1932, Lassaw learned modeling and casting, skills that he refined during his year at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design (1930-31).
In 1931, he also spent a year studying at City College of New York. Continuing to expand his interest in all forms of art, he pored over many issues of the influential Cahiers d'Art, through which he learned about the art of the Cubists, Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. He became particularly interested in the use of new and unconventional materials to create artwork, as well as in the concept of sculptures that either contained or were structured by open spaces.
Lassaw had started to experiment with abstracted forms in the previous years, but 1933 marked a definitive shift toward open-space based abstracted sculpture. The first of these open-space sculptures were created between 1933 and 1934, made from plaster on wire armatures. Beginning in 1933, Lassaw also became involved with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Federal Arts Project and similar organizations. He co-founded American Abstract Artists in 1936 and later served as the organization's president from 1946 through 1949. During this time, Lassaw was working with a broad range of materials, maintaining his interest in untraditional media, particularly those that referenced technology, such as steel and iron. His sculptures from this period ranged from ornate and baroque to rectilinear and precise. Three of his open-space works, Sculpture (aka Pot Jumping Through Hoop) (1935), Sculpture (1936), and Sing Baby Sing (1937), all made using plaster and wire, were exhibited at the first group show of the American Abstract Artists, at the Squibb Gallery, in 1937. None of these works survive.
By the late 1930s, Lassaw moved from plaster or wood on wire to sheet metal and hammered forged steel. He also created shadowbox pieces that integrated illumination. In the 1940s, he began concentrating on rectilinear shapes, but his artistic focus was interrupted by army service; from 1942 to 1944, he served in the U.S. Army in Virginia, where he learned to weld while fixing army vehicles.
Beginning in 1946, following Lassaw's discharge from the army, the artist created a series of hand-painted "projection paintings." These miniature Abstract Expressionist paintings were applied to 2x2-inch glass slides that, when viewed through a projector, cast an array of colored-light images. Unlike abstract paintings, which could be rotated on the wall and viewed from four different perspectives, Lassaw's "projections" could be rotated and turned around, offering the viewers eight different possible vantage points. By 1949, Lassaw stopped producing these paintings and devoted himself almost entirely to sculpture, but he would revisit the medium later in life.
Lassaw's return to sculpture also marked his moving away from purely geometric shapes towards biomorphic forms. He began integrating additional media, such as plastic and Plexiglas, also adding dye to the sculptures to integrate color. In 1949, Lassaw became one of the founders of The Club, the informal, but influential, discussion forum of New York School artists that included Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. By the early 1950s, he had purchased oxyacetylene welding equipment and identified the ideal medium for his mature style: using molten metal, he created sculptures "drop by drop," a method in which the red-hot metal, brought to varying degrees of temperature and consistency, was carefully directed through a funnel-like device. The resulting product was a type of spontaneous and instinctive sculpture similar to the Action Painting of his New York School peers. Lassaw had his first solo exhibition in 1951 at the Kootz Gallery. That same year, he sold his first major sculpture to Nelson Rockefeller, who eventually purchased ten more Lassaw works, all of them pendants. Lassaw continued expanding his welding work, adding color by treating the metal with additives, and integrating minerals and semiprecious stones. With the help of gallery owner Samuel Kootz, who facilitated most of Lassaw's commissions, the artist regularly showed works in group shows and enjoyed almost annual solo exhibitions at the Kootz Gallery right up until the gallery's closing in 1966.
Lassaw created his first public commission in 1953, Pillar of Fire for Congregation Beth-El in Springfield, Massachusetts, and completed others including a wall sculpture, Clouds of Magellan, for Philip Johnson's Glass House (1953), Pillar of Cloud for Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island (1954), a monumental sculpture for the entrance of the New Arts Building at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (1959), and Elysian Fields for the New York Hilton Hotel (1963). Having purchased land in The Springs, East Hampton, in 1954, Lassaw moved there full-time with his wife in 1962. Other New York School artists frequented the area such as de Kooning and Pollock.
Lassaw taught at Duke University, University of California, Berkeley, Southampton College, and Mount Holyoke College during the 1960s and 1970s. While sculpture was his primary art form, Lassaw also continued to produce lithographs, drawings on paper, photographs, "projection paintings," and jewelry. By the mid-1990s Lassaw's eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer weld metals, but this did not stop him from working in other media. Lassaw remained in The Springs on Long Island and continued to work, even producing paper drawings right up to the late morning of December 29, 2003, less than 24 hours before his death.
The Legacy of Ibram Lassaw
Lassaw's innovative welding techniques, manipulation of diverse materials and fascination with creating space through sculptural forms distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries and predecessors, while at the same time connected him to the aims and concepts of Abstract Expressionism. He was a crucial part of the New York School, both artistically and socially, and instrumental in garnering attention for sculptural Abstract Expressionist work.