American-born sculptor Richard Lippold (born 1915) was best known as a pioneer of openwork sculpture and as a major force in the resurrection of the Constructivist tradition in the United States. Frequently associated with the early years of the New York School, Lippold's style is noteworthy for its marriage of technology and humanistic content.
Richard Lippold was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 3, 1915. Following the example of his father, he pursued his studies in industrial design at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Art Institute from 1933 to 1937. Alongside work toward his B.F.A., Lippold engaged seriously in music and dance throughout the 1930s. His first employment (from 1937 to 1941) was as an industrial designer for the firm Cherry-Burrell Corporation, at which time he was also engaged in considerable freelance work. Lippold married Louise Greuel in 1940, also the year he began a long teaching career with a position at the University of Michigan. It was here that Lippold first became seriously interested in sculpture. In his style, derived largely from his engineering training, he was naturally drawn to the outstanding exponents of Constructivism: Gabo, Pevsner, Moholy-Nagy, and others. He undertook little or no formal training in the arts, strictly speaking, at this time or at any time subsequently.
In 1942 Lippold moved to New York City where he began realizing the kind of sculpture that characterized his oeuvre throughout his life. Lippold was one of the first American sculptors to advocate work incorporating, rather than displacing or occupying, space. Mass gave way to considerations of time and space, and his preference for media veered toward industrial materials—rods and wires, often held in place by tension. He was one of the first to experiment with the idea of kinetic sculpture and also paid uncommon attention to the role of the spectator's movement in the animation of his work.
From 1945 to 1947, Lippold taught at Goddard College, Vermont, a period during which his work was first included in a major group exhibition, "Origins of Modern Sculpture" at the Detroit Art Institute in 1946, and in which he received his first one-man show at the Willard Gallery, New York, in 1947. Lippold stayed with this gallery, with only brief interruptions, for the rest of his life. Such were the beginnings of what quickly became an extensive exhibition record both in America and abroad. Throughout these years, from 1947 to 1952, Lippold was art department chairman at Trenton Junior College, New Jersey, and also taught part-time, through 1948, at Queens College, New York.
The extent of Lippold's innovations can be measured by the fact that he was appointed artist-in-residence at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948. By this time he was considered an important figure among the first-generation New York School artists and was one of the few sculptors to take his place alongside such venerated painters as de Kooning, Pollock, Gottlieb, Rothko, and others of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Lippold was represented in both the 1947 and the 1948 Whitney Annuals and the 1948 San Paolo Bienal. His presence was felt in New York as a moderate counter to the domination of Surrealist sources—by which he was, however, somewhat influenced, especially in his content, if not so much in his form.
Lippold's first major commission (1950) was arranged by Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius for the Harvard University Graduate Law School. An out-of-doors construction, it is typical of Lippold's alignment of his work with architecture and urban design and is, broadly speaking, environmental in many of its intentions. His stature in American art secured, Lippold was included in the Museum of Modern Art's famous exhibition "Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America" (1951), mounted by A. C. Ritchie—the exhibition by which it is frequently adjudged that the New York School had "made it." Although not involved as a teacher, Lippold was selected as moderator for the first day of the "Artists' Sessions at Studio 35, " a three-day affair which reflected on the history of the "Subjects of the Artist" school and on the nature and development of the New York School in general. The proceedings of the sessions were published in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt, Modern Artists in America (1951) and include some of Lippold's most revealing statements concerning his art and the art of his contemporaries.
Winner of many prestigious prizes throughout this period, Lippold taught at Hunter College, New York, from 1952 to 1965. It was early in this period that he received another major commission, this time from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The work was entitled "Variation within a Sphere, No. 10: The Sun." A severely geometric tension piece composed of gold wires, it is remarkable in its complexity, based largely in the movement of the spectator around the piece. The work dates from 1954 to 1956 and was followed in 1962 by a commission for the Pan American Building entitled "Flight." Although his style did not alter fundamentally in the later part of his career, it did admit of subtle and complicated variation. His work remained fresh and stood as an important dimension of contemporary American sculpture, influencing such younger sculptors as Kenneth Snelson.
Among the works he did under commission were the sculptures for the King of Saudi Arabia at the King's palace and for the National Air and Space Museum (both in 1976), at a major Shinto Temple in Japan in 1982, in the Park Avenue Atrium Building (also in 1982) and a 16-story outdoor work in Seoul, South Korea, in 1983. He also had exhibitions at Venice Biennale in 1988 and at the Haggerty Museum in his birthplace of Milwaukee in 1990. Besides his numerous awards and prizes, Lippold's work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and many other of America's premier museums. Lippold lived and worked in Locust Valley, New York, in the 1980s.
Considering Richard Lippold's stature in the history of recent American sculpture, there is an astounding paucity of literature on the artist's work. Subject of neither a monograph nor an ambitious catalogue, discussion of the artist and his work is confined almost exclusively to the periodical literature. The reader is advised to consult the Art Index for articles and the available general histories of modern American sculpture for his work's historical context. One catalogue, Richard Lippold 1952-1962, Willard Gallery (1962), is useful for its list of Lippold's exhibitions, honors, and awards and for various statements by the artist. Lippold has been the subject of a television film, The Sun.