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Richard Lippold

By John M. Johansen

Richard Lippold was, I believe, one of America’s most innovative and evocative sculptors. His installations open up for us space defined not by material form but by segments of line alive with energy and light. His immense constructions commissioned for major buildings reach beyond the spaces that they physically occupy. They imply and point to infinity, as if to signal us toward a sacred dimension

He can be considered a true original in that he conceived and devised a new art form of gilded rods and tensioned wire audaciously rigged across public spaces.

This, from a quiet man. By nature, modest and introverted. He worked silently in a large studio remodeled from a stable in Locust Valley, Long Island. His favorite diversions were playing on a great pipe organ, especially designed for him; also, tinkering with a vintage car, a 1925 Franklin. Contrary to his quiet nature, however, he could at times be garrulous.

Richard’s first break was the purchase, in 1950, of his major work, “Full Moon,” by the Museum of Modern Art. He was to be the most sought after among those known as “architectural sculptors.” In spite of a period of relative obscurity in the 1960s he was soon again entrusted with large commissions. His “Winged Gamma” is 224 feet long, 20 feet high and weighs 3 tons. Another work was made with 2 miles of 22-karat gold-plated wire with some 14,000 connections, hand welded by a crew of assistants, that took 3 years to complete. The innumerable pieces are each of them gilt, which, when sharply lit, reflect light from thousands of polished surfaces. The metallic material seems to dissolve into emanations of pulsing, quantum energy and light.

Certain of his riggings have striking metaphoric reference. His installation at the Four Seasons Restaurant suggests the mysterious and shifting rays of the Northern Lights. The baldacchino for St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, a cascade of light, clearly speaks of the Divine dispensation. The “Sun,” commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a huge yet delicate network suggesting dimensions transcending those of Earth into Cosmic Space. This reminds us of the great physicist, Niels Bohr, for his description of the Universe as “the Cosmic Web.”

Such works by Lippold (as of other fine artists, musicians, and poets among us in their various avenues of creative inquiry) may be considered revelations. Not revelations as the Divine might design to dispense favors, but rather as perception of the Divine through human powers.

It is these works that will always speak for Lippold’s creativity but also remind us of the man, the loner at work in his immense studio, diverted now and then by the great pipe or tinkering his vintage car; also among us here at the Academy for his garrulous good nature.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 8, 2003.

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