“The Optimist Cubist”

The Optimistic Cubist: Jacques Lipchitz offers a wide angle on Cubism.

Jacques Lipchitz loved oil paintings. But, he confessed to Katharine Kuh, “I have no talent whatsoever for this medium.” In sculpture, of course, it was another story, which is why in November 1961, on the occasion of his 70th birthday and in advance of his upcoming retrospective, soon to open at the U.C.L.A. Art Galleries, our magazine presented a wide-ranging interview with the Lithuanian-born artist. The title was “Conclusions from an Old Cubist.”


Jaques Lipchitz in 1959. “I consider that I’m still a Cubist”
George Hoffett/ARTnews Archive

Lipchitz told Kuh, a well-known art historian, curator, and critic (who later published the interview in her 1962 book The Artist’s Voice), that he had left the observant Judaism of his childhood “because I couldn’t understand an orthodoxy which denies representation. After all, I’m a partisan of my own generation, a generation that believes representation is one of the important elements in a work of art.”

The psychological element of representation, he said, was what distinguished his portraits from those of fellow Cubists Picasso and Juan Gris. “Making a portrait is like getting married—You need to be nervously connected with your sitter,” he explained. “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t click, again just like a marriage. I feel strongly that the real aspect of the sitter cannot be eliminated from portraiture. When I was doing Gertrude Stein’s portrait (you know she didn’t like sculpture at all) we had many conflicts. The first one I did of her in 1920–21 looked like a Buddha but later in 1938 when I made another she had become so shrunken she seemed like an old rabbi.”

Though it had been many years since he had consorted in Paris with his fellow Cubists, Lipchitz told Kuh, “I consider that I’m still a Cubist.” But he thought their work had been misinterpreted by art historians.

“People don’t understand Cubism,” he said. He thought this was particularly the case regarding the influence of primitivism on Cubism. “I don’t think the Cubists were influenced by Negro art as so many people claim,” he commented. “That’s a different thing. True, we shook hands with Negro art but this was not an influence—merely an encounter. Some superficial artists were, of course, completely influenced by African forms—but the real Cubists worked with elements from their own imaginations.” For Lipchitz, “Cubism was a point of view about life, about the universe…. I have the impression that during this century humanity has reached a kind of adolescence; we’ve started to fly with our own wings, but adolescence is not maturity. That’s why I call myself the Optimistic Cubist.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

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