Lassaw, Ibram

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LASSAW, IBRAM (1913–2003), U.S. sculptor. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Russian immigrant parents, in 1921 Lassaw arrived in the United States. In 1926 he began his formal art training at Brooklyn's Children Museum. Additional study was undertaken at the Clay Club (1928–32) and the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York (1930–31). His early work in clay was figurative and conventional in appearance.

Lassaw began sculpting abstractly in 1933, making him one of the first Americans to explore nonobjective sculpture. From 1935 to 1942 he worked under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. During this time his plaster sculptures molded onto wire showed the influence of Surrealist biomorphism rendered in a geometric idiom. At times Lassaw revealed the wire armature, and he also began to apply colors to the plaster and wire. He first welded sculpture in 1938; Sculpture in Steel (1938, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) is made of a piece of sheet metal topped by a thin iron frame. Several biomorphic shapes of hammered and brazed steel project from the open metal frame, and another shape is welded to the base of the work.

While serving in the United States Army from 1942 to 1944, Lassaw learned how to weld with an oxyacetylene torch, a technique that would later influence his signature style. Upon Lassaw's return to New York, his sculpture became increasingly rectilinear, but it was not until he purchased his own oxyacetylene torch with the proceeds from his first oneman show at the Kootz Gallery (1951) that he could take his sculpture to the level he wanted. Lassaw retained his rectilinear format, but with the high temperature torch he added texture by liquefying and incrusting the intertwined webs of metal until his sculpture possessed tactility. From 1953 Lassaw often added colorful minerals such as quartz, and semi-precious stones such as turquoise, to his open form sculptures.

From this period on Lassaw enjoyed acclaim, including invitations to display his sculptures at the Venice Bien-nale (1954), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1956, among other years), and the Sao Paulo Bienale (1957). He also received several architectural commissions, most frequently synagogue sculpture. His hammered and welded bronze 28-foot-high Pillar of Fire (1953), a highly textured, dynamic interpretation of curling, wiry flames, is installed on the façade of Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts. Lassaw also designed a bronze menorah (1954) for the synagogue, among other interior sculptures. Other synagogues that commissioned Lassaw's work include Temple Beth El, Providence, Rhode Island; Temple B'nai Aaron, St. Paul, Minnesota; Temple Anshe Hesed, Cleveland, Ohio; and Kneses Tifereth Israel, Port Chester, New York. Lassaw made a wall sculpture for the architect Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.


E.C. Goossen, R. Goldwater, and I. Sandler, Three American Sculptors: Ferber, Hare, and Lassaw (1959); A. Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art: Developments in the United States, 19451965 (1966); Ibram Lassaw: Space Explorations, A Retrospective Survey (19291988), (1988).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]