Richard Stankiewicz was born in 1922 in Philadelphia, although the family soon moved to Detroit, MI. In 1940, Stankiewicz graduated from Cass Technical School where he studied mechanical drafting. The following year, he enlisted in the Navy as a Radio Operator. Stationed first in the Aleutian Islands, then Hawaii, Stankiewicz spent his downtime making his first sculptures out of animal bones and other natural materials.
In 1949, Stankiewicz moved to New York and attended Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts. Here he met artist Jean Follet, and the following year the two of them traveled to Paris where Stankiewicz studied at the Atelier Fernand Léger through the G.I. Bill. In 1952, Stankiewicz helped to open the Hansa Gallery in New York with other Hofmann school students, where he would exhibit regularly until the gallery’s closure in 1959. During this time he developed his method of making sculpture from welded scrap metal, rather than plaster and wire. In 1960 Stankiewicz befriended Jean Tinguely and introduced him to the Stankiewicz's scrap metal dealer.
Stankiewicz exhibited widely around the world, notably included a number of exhibitions in France and Australia. In 1972 Stankiewicz joined the roster of the Zabriskie Gallery, which would represent his work until 2009. In 1979, the State University of New York in Albany organized a retrospective exhibition of Stankiewicz’s work, which then traveled to several other museums in Massachusetts and New York. Richard Stankiewicz passed away at his home in 1983.
The Washburn Gallery has represented the Estate of Richard Stankiewicz since 2013, and has held a number of solo exhibitions of his work. Stankiewicz’s work is included in many Museum and Public Collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz by Emmie Donadio, 2003,
Addison Gallery of American Art
Asked again some years later why he always used rusted steel in his works, Stankiewicz responded without irony that “rust should remind us of where we are from.” Substituting “rust” for “dust,” the artist acknowledged that at the heart of his enterprise was the notion that he brought dead matter to life. His methods, like his materials, were no joke, no whimsical fancy, and unlike the enterprise of some of his fellow the “junk artists” a few years later in decade, his procedure was certainly not a matter of indifference to him: “When we make art we try to evoke life with apparently dead stuff.” He had assimilated and transformed into steel the lessons of both Hoffman and Zadkine that art should be vibrating and alive. As for “junk sculpture,” he always hated the term.
Perhaps a further source of the cathectic energy in his found materials was their resemblance to the playthings of Stankiewicz’s youth. In a review that delighted the artist, Eleanor C. Monro had written that Stankiewicz’s works were touchingly close to a child’s game of monster building in the vacant lot. Along these same lines, in the early years of his public reception, journalists (who were perhaps thinking of Helen Levitt’s photographs of the 1940s and 1950s of children at play in empty lots) wrote somewhat cloyingly of the poor child scrounging around for shards from the junk heap to make toys.
If Stankiewicz’s humble materials were new to New York gallery exposure in 1952 and 1953, scruffiness, rawness, and rough edges were certainly not uncommon in art of the postwar period. In Paris, along with appreciation for Giacometti, Stankiewicz had been struck by the anti-aesthetic Art Brut of Dubuffet’s paintings as well as the rough materials used in African works in the Musee de l’homme. “Art Brut,” the term Dubuffet gave to his own style, combined crude materials like tar, sand, gravel, varnish, and glue with seemingly untutored, childlike, and naïve subject matter. Other artists in New York were also making works with untraditional materials cobbled together: Louise Nevelson, for one, used wood scraps that she scavenged. Robert Rauschenberg would soon incorporate junk elements of a rough sort in his “combines,” but his vocabulary, eclectic and far more unpredictable than Stankiewicz’s, tended toward softer materials, like bedclothes and newsprint. There was an increasing openness in New York of the early 1950s to materials from the street with un- if not downright anti-aesthetic associations. Little known at the time to all but a narrow circle of his friends, the sculpture of Cy Twombly, which have only in the last few decades been widely published and exhibited, offer a parallel to the subversive and un prepossessing figures by Stankiewicz. Twombly had studied at Black Mountain College, where the boundaries separating traditional and idiosyncratic modes of expression were regularly erased.
Closer at hand, Stankiewicz’s companion Jean Follet was pursuing a practice of incorporating odd hardware, nuts and bolts of machinery, and buttons into her planar compositions. And it was at about this time in 1951 that Jean Dubuffet came to live in New York, to show his work and to deliver a series of celebrated talks, both there and in Chicago, on his own “anti-Aesthetic” philosophy. He had written that he was
Pleased to see life in trouble, going insane – hesitating between certain forms that we recognize as belonging to our familiar surrounds, and others that we do not, and whose voices astonish . . . Ambiguous facts . . . have always [held] a great fascination for me, for they seem to me to be located at those intersections where the real nature of things may be revealed.