September 10, 1979 12:00 PM

It just didn’t fly,” said Sven Lukin, 45, fingering one of the avian sculptures on the worktable in his Manhattan loft. His disappointment stemmed from the fact not that his wings were earthbound but that they had been returned by a potential collector, designer Bill Blass. “He felt it was the wrong beige for his living room, and it’s true.”

Never mind. Lukin is an artistic innovator whose constructions—which he calls “ascendants”—hang from the walls and ceilings of major U.S. museums and private collections. “He does glorious, splendid work,” says Maurice Tuchman, a curator of the Los Angeles County Museum, which gave Lukin a one-man show last winter. “He has staked out a territory that’s his own—on the boundaries between painting and sculpture. He’s a tonic.”

“Some say my work takes off like a 747; others say it doesn’t get off the ground,” concedes Lukin. But then, he relishes controversy. Back in the ’60s he was one of the founding fathers of the shaped and cutout canvas. After too many other artists took up his style, Lukin lost interest and began to search for something fresh. His present phase began in 1974. “That was a year of real desperation,” Lukin remembers; he had just about decided to give up art and “drive a cab or run an elevator.” He repaired to Nantucket to clear his head, and while strolling the beach he happened on a dead seagull. It seemed “almost alive, still warm,” he recalls. “I looked at the wings—the way they unfolded when I pulled them. I started to think about making things that were compound, in sections, and could be worked together in any configuration.”

The bird that had inspired creators from Chekhov to Richard Bach became Lukin’s muse. At first he feared it was “too awesome an icon. Finally I just gave in.” After all, the wing image had been used for centuries by shamans in cultures from Siberia to the U.S. Southwest, and he felt his grandfather, a homeopathic healer, was only “once or twice removed from a shaman.”

That was in Riga, Latvia. The son of a lawyer who was killed in a Stalinist purge, Lukin emigrated to the U.S. with his actress mother and stepfather in 1944. Raised, he says, in “the European way—intimidation,” he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania to please his family but was always interested in art. “Then my parents sent me some money for my 21st birthday. Independence! I left home and school that same day.” He came to New York, began painting and in less than two years scored with his first one-man show at the esteemed Betty Parsons Gallery. A life-long bachelor, Lukin counterposes a gloomy Slavic temperament with upbeat companions (he once lived with exquisite model-turned-fashion-consultant China Machado) and a fondness for disco roller-skating. “If you get married,” he figures, “you have to do kids and the whole catastrophe,” but adds, “I don’t exclude that.”

Though his life-style may be solitary, there is nothing selfish about Lukin’s art. “People are always asking, ‘What is the function of art?’ I say it is to heal.” With that in mind, he created a poly-styrene-and-string assemblage which he calls Celestial Lure. “It’s for lifting oneself out of the gloom,” says Lukin. “I go casting for angels with it.”

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