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Aleksandr Archipenko (American, 1887–1964)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Ukrainian sculptor, active in Paris and in the USA. He began studying painting and sculpture at the School of Art in Kiev in 1902 but was forced to leave in 1905 after criticizing the academicism of his instructors. In 1906 he went to Moscow, where, according to the artist, he participated in some group exhibitions (Archipenko, p. 68). In 1908 he established himself in Paris, where he rejected the most favoured contemporary sculptural styles, including the work of Rodin. After only two weeks of formal instruction at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he left to teach himself sculpture by direct study of examples in the Musée du Louvre. By 1910 Archipenko was exhibiting with the Cubists at the Salon des Indépendants, and his work was shown at the Salon d’Automne from 1911 to 1913.

A variety of cultural sources lies behind Archipenko’s work. He remained indebted throughout his career to the spiritual values and visual effects found in the Byzantine culture of his youth and had a strong affinity for ancient Egyptian, Gothic and primitive art that co-existed with the influence of modernist styles such as Cubism and Futurism.

The decade following Archipenko’s arrival in Paris was his most inventive and includes works produced during his residence at Cimiez, near Nice (1914–18), and throughout a period of extensive travel in Europe (1918–21). His first sculptures, such as Woman with Cat (1911; Düsseldorf, Kstmus.), in their stress on solid mass, showed the impact of Pre-Columbian art. By 1912 he had opened his own art school in Paris, and works such as Walking Woman (1912; Denver, CO, A. Mus.), a bronze female figure made up of interlocking convex and concave pieces on a flat supporting shape, were more directly related to Cubism. Influenced by the Cubist notion of integrating the figure with surrounding space, by 1914 Archipenko had begun to interchange solids and voids by incorporating effects of light in his sculpture, so that protruding elements seemed to recede and internal features to advance. In Woman Combing her Hair (bronze, 1914; New York, MOMA), the massive head is pierced by a hole, an absolute reversal of solid and void that took one step further Archipenko’s characteristic exchange of concave and convex forms. His use of voids as positive forms, in doing away with the traditional monolithic concept of sculpture, had broad-ranging implications for other artists. Boxing Match (painted plaster, 1914; New York, Guggenheim) is one of Archipenko’s most renowned sculptures of the Cubist years. It is nearly abstract in form, but, as the title suggests, its subject is the tension and struggle of opposing forces; depending on the viewpoint, the cylindrical shapes look like the heads and torsos of two combatants or like silhouetted fighters engaged in dynamic opposition.

Further sculptural innovations were initiated by Archipenko in his first constructions in painted materials, influenced both by the collages of Picasso and Braque and by the Futurist concepts published in Boccioni’s La scultura futurista (1912). Medrano II (1914; New York, Guggenheim) describes the volumes of a figure in articulated planes. The circus clown represented here is attached to a coloured back panel that serves to clarify the composition. The main volumes of the body are represented by intersecting planes, curving planar forms and wedge- and cone-shaped elements. Colour articulates structure and helps to distinguish the varying materials. In 1914 Archipenko developed a form that he called sculpto-painting, which he defined as ‘a new character of art, due to its specific interdependencies of relief, concave or perforated forms, colours, or textures’ (Archipenko, p. 40). He felt that this art form was more adaptable to artistic invention than traditional painting and sculpture in that it emphasized the inherent qualities of form and colour, bringing pictorial surfaces and sculptural volumes into a dynamic unity and exploiting new technical means and materials. He made almost 40 sculpto-paintings before 1920, and another concentration of these works appeared in the late 1950s. In The Bather (1915; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.) a woman holds a towel in her upraised arms as she steps from a tub. The figure is composed mainly from wooden and metal elements and is integrated with the surrounding drawn and painted space through conic sections, Archipenko’s idiosyncratic version of Cubist facets.

Archipenko was represented in the New York Armory Show of 1913 and in many international Cubist exhibitions. In 1921 he moved to Berlin and opened an art school. In 1923 he settled in the USA and established a school in New York City. He initiated a summer programme in Woodstock, New York, in 1924, which continued until his death. In 1927 he was granted a patent for his invention of the ‘peinture changeante’ (or Archipentura), a motorized mechanism for the production of variable images in sequence. This machine (which in his view combined the scientific with the emotional), as well as his incorporation of electric light and actual movement into his work, revealed his continued attraction to the Futurist urge to represent the dynamism of the modern era.

In the 1930s and 1940s Archipenko’s style changed to a classicizing naturalism, and he turned to traditional sculptural materials such as bronze, marble and ceramics to produce more restrained and elegant works. Bronze sculptures included his Torso in Space (1935; Jerusalem, Israel Mus.), and ceramic works included the terracotta The Bride (1937; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.). During this period he also lectured and taught art at numerous colleges and universities throughout the USA and Canada. In the 1950s he again concentrated on industrial materials, in which he demonstrated his taste for dazzling polychromy, for example in the series of reliefs initiated in 1957 in polychrome wood and bakelite, including works such as Oval Figure (1957; artist’s estate, see Karshan, 1974, p. 153). Notable features of work of his late years were his indebtedness to his cultural origins and a deep spirituality. It is, however, for the freshness of his explorations of sculptural mass and space and for his innovative multi-media constructions that Archipenko received his greatest acclaim.

Joan Marter
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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