New York

“Archipenko: The Parisian Years”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The two shows of sculptures by Alexander Archipenko—work done in Paris, where the artist lived until 1921, at the MoMA; subsequent, New York work at the Danenberg Galleries—give us a chance to renew acquaintance with one of the most gifted sculptors of the heyday of the modernist movement. Gifted, yes, but important? In the last one-man show Archipenko had in New York, at the Perls Galleries in 1962, his works were dated in such a way as to present Archipenko as the originator of most of the seminal ideas of 20th-century sculpture; but as some readers will remember, these dates were questioned almost at once, by Mr. Alfred Barr among many others. Obviously, what one thinks about Archipenko’s early production inevitably depends on what one thinks of the claims that were made on that occasion for and against its priority. My own position was against that of what can be called the revisionists—as, I believe, nearly everyone’s was; and since a broad consensus has established itself on a quite securely factual basis, there seems little point in flogging a dead horse now. I will just say, in fairness to Archipenko, that while the main lines of the development of modernist sculpture are clear enough, some of the details are not. Of the principal figures in the imbroglio surrounding Archipenko’s work, we have a sure chronology for only Picasso and Lipchitz. Things are less certain with Zadkine and Laurens (I myself suspect that Laurens was much more important than he is usually given credit for having been); the influences of Rodin, Bourdelle (another neglected but important figure) and Maillol are still only partially explored; and it seems virtually impossible to document precisely the informal social contacts of what was, all in all, a rather large but close group of men.

At any rate, there is a charming echo of these disputes in a catalog statement by Mr. William Lieberman that “The exact dating of some of [Archipenko’s] works between 1909 and 1916 has not been definitely established. The checklist below, however, suggests a probable sequence for these works .” And then, in the checklist, one comes upon such captions as this, for Walking (Femme qui marche): “1912 probably 1916?!” It has to be remembered that the show would not have been possible without the assistance of the artist’s estate. Incidentally, it would seem that some of these works are replicas, presumably cast on instructions from the estate. How much additional complication these new editions will cause I cannot predict. I do feel, however, that their exhibition is inappropriate in a show in a major museum, even if the show is not intended as a major one; and I note that they interfere with the appreciation of what Archipenko did in at least one important area, namely painted sculpture.

In any event two things emerge from the MOMA’s show. The first is that Archipenko was a highly accomplished but eclectic talent. In fact, the extent of his eclecticism may have been the principal expression of his originality! It is not surprising to find, in the earliest work in this show, the influence of Maillol (for instance in Black Seated Torso). And one senses what are quite natural affinities, given this derivation, with Bourdelle; and it is easy to see how this in turn leads into something close to Laurens (as in Seated Figure). This statue is one of the first in Archipenko’s production to embody a device that was so very important, probably the most important contribution of Cubist sculpture—the substitution of a void for a solid: the most important because it not only opens up the planar structure immensely but also leads in the end to “open-form” sculpture, which is to say to most of the worthwhile sculpture that has been made since the heyday of Cubism. At any rate, this device continues to be used frequently in Archipenko’s work, and of course it brings him very close to Zadkine, who was the master of it. From Zadkine it is no more than a step to Lipchitz, and the majority of the pieces in this show do remind one of Lipchitz. Finally, where art nouveau and art déco are especially evident, one thinks perhaps a bit of Brancusi.

Now it is clear that two very different approaches are at work in all this: one which (following Maillol, let us say for the sake of simplicity) regards the integrity of a monolithic form as paramount, and one which, in the Cubist manner, seeks to break the form open. It is an indication of the remarkable elasticity of Archipenko’s sensibility that he worked with equal accomplishment in both approaches.

The second lesson of the show involves another and a complementary oscillation; for just as Archipenko will work in open form or closed, he will also work in terms of line or of plane. This second oscillation was got, no doubt, from the Section d’Or group, to which Archipenko belonged: it is characteristic of the work of these artists, although in my opinion only Gleizes was able to use this ambiguity to good effect with any regularity. It is the combination of these two oscillations that gives Archipenko’s Parisian work its bewildering, inconsistent, nearly incoherent character: the only thing that could hold these four approaches in any kind of collaborative unity would, of course, have been the notion of a genuinely and thoroughly open form; but of course Archipenko did not go nearly that far. What we have instead is a congeries of small sculptures, many of which are strikingly successful if they are taken singly.

This leads us to the exhibition at the Danenberg Galleries of work from 1923 to the artist’s death in 1964; because another aspect of the Section d’Or tendency was its spirituality, and this is much more evident in Archipenko’s American than in his Parisian work. It has often been suggested that this, like the artist’s penchant for line, stems from his interest while still in Russia—he did not go to Paris until he was twenty-one—in Byzantine art. It may well be. Or, his spirituality may be more strictly Russian: one finds something similar in both Kandinsky and Lissitzky, especially in their writings; and for me it is always disconcerting to be looking at their work as if it was cerebral, only to come up against something that is obviously not that. The extravagant contrasts of rhythm and texture in pieces like Festive and Walking, the subject itself of pieces like Fiancée and Ma Méditation, place them in a very different register of feeling from that of Analytic Cubism.

But more striking than this is the derivativeness of Archipenko’s later work—to a point where one must, I feel, consider this as a confirmation that the same impetus is to be found behind the Parisian work. In the artist’s American output, the best things are usually derived from Lipchitz (e.g. Lazarus, of 1952), the most coherent from art déco (Gold and Black, 1957). But it is such a piece as Abstraction which says most about Archipenko’s readiness to follow the styles of others, indeed his insistence on it: how many sculptors were capable of producing such pure Duchamp-Villon in . . . 1959?!

Jerrold Lanes