New York

Alexander Archipenko

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

The Pace Gallery held an exhibition of 25 sculptures and groups of drawings and prints by Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964). Archipenko was right in there in the early days of Cubism, having been a member of the Section d’Or from its founding in 1912 and exhibiting with that group as late as 1921. At least one of the sculptures here, Portuguiesen, a bronze of 1916, parallels a painting by Delaunay, another member of the Section d’Or—the Portuguese Woman of the same year. In fact, the parallel bandlike arms of Archipenko’s figure, one angular and the other curving, are like the curving chromatic bands of even width in Delaunay’s picture. Archipenko, however, had a harder time leaving the figure behind than Delaunay, and the last thing he seems willing to give up is the female torso. Unlike Brancusi, Archipenko never quite overcame the temptation to overdo a piece: Ondine, for instance, is a lovely, nearly abstract sculpture of 1918 that is spoiled—or at least brought down—by a pertly balanced asymmetry in the draping of the figure, deriving perhaps from the Hera of Samos (c. 570–60 B.C.) in the Louvre.

I hate to sound like the Princess and the Pea, but there is something hammy about Archipenko as soon as we think of Brancusi. This is partly a function of the career and partly a quality of the work in itself. Matters are not helped by the sculptor’s frantic attempt to make a name for himself by inventing such new “art forms” as “moveable painting” (alias peinture changeante, alias Archi-pentura!), which was dedicated to Edison and Einstein and for which he received U. S. Patent No. 1,626,496 in 1927. Even his chronology bobs from one strained “first” to another, including, for 1947, the “first carved plastic sculpture illuminated from within” (Seated Figure). Sounds like an early television lamp. Of course, by then we may be dealing with a late, potty phase in the life of an old and dignified man, but there are clues earlier on as well. Then in the ’50s he exceeded himself with works like Revolving Figure (The Art of Reflection), 1956, “a 78-inch-high, motorized, revolving construction with crossing planes, made of wood, mother-of-pearl, formica, and metal,” or Cleopatra, 1957, “a 38-inch by 84-inch sculpto-painting of wood and bakelite, polychromed.” If Archipenko had not been ironically but firmly attached to an old-fashioned European idea of High Art he might have gone on to produce the first sculpture with “Frenched” springs, the first painting with fins, or the first combination sculpto-painting and hula hoop.

Archipenko once said, striking the pose of conventional antiacademicism, “My real school was the Louvre, and I attended it daily.” But I just don’t understand the spirit of the remark, since he taught art at more schools, colleges, and universities than any other artist I know of. He even founded art schools himself, and needless to say his students must have been expected to come to class.

A most interesting thing about this artist is that his conscious involvement with classy fine art, in combination with distinct if unwelcome lowbrow tendencies, makes him of vital importance for the historical circumstances of Art Déco. Archipenko in the 1920s is one of the most significant artists of all for the modulation of orthodox Cubist ideas into more decorative and popularizing applications. No wonder some of his figures look like automobile radiator caps: the style drew on sources like his work. The single piece here which most reveals the creator of the Woman Combing Her Hair, 1915—a work of still intellectual Cubism—as a source or participant in the formation of the new popularized formal vocabulary is Sarcophagus of Angelica, a gold-plated bronze reclining truncated nude, from 1925, the very year of the Art Déco exposition. The silhouette of the woman is Picassoid-classical, just as the pose—reclining on one elbow—can be traced back to “primitivistic” classical sources of interest to that period, such as Etruscan sculpture.

Archipenko was a Cubist, but his own fluorescent style is more a contribution to a Baroque phase of Cubism than to its ascent. Circumstantial evidence of this is his approach to a whole design as a transferable entity. The same exact form as that in Seated Figure, 1942, thus reappears, without the slightest adjustment to the different context, in the drawing Space, Light, Transparency, of 1948, just as in the Baroque phases of other styles—and indeed in the Baroque itself—a design often takes on the transferability of a mere motif. Archipenko’s habit of making several different versions of the same figure, in different scales and of different materials, is not a part of this issue but touches on it. That far he still runs parallel to Brancusi.

One of the best works here, for it rises above the reach of fashion, is the Symmetrical Torso of 1921, of polychrome bronze. There we catch the female form in all its firm robustness and abstract monumental power, before it becomes subverted into a logo for smug indulgence in ’20s slickness and schlank ease. By 1927—Graceful Movement—she has been driven over the hill by new values that are primarily responsible to cars and express trains, to industry and naive progress, and to an indulgent beauty that courts, but does not patronize great sculpture.

Joseph Masheck