New York

Alexander Archipenko

The Edith C. Blum Art Institute, Bard College Center

Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964) is the most recent example of an early 20th-century Modernist whose late work is being reexamined in a Post-Modern context. Although he has been recognized as an innovative force in Modern sculpture, he also has had his share of detractors. The argument goes like this: he simply recast Cubist principles in sculpture, and his work subsequently declined in the late ’20s. Add to this the fact that he is not known for working in steel; that he continually returned to such art-historical subjects as the odalisque and the still life; that he never “evolved” into a pure, nonobjective artist. and one begins to understand the kinds of misconceptions surrounding him.

Along with his polychrome wood and bakelite reliefs, curator Joan Marter assembled drawings and prints, many of which had not been exhibited or documented previously The works were divided into thematic groups: standing figures, reclining figures, still lifes, and group and fragmentary figures. An accompanying catalogue features insightful essays by Marter and Linda Weintraub, as well as a topical piece by Robert Rosenblum (in which he confesses that when he was younger he overlooked Archipenko’s late work but now realizes he was wrong; otherwise, nothing is said, albeit in glitzy prose).

The real surprises were a suite of lithographs (completed in the last year of his life) and the late wall reliefs, particularly those in which nonart materials such as bakelite and Formica are combined with stripped or polychrome wood. (These hybrid works can be seen as precursors to the recent work of Frank Stella and Judy Pfaff.) However, it wasn’t simply that Archipenko mixed materials; more importantly he combined the idioms of painting and sculpture in a fluid, sensuous manner. This accomplishment alone should suggest both his relevance to the current art scene and the breadth of his accomplishment.

In Cleopatra (Repose), 1957, one of the largest wall reliefs in the artist’s oeuvre, a columnlike form (or head) bends gracefully toward a framed wood panel on which its mirror image has been laminated: a three-dimensional form confronts its two-dimensional "reflection?’ This witty mirroring is certainly something that continues to interest Jasper Johns and Gary Stephan. In fact, this detail of Cleopatra (Repose), along with Archipenko’s use of concave and convex forms and pierced sculptural planes, can be seen as outlining the parameters of Stephan’s entire vocabulary. Clearly, the influence exerted by Archipenko’s late work has yet to be acknowledged.

Aside from Rosenblum’s essay, my only disappointment is that the exhibition will not travel. In New York, where an army of lesser talents from Modernism’s beginnings has become fodder for this generation’s artists, it would offer both revelations and possibilities.

John Yau