New York

Antoine Pevsner


This stunning exhibition of almost a half century of drawings (1912–56) by Antoine Pevsner was accompanied by one of the few surviving copies of the “Realistic Manifesto,” which Pevsner wrote with his brother Naum Gabo on the occasion of their open-air Tverskoy Boulevard exhibition in Moscow in 1920. Among other things, the manifesto proclaimed the necessity of a “new Great Style” to go along with the “new civilization” that modernity and the Russian Revolution had made possible. Repudiating Cubism and Futurism as well as Naturalism and Symbolism, the brothers proposed a kind of abstract constructivism as the only viable art of the future: Description, stasis, and mass were to be renounced, and space was to be “one continuous depth,” fraught with the “constant rhythm of the forces . . . in objects.” Pevsner and Gabo thought of sculpture as the perfect vehicle for their new art, regarding it as socially as well as artistically revolutionary—socialist realism, of course, still being in the future. This recent show of 120 never-before-exhibited works offered the chance to consider whether Pevsner’s drawings live up to the principles set forth in the manifesto.

Yes and no. At the time of the Moscow exhibition, Pevsner drew a number of Dynamic Heads that, while abstract, are still descriptive, and for all the “kinetic rhythms” that give them form, they maintain a static center of gravity. The represented object remains intact, and despite Pevsner’s efforts to turn the work into “one continuous depth,” it is full of surfaces—analytic Cubist facets with a futurist thrust. Clearly Pevsner was on the way to realizing his program, but not quite there. And even when he did get there—as in the Spatial Constructions of 1924 or the Expanding Columns and Expanding Surfaces of 1936, which appear as pure dynamic abstractions—he returns to the object in other works, not so much as a safe artistic haven but more as an inescapable fact of life. If Pevsner’s sense of rhythmic form was initially derived from the machine, as in his 1917 drawing Propeller Movement in a Sphere, the recurring expressiveness of his heads and figures indicates he never lost interest in the human form. This concern made him somewhat old-fashioned (notwithstanding his ideology and idealism) but also precluded the kind of sterile aridity that would eventually dead-end constructivism.

From the start, as his 1917 Head of WomanIcon suggests, Pevsner hoped to give modern humanity symbolic form—to create an icon that would show that mankind’s efforts to be an efficient machine were futile and could only end in suffering. The shadowy surfaces in his drawings evoke this suffering, and while the shadows add mass, they also make the object depicted seem focused in itself, an absolute form, rather than “continuous” with the surrounding space, as the manifesto mandated.

This exhibition, then, was a remarkable demonstration of the value of self-contradiction—of failing to realize one’s artistic ideals because one remains bound to the realities of the surrounding world. Pevsner’s drawings are not only a testament to his development as an artist but to the struggle to fuse the immovable old with the dynamically new—unchanging verities with changing form—perhaps the basis of all creative struggle.

Donald Kuspit