Creative Spirit: Alexander Archipenko's Contribution

Alexandra Keiser

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From 1923 until his death in 1964, Alexander Archipenko lived in the United States where he produced a large body of work. While Archipenko scholars have focused mainly on his early years in France and his contributions to Cubism, it is only now that researchers are examining the artist’s practice and the reception he received during this later period, and his place in the wider structure of avant-garde culture.

After attending art school in Kiev and later the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, the Ukrainian-born Archipenko left for Paris in 1908, aged 21. In the French capital he settled among the international emigrecommunity of artists living in Montparnasse and frequented many artist circles. Interlinking his cultural heritage of Orthodox symbolism, colourful visual imagery, and folklore with polychrome sculpture inspired by African and Oceanic art, he first produced several small narrative sculptures with religious symbolism, such as the small wood carving "Tristesse" (1909). His practice then shifted to abstracting concave and convex forms, as well as incorporating ideas of polychrome surfaces, mixed media, and movement. Signature pieces, including "Dance" (1912), "Carrousel Pierrot", (1913), "Boxing" (1914) and "Medrano II" (1914), were exhibited at the Salons des Independants, published in contemporary art journals, and praised by the influential critic Guillaume Apollinaire.

Although Archipenko established himself before the First World War as a prominent sculptor, it was in the early 1920s that he received major recognition, with four monographs published and over 25 exhibitions in the short period of 1920-23.

In 1920 he was chosen to be among the Russian representatives at the prestigious "XII Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte" in Venice, the first biennale held after the war. Archipenko recognized the importance and prestige of the Venice Biennale and shipped all available works. An installation photograph of one of the exhibition rooms shows that the artist mixed free-standing sculptures and drawings with polychrome constructions that he called "sculpto-paintings". In them, he combined elements from painting, sculpture, and architecture. While their collage element could evoke the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, these constructions have been convincingly explored in the context of the Russian icon, which also follows a distinct spatial organization, is polychrome and incorporates different materials. The reactions to Archipenko's contributions were mixed, ranging from praise, to lack of understanding, and even mockery. Some critics viewed his works as Bolshevist art, whereas others opposed such an interpretation. However, his exhibition attracted enormous publicity and was, as one Italian newspaper wrote, quite a phenomenon and a magnet for visitors.

In the early 1920s Archipenko experienced an emphasis on his Russian affiliation. His work was discussed in articles and included in all the major exhibitions on Russian art in the West, such as the "First Russian Art Exhibition" at Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1922. The German capital had attracted a large Russian and Eastern European community and was an obligatory stopover for artists traveling eastward, and vice versa. When Archipenko moved to Berlin in 1921 more than 100,000 Russians had already settled there, and it became a strategic centre for the promotion of Russian politics and culture. With his influence and popularity there, Archipenko increased his cultural currency. He received a very positive reception in Germany and was celebrated in numerous exhibitions, including a large retrospective in Potsdam in 1921.

Though Archipenko was prominent and well connected, his fame did not translate into financial success. In addition, the exploding inflation of 1922-23 paralyzed the commercial life of, and caused a crisis in the artistic community. The sky-rocketing inflation of the Weimar Republic weighed down on the artist and was a motivating force in his decision to leave Germany with his first wife Angelica Schmitz (1893-1957) for the United States in 1923.

The Archipenkos settled in New York. Shortly after their arrival, he held a solo exhibition in 1924 at the Kingore Gallery, arranged by the Societe Anonyme, an organization founded by Katherine Dreier with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray to introduce modernism to the United States. In the same year, Archipenko opened an art school in New York, as he had previously done in Paris and Berlin. Until his death in 1964 he continued to teach studio art and lecture on creativity at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Archipenko's practice during his American years was characterized by his exploration of material and colour as well as the development of his interests in philosophy, science and metaphysics.

In 1933 he held an exhibition at the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Chicago World Fair, where he introduced the "Ma" series, lightly draped female figures expressing mystical femininity. In addition, Archipenko wrote a story, revealing an esoteric connotation, in which "Ma" represents the eternal feminine, expressing intuition and being the inspiration of the artist. "Ma Meditation" (1937) allegorizes this inspiration by holding a broken ball, a symbol of the separation of heart and intellect, which need to be reconnected. The sculpture carries the following inscription: "'Ma' is dedicated to every Mother; to everyone who is in love and suffers from love; to everyone who creates in the arts and in science; to every hero; to everyone who is lost in problems; to everyone who feels and knows eternity and infinity."

In 1936 Archipenko was included in the famous exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The following year he was invited by his friend Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to join the faculty at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. In 1946 Archipenko was asked back for a second teaching appointment at the Chicago Bauhaus, which was then named the Institute of Design. After leaving the school in 1947 he began experimenting with translucent forms, plastic and lights, resulting in a series of Plexiglas pieces that were illuminated from within by electric light. Archipenko described this work as "sculpting light", and these sculptures address his continuous exploration of universalism and spiritualism in art. In 1955 he wrote: "This area of expression has great and varied possibilities. It doesn't belong to the art of today or tomorrow, but embodies timeless spiritual truths produced by a new material and light."

In the 1950s Archipenko investigated the unity of form and colour with industrial materials such as Bakelite, Formica, and Lucite, which he colourfully transformed into surrealistic, organic shapes. Moreover, he began a series of polychrome bronze editions. With these works his practice came full circle, as he stated in 1957: "Form without colour cannot be perceived. From universal laws of harmony, rhythm and balance flows the aesthetic unity of form and colour, however complex the components. Ever since 1912 I have explored interdependencies of form and colour, because I believe that the greatest visual art lies in the achievement of their unity. (...)"

Archipenko's former Woodstock art school now houses the Archipenko Foundation, founded in 2000 by the artist's widow Frances Archipenko Gray with the mission to maintain his legacy, as well as to promote exhibition and publication of his work. The Foundation is engaged in compiling the catalogue raisonne of his sculptures, with a projected publication date of 2008. Last Fall it co-organized an international symposium at the Cooper Union in New York to present current research on the artist. Recently it collaborated in organizing an exhibition of the artist's works at the Galerie Gmurzynska in Cologne, as well as a large retrospective at the Ukrainian Museum in New York. That museum exhibition will travel to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts (31 March-30 July, 2006) and the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin (19 August-26 November, 2006).

Archipen ko's contributions were pivotal in the development of modernism. As we revisit the artist's work today we find new resources in his creative spirit for contemporary audiences to explore and to discover.





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