More than meets the eye

Alexander Archipenko's art shows different places that cubism can go.

Published July 2, 2006


"Archipenko 2D/3D: Prints and Sculptures" at the Museum of Fine Arts is a wonderful exhibition. It is also one that can make someone reasonably conversant with art - me - feel like an insensitive yahoo.

Unless you are a fervent devotee of early 20th century European modernism, you will be tempted, as I was, to sail through the rows of prints with slightly glazed eyes and numbed perceptions, because they seem to offer so little variety, so few revelations and such a cerebral parade of forms. Even the sculptures that punctuate the main gallery of the exhibition can seem more like parentheses than exclamation points.

And anyway, we know cubism. Don't we?

Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) is now a sculptor discussed, when he is discussed at all, more as a footnote in 20th century art. He was a major force in the 1920s, but his has been the fate of artists through the ages who don't pass automatically through art historians' filters. Sometimes the artists get lucky and get revisited; this is happening in small ways with Archipenko.

A good thing, too, because in his work we see the seminal ways artists were moving art forward. There are similarities with Picasso, Leger and Modigliani, all more famous now, but there is also a strong, independent streak in this man.

So here's how I suggest you approach Archipenko. Most of his work in the larger front gallery is figurative, but begin with two anomalous still lifes on the back wall. One was done in 1920, the other a year later. Identical in subject matter and basic composition, they show us where he was going with his own exploration of cubism. The objects in the earlier version are more delineated, the overall appearance is busier and the heavy black shadings almost too strident. It suggests a table being rattled by some seismic

event. The later Still Life with Vase has plenty of angular lines, the objects still seem off balance, but their relationships to each other seem less a collision than a reconciliation.

Cubism at that point was about a decade old and highly evolved. You can compare these still lifes with a handful on view at the Salvador Dali Museum, a few miles south of the Museum of Fine Arts, by Picasso and Juan Gris, dated six or seven years prior to Archipenko's. He seems to be playing catch-up.

Or maybe he was taking his own time with ideas to which he would remain faithful. Even though he later disavowed cubism, his work always retained its vocabulary and aspirations to convey time and movement in a static medium and to find new ways to relate solid bodies to the space around them. That last phrase is academic, I know, but artists have always dealt with that relationship. Painting a human figure on a horse in a field in the 18th century and making it look "real" to our eyes involved the same issues. Twentieth century artists strove to find new ways to present that man, horse and field.

Archipenko, who was most interested in the human body, began with males and, more often, females, realistically drawn (and he knew how to draw) with a renaissance fullness combined with a modern muscularity. The curves become more refined over time, the figure a collection of abstract forms he was constantly realigning to get the relationship of those body parts just right. He was awkward at times (see Construction), assured at others (Standing Woman).

The prints are signposts in this exhibition for the sculptures, which, with a few important exceptions, inhabit the center of the gallery. I found them a mixed bag. The earliest, from 1908, is Pomegranates, a small bronze depicting Adam and Eve. She reaches for the fruit as he watches, arms raised in warning. Everything is flattened like a relief, more an experiment by a painter than a fully realized sculpture. That was a problem many cubist sculptors had, even Picasso, translating disjointed, rearranged images into three dimensions. The Last Moment of the City of Pompeii, from 1925, combines classical overtones and multiple, light-reflecting planes like Rodin on steroids.

But you can see he's on to something and isn't letting it go. Egyptian Motif (1917) is a true foray into the vernacular Archipenko would use for most of his career. Study it, revisit the prints and notice the dissolving details in favor of pure form, the sensuous curve of a female hip interrupted by the sharp suggestion of a leg bone, the contrasting convex and concave breasts, the density of her hair against the void of her face. That hollow space is among the most striking in his work.

A smaller gallery contains the portfolio of prints completed in 1963, a year before his death. They are big and bold, a full flowering of Archipenko's obsession with form imbued with a life force absent in his youthful art. They have a timelessness and elegance that make the multiple perspectives of cubism seem quaint. Look, for example, at Encircled Forms and recall those still lifes. All the disparities have been reconciled by a strong white line.

Art owes a lot to the Archipenkos of the world. He apparently did not covet the kind of egoistic greatness of his contemporary, Picasso. He had an idea, like Hemingway's "one true sentence," that could last him a lifetime.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com


"Archipenko 2D/3D: Prints and Sculpture" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, through July 23. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults with discounts for others. 727 896-2667 or www.fine-arts.org.