Certain figures in the history of modern art seem destined to be “rediscovered” by every generation. They are too important to be entirely forgotten, but they may be too elusive to make an unbroken claim on our attention. Their work is too various or too eccentric and their personalities too alien to be easily classified or permanently established. If, like the sculptor Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), they came in the course of a long career to be associated with a bewildering range of periods and places, this only adds to the difficulty of keeping their achievements firmly in focus. Although sufficiently famous to be cited in the standard reference books, such figures also tend to be imprecisely identified. Historically, they remain displaced persons.
In the case of Archipenko, whose work is currently the subject of a beautiful exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery, I see that in an old edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , he is identified as a “Russian-born American abstract sculptor.” Archipenko was actually Ukrainian; his father was a painter of icons for the Eastern Orthodox church. And while some of his sculpture is more or less abstract, he was primarily a sculptor of the figure-mainly the female figure-and sufficiently recognizable as such to have been denounced by the Cardinal of Venice when his work was exhibited at the Biennale in 1920.Ayearlater, Archipenko was given his first solo exhibition in New York at the Société Anonyme.
As for being an American, Archipenko did indeed become an American citizen in the 1930′s, and even had a school of his own in New York. Yet his artistic reputation was made in Paris before World War I, and in Berlin, where he lived in the early 1920′s. His early Cubist sculptures are known to have exerted a considerable influence on the Paris avant-garde. He is generally credited with having introduced the “hole”-open space within the sculptural mass-into modern sculpture with his Walking Woman (1912), now in the collection of the Denver Art Museum. He was also one of the first modernists to apply the principles of collage, using painted tin, glass, wood and oil cloth, to the making of sculpture. Medrano II (1913), in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, is one of the best-known examples of this early mixed-media sculpture. Yet he was, from the outset, a master of the traditional sculptural media.
It is often said, however, that Archipenko’s later work represents a falling off from the peak achievements of his early career, but this, too, turns out to be something less than accurate. If some of his later experiments could indeed be shocking-I remember some mother-of-pearl sculptures in the 1950′s that made some people shudder-much of the later work is very beautiful, and commands an aesthetic delicacy and refinement that are not often found in the early sculptures.
What the criticism of Archipenko’s later work often amounts to is a charge that he didn’t go on repeating his earlier innovations. Well, the same thing used to be said of Matisse’s work in the period between the two world wars-that it reverted to something more “traditional” and less avant-garde-but that’s not the way we see that period in Matisse’s oeuvre now. And it’s not the way we see the best of Archipenko’s later work, either, on the rare occasions when we get to see it. Certainly the sculptures that make up the current exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery, which date from the years 1935 to 1948, are the work of a master artist. Among figurative sculptors at work in America in the period between the two world wars, only Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman could be considered Archipenko’s peers.
All of the sculptures in the Zabriskie show are made of terra cotta, a traditional material that Archipenko adapts to a distinctly modern idiom. Always a virtuosic craftsman no matter what the medium, Archipenko confers on this material a range of sculptural expression unlike any I have seen before. The polished terra cotta surface of the 1948 Female Torso , itself a masterpiece, might easily be mistaken for polished marble, while the bolder forms of the 1935 Family Life might similarly be mistaken for polished wood. In other sculptures, the variety of texture and color and the masterly command of inlays are equally virtuosic. In the 1936 figure, Seated, we are reminded of Archipenko’s earlier open-form bronzes, while the sculptures shaped into a solid mass are visually “opened” by the deft employment of color and texture to create an internal composition of figurative form. The sheer scale of invention in these small sculptures is amazing.
This is the first time that Archipenko’s terra cotta sculptures have been exhibited as a group, and for this observer it effectively closes the discussion of whether there was a falling off in the artist’s later work. With “failures” of this quality, it would be hard to imagine what an artistic success might look like.
What, in any case, is now needed is a well-chosen museum retrospective devoted to the entire range of Archipenko’s achievement. Lacking such a retrospective, Archipenko will remain one of the displaced persons of 20th-century sculpture-a master artist whose accomplishments will be condemned to be “rediscovered” yet again another generation hence.
Meanwhile, the terra cotta sculptures remain on view at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through June 10.