Pevsner’s 120 Drawings Secure His Reputation

The Russian sculptor Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962) has long occupied a secure place in the annals of modernist art as one of the pioneer talents of the Constructivist movement that flourished in Russia in the years just before and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With his better-known younger brother Naum Gabo, Pevsner published a Realistic Manifesto , as it was misleadingly called, in Moscow in 1920, that rejected figurative art and all forms of representation in sculpture in favor of open-space abstraction. This celebrated manifesto, one of the many such pronouncements that marked the tumultuous avant-garde art world in the first years of the Revolution, had actually been written by Gabo, but Pevsner signed on, thereby identifying his work with a minority faction in the early Soviet avant-garde that rejected the use of art for utilitarian and propaganda purposes.

Having made that fateful choice in favor of disinterested esthetics, it was inevitable that Gabo and Pevsner would sooner or later have to leave the Soviet Union. Gabo left for Berlin in 1922, Pevsner a year later, and from that point onward the brothers pursued distinctly separate careers. First in England and then for many years in the United States, Gabo became one of the best known modernist sculptors in the English-speaking world. Pevsner settled in France, where he acquired French nationality in 1930, and was better known in Europe. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art devoted an exhibition to both, yet until now Pevsner’s work seems never to have been the subject of a solo exhibition in this country.

That is one reason why the exhibition called Antoine Pevsner: Drawings 1912-1956 , which is currently on view at the Peter Blum Gallery in SoHo, is an extraordinary event. With 120 drawings tracing the course of the artist’s development over a 40-year period, this is the kind of exhibition we would ordinarily expect to see in a major museum. Yet the interest here is not merely historical. The revelation here is one of artistic development we have never before been in a position to observe in such concrete and voluminous detail. The exhibition is thus, among much else, an important contribution to our understanding of the esthetic origins of Constructivist sculpture, which itself radically altered our conception of the nature of sculpture as an art.

It was central to the project of Constructivist sculpture to deconstruct traditional notions of sculptural mass by establishing space itself-so called “empty” space, or voids-as a material susceptible to the formal inventions of the sculptor’s imagination. In the pursuit of this radical transformation of sculptural esthetics, Cubism-especially the early Cubist sculpture of Picasso-was the crucial starting point. And it is indeed for the light they cast on Pevsner’s highly inventive variations of Cubism’s formal precedents that these drawings are most interesting. At almost every point in this development, the artist is attempting to declare his independence from the figurative origins of Cubism, and never quite succeeding, for it is another of the revelations of this exhibition that it establishes beyond doubt the figurative origins of even the most abstract of Pevsner’s sculptural achievements.

It is worth recalling in this connection that, unlike his brother Gabo, Pevsner was first of all a painter who was creating Cubist-based abstract paintings before he ever turned to the sculptural medium. Unlike Gabo, Pevsner was from the outset a gifted draftsman, one might even say a traditional draftsman, and it was through the medium of drawing-largely through the drawing of figures and heads-that he developed a vocabulary of abstract forms that lent themselves to a Constructivist idiom. He was by no means alone in this development. You can see a parallel development from Cubism to abstraction in the oeuvre of Kasimir Malevich and certain other votaries of the Russian avant-garde, but I know of no other sculptor of the period whose pursuit of this esthetic goal is so clearly documented in so many drawings of a high order of accomplishment.

Of high interest, too, in this exhibition is the sheer range of stylistic experimentation in Pevsner’s drawings long after he had established his reputation as an abstract sculptor in Paris. Cubism undoubtedly remained central to the bulk of these pursuits, yet the exhibition is full of surprising turns in very different directions. At times one is reminded of Oskar Schlemmer. There is an Expressionist phase in which Pevsner’s drawings of bizarre heads look like a preview of Francis Bacon, and there is even an amazing drawing, Standing Woman (1928), that evokes an uncanny anticipation of the drawings and sculptures that Alberto Giacometti began producing in the 1940’s.

The effect of all this is bound to be a significant revision in our thinking about Pevsner’s standing as a 20th-century modernist master. I have frankly never much cared for Pevsner’s later abstract sculpture, with its swirling forms and labyrinthine voids, but the next time I go to Paris I will certainly take a more serious look at it. (You have to go to Paris to see the major efforts.) Meanwhile, on the basis of these 120 drawings he has overnight become a far more interesting figure than ever before.

It is to be hoped, moreover, that this large collection of Pevsner’s drawings, which derive from a single private collection, will somehow remain intact. This is a collection of museum quality, and it will be fortunate for us if it eventually finds a home in one of our major museums. Meanwhile it remains on view at the Peter Blum gallery, 99 Wooster Street, through July 31.

Pevsner’s 120 Drawings Secure His Reputation