Alexander Archipenko - Biography and Legacy
Ukrainian-American Sculptor and Painter
New York, New York
Biography of Alexander Archipenko
Olexandr Porfyrovych Arkhypenko was born in Kiev, Ukraine to Porfiry Antonowitsch and Poroskowia Wassiliewna Machowa. His father was an inventor and professor of engineering at the University of Kiev. His father's invention, a furnace that purified noxious factory fumes, provided financial security for the family and instilled in Archipenko the idea that the "artist's most precious faculty is invention." As a child in Kiev, he grew up looking at the images of Byzantine culture, including the painted icons and murals produced by his grandfather.
In 1902, he began studying painting and sculpture at the School of Art in Kiev, a traditional art school prided on its academicism. Archipenko, who was interested in radical experimentation from early on, was expelled from the school in 1905 after criticizing the conservatism of his instructors. He produced his first sculptures the same year. Even in these early works he was experimenting with form and color, painting his sculptures in colors that had no meaningful connection to the subject of the work.
Early Training and Work
After a short period in Moscow (1906-1908), Archipenko moved to Paris in 1908 and quickly enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts. Dissatisfied with the school's approach, he left after a few weeks to study on his own, and at his own pace. Much as he had rejected the academicism of traditional art schools, he rejected the work of the dominant sculptural styles in Paris, then represented by Auguste Rodin. Rather, he opted to develop his own style based in direct study from a wide range of examples viewed during his visits to the Louvre, including Egyptian, Assyrian, and early Greek sculpture. In addition to his visits to the Louvre, he spent many afternoons at the Trocadéro (the Parisian ethnographic museum) looking at and drawing inspiration from art created by diverse cultures around the world.
During this time he moved to Montparnasse and set up his studio near Fernand Léger, with whom he developed a close friendship. He frequented La Ruche, the artist's colony in Montparnasse, where he met other prominent avant-garde artists, including Amadeo Modigliani, Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Maurice Raynal. Apollinaire, who was influential in the development and spread of Cubism, was an early supporter of Archipenko and wrote often about his work. Through Léger he met Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Henri Le Fauconnier. Within a few years, he was part of a group of artists centered around Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Marcel Duchamp. He exhibited with the Salon Cubists, a group including Le Fauconnier, Metzinger and Gleizes, that expanded on the more intimate "brown" works of Picasso and Braque by producing large-scale, vividly-colored art. Their first public exhibition at the 1910 Salon des Indépendants was followed a year later with a second exhibition at the Salon d'Automne.
Archipenko was actively experimenting with new materials and new techniques and in 1912 he both opened his first art school in Paris and joined the Section d'Or group (also known as the Patteaux group) that included many of the aforementioned artists. Though rather loosely affiliated, the group, which had also attracted the support of Francis Picabia, Juan Gris and Robert Delaunay, was active between 1912 and 1914 (following the war, Gleizes attempted to resurrect the Section d'Or movement but his efforts were met with limited success) and promoted the virtues of mathematical proportions in art as explored previously by artists through the ancient concept of the "golden section" (Section d'Or). The group thus conformed in spirit to the Cubist concern with geometric compositions even if only Villon (who gave the group its name) and Gris adhered steadfastly to its principles. In 1912 the group exhibited together at the Galerie la Boétie in Paris before publishing a short-lived magazine (entitled La Section d'Or).
1913 and 1914 were among his most creative years. His radical experimentation led to numerous innovations that put him at the forefront of the avant-garde, including his use of polychrome, sculptural reliefs and constructions, and his replacement of solids for voids. His work was met with early critical acclaim, which in turn led to his inclusion in important exhibitions, including New York's "notorious" International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913; or better known simply as the Armory Show. The exhibition caused a sensation and changed the American public's perception of beauty in art. It was thought to be the first time Americans had heard the phrase "avant-garde" to describe painting and sculpture and Archipenko's work took its place in the exhibition alongside that of other European masters including van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp. At the same time, Archipenko made his first prints which were reproduced in the Italian Futurist publication Lacerba in 1914.
In August 1914, Germany declared war on France and Russia and several Paris-based artists moved to the South of France. Archipenko spent the next four years in Cimiez, near Nice, at Château Valrose. He was only one of a group of prominent artists living in the region including: Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Morgan Russel, Chaim Soutine and Leopold Survage. During his time in Cimiez, Archipenko did not have access to a studio or the materials necessary for his sculptures. He therefore spent much of his time working on his "sculpto-paintings," a technique he had invented in 1912 that made use of more readily available materials like papier-maché, glass, wood or metal. After the war, he returned to Paris, where he hoped to expand on his early success. His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1920, and the following year he had his first solo exhibition in New York at the Société Anonyme. He moved to Berlin in 1921, where he opened yet another art school, and married Expressionist sculptor Angelica Schmitz. He transitioned to a more naturalistic style during his time in Berlin, which was met with less enthusiasm from critics.
Archipenko's late career was characterized as much by his teaching as it was by his work in sculpture. In 1923, on arrival in New York City, he opened an art school, which was followed the next year by the opening of new annual summer art program in Woodstock, New York, that continued until his death. In 1927 he invented and patented the Archipentura, a mechanical system for applying paint to small strips of canvas that could be moved to create a complete image. This invention was in keeping with his belief that art should reflect the dynamism of modern life. His style shifted again in the 1930s and 1940s to a classicizing naturalism in traditional sculptural materials - bronze, marble, and plaster.
He was included in Alfred H. Barr's 1936 exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art at New York's Museum of Modern Art. After a brief period in California, he moved to Chicago in 1937 and joined the faculty of the New Bauhaus, at the request of László Moholy-Nagy. His time at the New Bauhaus was short-lived and he returned to New York City in 1938.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Archipenko spent much of his time teaching and lecturing around the country. He also continued to produce new work and remade earlier work for various exhibitions, some of which he organized himself. In the 1950s he began experimenting with industrial materials, including Formica and Bakelite, which were incorporated into new sculptures and sculpto-paintings that were brightly colored and often ambitious in scale. In 1960 he published his book, Archipenko: Fifty Creative Years, 1908-1958, that included a comprehensive set of illustrations and a series of short texts that detailed his ideas on aesthetics and art. Archipenko's last work proved to be his only monumental sculpture (though it came some way short of the 60-foot-tall version he had originally planned). With King Solomon (1963) the artist worked with bronze to create the concept of a god-like figure: the prongs at the head evoke a crown, and the intersecting triangular shapes suggest an ancient costume befitting of the biblical king. In 1985, this sculpture came to the University of Pennsylvania campus where it still stands. Archipenko died of heart failure in New York in 1964.
The Legacy of Alexander Archipenko
Although Archipenko continued to produce sculpture and teach through the end of his life, he is best known for his pioneering work created in Paris in the 1910s. As one of the first sculptors to bring the ideas of Cubism to sculpture, his early, intensely creative period included numerous innovations that proved enormously influential for modern sculpture. These included the opening up of sculpture by replacing solids with voids and changing the way sculpture interacts with and encloses space; the introduction of color in sculptural work; and the creation of a hybrid form known as "sculpto-painting" that brought the two mediums together in new ways.
Throughout his career he used new materials and new techniques in order to break with convention, often denying any allegiance to the prevailing styles of the day. In this sense his work can be compared to other sculptural outliers whose figurative work was anomalous to their contemporary moment, namely Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise.
Using the female form as a convention for experimentation and exploration, Archipenko imbued his work with a deep spirituality that had its basis in the sculptural traditions of cultures from around the world. These influences were combined with his knowledge of modernist styles (Cubism and Futurism among them) to produce a truly modern take on sculpture that resisted strict categorization.