Friday, May 30, 2008

Going Negative

The big question asked during any campaign season, including the current one for president of the United States, is who will “go negative” and when. Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko went “negative” early and often in his innovative Cubist sculptures such as Blue Dancer (above, from 1913-1918), which defines the human form through negative space as it does through volume. Born May 30, 1887, Archipenko left his native Kiev for Paris in 1908 and never looked back. Surrounded by the founders of Cubism—Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—and by fellow Russians such as Kazimir Malevich and Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Archipenko found a second home in Paris. Unlike many other figures of the Russian Avant-Garde, Archipenko escaped the mania and, later, the repercussions of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. Like his Blue Dancer, Archipenko skipped away lightly to the political and creative freedom of Paris at its most thrilling during the early days of modern art.

In addition to sculpture, Archipenko painted and did graphic work, such as the lithograph Cubist Still Life (above, from 1921). Archipenko drafted Cubist Still Life in Berlin, his home after World War I. Since 1913, Archipenko exhibited in Germany and found a receptive audience. Although post-war German artists at that time were exploring the possibilities of Expressionism and New Objectivity , Archipenko’s take on cubism, specifically Synthetic Cubism , caught their eye and spurred them to new ways of seeing the world around them. Archipenko left Germany for America in 1923, again escaping before the economic crises of the late 1920s paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis to assume control. As would be expected, Archipenko’s art found its way onto the list of “Degenerate Art.”. The Nazis forced German museums to expel all their works by Archipenko in the late 1930s, but by then Archipenko was an American citizen, teaching and working there for the rest of his life.

If you’re ever on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania , walk down to 36th and Walnut Streets and see Archipenko’s King Solomon (above, from 1963), erected just a year before the artist’s death. As war raged in Europe, Archipenko found asylum in America, adapting his sculpture over the years to include found objects (ala Duchamp , a friend from his Paris days), terra cotta, and even internal lighting. Whereas Blue Dancer is all lightness and air, King Solomon, done half a century later, is all monumental gravity and weight, a symbol of wisdom meant to inspire some intellectual gravitas in the undergraduates blithely walking by on their way to a game of Ultimate Frisbee . There’s a timelessness in Archipenko’s work that makes you wonder just how influenced he was by world events other than the most current art movements. Always one step ahead of the forces of oppression, Archipenko never allowed the negative energy of the world to touch him or his art.

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