One of the great mavericks of 20th-century sculpture, Alexander Archipenko made some audacious decisions as an artist. He painted his abstract figures with bright pigments—a nod to the pre-Columbian and ancient art he adored—at a time when fellow Modernists didn’t dare disrupt the purity of the monochromatic surface, and he took sculpture off the pedestal and hung it on a wall, creating “sculpto-paintings” as early as 1913, long before artists like Frank Stella did so. But Archipenko might best be remembered for how he incorporated empty space into his three-dimensional work, transforming voids into sculptural volume.
His embrace of the void was the focus of “Alexander Archipenko: Space Encircled.” Organized in collaboration with the Archipenko Foundation, which is housed on the Catskills property where the Ukrainian-born artist opened one of his many schools in 1928 (after stints in Moscow, Berlin, and Paris), this rare survey was the first solo presentation of Archipenko’s work in New York since 2005. The 10 sculptures (and six works on paper) on view presented an enthusiastic and joyous creator, carving and casting abstracted female figures in a range of materials—terra cotta, painted wood, bronze, and Bakelite, among others. Stylized but also strangely naturalistic at times, the curves, planes, angles, and contours of Archipenko’s figures reveal the artistic influences he absorbed while interacting with the avant-garde wherever he went: Constructivists in Moscow, Cubists and Futurists in Paris.
But Archipenko’s most significant influence was the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who provocatively argued that the creative impulse was as vital to the perpetuation of mankind as any Darwinian force. To that end, sculpting was never just a matter of formalism for Archipenko, but a metaphysical exercise in harnessing the creative impulse and injecting that spirit into art. (Archipenko’s annotated copy of Bergson’s 1907 book Creative Evolution was included in the show.)
With that in mind, it’s not difficult to understand Archipenko’s voids as he did: as spaces that were not empty but filled with something esoteric—memories, fantasies, energy, or simply a sense of transcending physical existence. While a void might suggest an existential emptiness for some, in Archipenko’s hands, the concave bodies or hollow torsos of works like the terra-cotta Seated Figures (1913, 1931, and 1936) result in a lightening of the heaviness of human corporeality, physically and metaphysically.
Most interesting, however, is the way that Archipenko’s combinations of negative and positive spaces succeed formally in bringing an edgy sense of simultaneity and dynamism to his static figures. In the bronze Walking (1912–18/52), for instance, which Archipenko saw as a breakthrough work, according to the extensive catalogue accompanying the show, he used overlapping textures and planes and convex and concave arabesques to convey the movement of a woman making her way through the city. Her torso is completely open, encircled by a sensuous bronze outline. It resembles a line drawing in space, existing in two and three dimensions at once. This is where Archipenko feels most modern, as well as most successful in his aspiration to transcend the limits of mundane human experience through art.