Alexander Archipenko is arguably one of the most important sculptors of the first half of the 20th century. He is often categorized as a Cubist and lumped in a group with Picasso and Braque as if a three-dimensional counterpart to the Parisian based painters. But Archipenko was more accurately part of a defiant offshoot of painters and sculptors who sought something different than Cubism. They met in the Paris suburb of Puteaux and called themselves la Section d’Or (the Golden Section). As their name suggests they were compelled to bring more structure and order to their artistic ventures then the Cubists. Douglas Cooper describes this faction in his seminal book The Cubist Epoch.
A serious division of opinion developed in the Cubist group in the summer of 1912 over the question of whether realism or abstraction was the real goal of the Cubist painting. The principal champions of abstraction gathered in the suburban studios at Puteaux of a mathematically and scientifically minded trio of brothers: Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Duchamp Vilion. The three brothers gave a scientific twist to Cubism and drew into their circle a few kindred spirits such as Gleizes, Leger, Picabia, Lhote, Krupka, and Gris. 1
Archipenko joined the Section d’Or group in October of 1912, announcing a few months later that he had severed his association with the Cubist group. While the work of Archipenko largely remains figurative, portraying mostly female forms, there are two major points where his sculpture departs from his contemporaries. First, Archipenko explores his figures by excavating the traditional volume, offering internal concavities as a contrast to the convex. He pierces his figures with silhouette apertures that offer formal relationships and new sculptural descriptions. In this way Archipenko is the first sculptor to explore this subdermal terrain to define internal form. Again Cooper articulated this point.
In 1912 Archipenko suddenly turned from making conventional figurative sculpture to working in a very modern sculptural idiom of his very own invention. His first piece Walking Figure (1912), already displays many of the stylistic elements which from then on were to characterize his work: formal abstraction, the use of forceful rhythms, the replacement of solid volumes by voids, and the reversal of roles between concavities and convexities. The result is an object of highly stylized abstract forms, which has little power to evoke a figurative image, although by the way the planes are slanted and the rhythms are set up, the displacement of a mass through space is suggested. There is of course nothing Cubist about such a piece of sculpture. 1
In his final sentence Douglas Cooper, an established authority on Cubism, pejoratively drops Archipenko from the roster of true Cubists, but Archipenko’s vision was intentionally different from his contemporaries, and while he sustained this type of criticism his whole life, he saw himself striving for something more. Archipenko was the consummate innovator, working with unyielding dedication to bring his particular vision to the world.
The second element that Archipenko brings to the sculptural arena is his employment of color as an integral component to the sculptural form. One cannot find a contemporary who is able to articulate the physical object as chromatically as Archipenko. His self titled “Sculpto-paintings” where vivid expressions in three-dimensional space. Not since the Greeks, with their highly polychromed architectural sculpture, had there been this vibrant combination of figurative form and color. Many of these polychrome works by Archipenko still shock us today. The best of the sculptor’s works, were fresh expressions that boldly represented the adventurous spirit of the early 20th Century.
1. The Cubist Epoch by Douglas Cooper, Phaidon Press, 1970