Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Conversation with Frances Archipenko Gray

In late March, I visited the Archipenko Foundation in Bearsville, New York, a two mile drive due west of Woodstock center. Archipenko maintained a studio, home and school on this 13 acre wooded site for most of his career. He summered there, maintained his studio, and conducted classes in painting and sculpture for students looking to advance their artistic understanding. As you come through the main door of the Foundation you enter a clean white contemporary work place with computers on desks, lateral file cabinets and busy archivists performing a range of activities. But soon you realize that you are standing in the converted atelier for his school. A diagonal wall with a patchwork of large windows offers a view of a vertical moss covered rock wall of the former quarry that once occupied the site. In this well illuminated and irregular space, made by the hands of Archipenko, it is easy to imagine the former school filled with modeling stands, bags of clay and interested young students. A black and white photograph on the wall attests to the studio’s former life and its jumble of activities, accretion of materials and student work. Archipenko stands surrounded by young men and women and one sees the space as it once was, filled with a different energy and excitement.

I have come to meet Alexandra Keiser, Research Curator of the Archipenko Foundation. We have an appointment to go over the few details she might reveal about the artist’s teaching experience at Dalton in the early 1940s, or perhaps details of two gifted students, Lu Duble and Rhys Caparn, who subsequently taught sculpture at Dalton in Archipenko’s wake. Alexandra greets me, apologizes for not having very much information about Dalton and introduces me to Frances Archipenko Gray, the artist’s widow. Both Frances and Alexandra seem curious about my research as it offers them a small window into a history with which they are less familiar. We stand and talk and I fill them in on how Parkhurst brought all these interesting artists to her progressive school. As I continue to share my findings and ask questions, Frances invites me up the stairs to the connected living space, renovated since Archipenko’s time, to sit and conduct an impromptu interview. Without tape recorder, video or much preparation, I asked her a few questions to learn more about Archipenko the artist and teacher. My only distraction is Frances’ standard poodle Lucy who desires much petting and attention. Here are some of my recollections of our conversation.

Frances spent her youth in New York City, growing up in Washington Heights and attended The Calhoun School. She tells me that private schools were very different then, much simpler affairs, but that Dalton already had a reputation of its own of being more progressive and prestigious then her Calhoun. When she graduated high school she attended Bennington, already knowing that she wanted to make art. Frances began to study with the painter, Paul Feeley1, but she tells me that she didn’t want to commit to his formal class. She just wanted to work. She proposed to him that she paint in her dorm room throughout the semester, and invite him to critique her work at the end of the semester. She seemed surprised when he accepted, and even more surprised when he gave her a favorable review, admitting to me that she didn’t think her work at that time was very good.

As our conversation continues I am developing an impression of Frances as an independent and artistic young woman, ready and willing to engage in something real, tactile and tangible. Feeley offered just the right support to this independent mind, and when she was to apply to graduate school at Yale, Feeley would write her letter of recommendation. Frances would be accepted to the art program and enter in the fall, but she did something that summer that would change the path of her artistic explorations. She wished to continue working over that summer and her sculpture professor, Simon Moselsio, suggested that she might work either with Hans Hofmann or Alexander Archipenko. Archipenko, she was warned, did not always get along with some of his students and could be a bit gruff. But for whatever reason, Frances joined his summer session in the very Bearsville studio that she would eventually call home.

The summer group was small, and she remembered considering many of the students less committed to their art then she. She began studying painting and sculpture with Archipenko and her enthusiasm garnered attention from the master. I was curious as to the nature of his assignments, as they may have had similar themes to his teaching at Dalton. Frances gave me a few examples. Archipenko stressed line in much of his drawing and painting. Students used large sheets of paper and filled them with line drawings as preliminary ideas for sculptures. Archipenko would place emphasis on the lines and proportions, and at times he would alter one linear element in a student’s work. Frances said that this would cause you to rework the piece until eventually you would end up changing the whole composition.

She described another assignment where she would compose a three dimensional still life on a table surface, and then, with her back to the subject, paint the arrangement of objects from memory, not facing the composition she had just constructed. “He was big on memory,” she says. She loosens the severity of the assignment by telling me that you could look at your still life again, but not directly while you were painting. This exercise touches on the essential skill an artist must acquire to be able to “see,” then retain, and finally express.

From these drawing and painting exercises Frances was introduced to Archipenko’s sculptural domain. She had studied sculpture with Moselsio at Bennington modeling in plastiline and casting sculpture in plaster. Her first carvings were done under Archipenko’s tutelage, but first Frances had to construct her own worktable in the studio, using only hand tools to make her first piece of furniture. He was very “hands on” she tells me, and technically proficient. From here she was on her way to falling in love with sculpture.

By summer’s end Frances was ready to leave Archipenko’s Bearsville school and take on Yale. That fall, she found herself surrounded by a prestigious art program in this acclaimed university. The experience was completely different than that of Archipenko’s studio school. Instead of small classes, individual attention, and an emphasis on hands on experience, Frances found herself in a large and impersonal lecture class learning about the color theory of the famous Bauhaus master, Josef Albers. Her course was not even conducted by Albers, but instead by one of his teaching assistants. Each class began with a conceptual centering, and the students were made to raise their arms and trace the air, in unison, to describe both a horizontal and a vertical line. After a few weeks of this prescribed ritual, Frances approached the teaching assistant and asked what was the relevance of the exercise. The assistant did not offer a reason, but instead suggested that she bring her question to Master Albers himself. She was more than happy to do so.

When Frances met Albers face to face, she applied the same question, hoping to discover the meaning behind the gesture. Albers responded with a curt reply, “Perhaps this is not the right school for you.” It was clear that this was not the place for Frances to continue her studies. So within the first few months of her Yale education the young student packed her bags and returned to her home in New York. Softly, she tells me, “My parents were not pleased.”

It wasn’t long before Frances was to return to Archipenko’s studio to complete her education. Even today nearly 50 years after their marriage, Frances Archipenko Gray speaks with of her husband with tenderness and respect. He was a man of many talents and gifts. She speaks of his extensive knowledge of materials and processes, his love of travel and his deep connections to female friends and ex-lovers. He always remained a vital force and was always “truly alive.”

As far as Archipenko’s connection to Dalton, there is little information regarding his time at the school. In the late 1930s and early part of 1940 he was busy making inquiries at colleges and universities around the country, asking about possible teaching positions and opportunities to exhibit his work. In an undated letter from this time, his first wife, Angelica, writes to the artist from Mexico about a conversation she had with Rufino Tamayo about the possibility of a teaching position at Dalton and passed along Helen Parkhurst’s name as headmistress of the school. Tamayo was already teaching at the school and found the experience rewarding and thought Archipenko might find the same.

In one brief moment during our conversation Frances alludes to the fact that Archipenko probably didn’t enjoy his teaching experience at Dalton. In part it was not the right match. The students were younger than he was accustomed to teaching and the degree of dedication was most likely less committed. Frances also mentioned that Archipenko could feel distanced by his command of the English language that might also account for his short stay at Dalton. However Archipenko brought something of his genius and artistry to our institution as well as influenced two future sculpture teachers who were his protégés, Rhys Caparn (Dalton teacher from 1947-72) and Lu Duble (Dalton teacher until 1947). Both Rhys and Lu carried on the Archipenko tradition in sculpture with great success. They were connected to their students and loved teaching.

Frances Archipenko Gray was only married to Alexander Archipenko for a few short years at the end of his life, yet she has dedicated her life’s work to the stewardship of the Archipenko Foundation. She is the driving force behind the perpetuation of his legacy. Our discussion on a cool spring afternoon shed light on this master of Modernism and insight into his creative drive and powers as an innovative mind and teacher. Dalton was fortunate to have him in it’s midst, even for the brief time he was at the school.

1. This was the same artistic route that Helen Frankenthaler would follow a few years before Gray. After spending her senior year at Dalton and studying initially with Rufino Tamayo, she would continue her artistic career at Bennington, studying with Paul Feeley.

No response to “A Conversation with Frances Archipenko Gray”

Leave a reply

© 2009 Rob Meredith. All Rights Reserved | Powered by Blogger
Design by psdvibe | Bloggerized By LawnyDesignz