The Other Picasso: Alexander Archipenko

Alexander Archipenko, ca 1920. Photo by Atelier Riess, Alexander Archipenko papers, Archieves of American Art, Smithsonian Institut, US.

Paris in the early years of the 20th century was the place to be if one were an aspiring avant-garde artist. Converging on this city of lights were Constantin Brancusi from Romania, Jacques) Lipchitz from Lithuania, Ossip Zadkine from Belarus and Alexander Archipenko from Ukraine. All pioneered an abstract approach to painting and sculpture with audacity and elegance, emphasizing clean, sweeping lines, playful forms and geometric structures. Rejecting Rodin’s classical sensibility, they created art for a brave new world.

Today’s post focuses on one of these pioneers: Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), who has been called the “Picasso of sculpture.” Like his peers, Archipenko was at the experimental forefront, and in his case, brought elements of Cubism to bear on sculpture. Born in Ukraine in 1887, he began exhibiting with the cubists and other avant-garde artists in Paris at the Salon des in 1910 and continued to do so until 1914. In 1912, he opened his own art school and joined a circle of artists that included Léger, Braque, Gris, and Picasso who collectively led him to develop an inventive art form called “sculpto-peintures” (painted reliefs) that blurred the line between painting and sculpture. A recurring theme in these painted reliefs and his three-dimensional sculptures is the human form. Almost always rendered beyond recognition, they focused the viewer’s attention instead on movement, time and space.

The immediate reaction to Archipenko’s reliefs is one of flickering action where the painted figures contradict their own flatness as though they were leaping out into space. Free from the flatness of the canvas, his three-dimensional sculptures are even more kinetic and playful. Here, negative space or what Archipenko called “the materiality of the non-existent” comes to the fore, with the void being as important as solid matter as elements of expression.    

Archipenko became a U.S. citizen in 1928 and remained productive until his death in 1964 at the age of 77. He is now regarded as one of the vanguards of the modern sculptural movement. Evidence of that can be seen in many of his works being exhibited in major museums including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

Selected Works by Alexander Archipenko

Painted Reliefs

Medrano II (1913-14), painted tin, wood, glass, and painted oil cloth, 50 x 20 cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Woman with a Fan (1914), wood, sheet metal, glass bottle, metal funnel, paint, 108 x 62 cm, Tel Aviv Museum.
Standing Woman (1920), oil paint on papier-mâché on wood, 49 x 31 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington.
Woman with a Fan II, 1915. Mixed media on paper. Private collection.
“Dancing”, sketch, circa 1914. Estate of Alexander Archipenko.

Three-dimensional Sculptures

Horseman, 1916. Bronze on the marble base. Height: 77 cm. Private collection.
Floating Torso with Head, c. 1935, signed Archipenko (on the front of the base), black painted plaster aggregate, 33 x 39.9 x 10.8 cm. Private collection.
Reclining figure, 1921/22, bronze with black patina, L: 30 cm.
Seated figure, 1913 and 1954, cast in 1970, bronze. H: 47 cm. Estate of Alexander Archipenko.
Torso in Space, circa 1935, terracotta, L” 55 cm. Private collection.

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