New Ukrainian Museum casts Archipenko in a new light
By Bonnie Rosenstock
With its inaugural exhibition, Alexander Archipenko: Vision and Continuity, the Ukrainian Museum, which opened its new home at 222 E. Sixth St. in the East Village on Sun., April 3, has reintroduced its most brilliant star to the viewing public.
In 1920, they wrote that in painting there is Picasso. In sculpture, there is Archipenko, said Professor Jaroslaw Leshko, guest curator and professor emeritus of Art at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. The exhibition affords visitors an opportunity to explore and experience the creative breadth and sheer beauty of the art of one of the 20th centurys most influential and innovative sculptors.
While Picasso is a household name, even though the Ukrainian-born Archipenko (1887-1964) lived and worked in the United States for 40 years, he is known only to the cognoscenti. However, this exhibition, the first-ever comprehensive retrospective of his work in New York City (in 1970, MOMA had an exhibit of his Paris years), should rightfully restore the prolific Archipenko to the pantheon of modernism giants. The exhibit consists of 65 sculptures and sculpto-paintings, the majority of which come from the collection of Frances Archipenko Gray, the artists widow and president of the Archipenko Foundation.
Other works come from a number of private collections and museums.
Professor Leshko, who wrote the excellent explanatory panels in English and Ukrainian that accompany the show, has organized the exhibition around four dominant rubrics, or sections, which showcase Archipenkos innovative genius and experiments with the human figure.
He put in place the concept of construction in a very public and progressive way, stated Leshko. His most important formal introduction into the history of modernism is the idea of translating the most volumetric part of the body [the torso or the head]. You punch it through a hole, so you can literally put your hand through a sculptural figure. It had never been done before and caused a great sensation at the time [around 1914].
While Professor Leshko organized the themes, what pieces to show and what went where, it was left to the architectural firm Morris Sato Studio to design the installation. Michael Morris and Yoshiko Sato are graduates of Cooper Union and have lived and worked together in the East Village for almost 20 years. They have built and exhibited countless architectural projects in the U.S., Japan and Europe. However, they were excited about the challenges of working on their first fine art exhibition, especially in their own backyard.
Archipenko did a lot of drawing on how he thought his artwork should be seen, said Morris. His lighting was part of it, but I dont think he ever presented them that way, partly because of the technology and because he wasnt involved with his own exhibitions. We tried to honor that by creating lighting environments in addition to the physical environment that would be appropriate to the content behind the work, Morris said.
Lighting is nowhere more paramount than in Form and Space. This theme is the only one set in an enclosed space. (The two-floor exhibit affords ample space to view most of the sculptures from all angles.) In a muted room, a series of sculptures, on a raised white platform and mounted on Plexiglas posts, are dramatically lit from above and below. The effect is that of a bizarre forest of vertical concave/convex forms. Volume and void transference, or the substitution of a void for a head or a torso, is Archipenkos most radical innovation, explains Professor Leshko.
Content Into Form explores various themes relating to the human spirit: the world of entertainment (Boxers, Dancers), religion (Adam and Eve, Ascension), historical figures (Cleopatra, Queen of Sheba) and the mother-and-child motif, to name a few. Two photographs of Médrano I and Médrano II represent his experiments with kinetics. (The Cirque Médrano also fascinated Picasso.) Morris and Sato have created a three-dimensional computerized animated interpretation of the lost free-standing M-I, with the right arm holding a ball, which is projected onto a wall. (M-II, at the Guggenheim Museum, is too fragile to travel.) It was credited as being one of the first sculptures by a Western artist that had a moving part. But even in the 21st century, there are still hiccups, acknowledges Morris. There were a couple of misdimensions that the person who interpreted the drawing put into the computer, so we had to fix them by hand, he said with a laugh.
Walking and not walking is the predominant theme of Motion and Stasis, and a highlight is the motorized Dance from 1912-13. It turns so slowly that its barely discernible, so its a surprise when it appears in a different position. In the 1920s, Archipenko, invented the now-lost Archipentura, the notion of the moving painting, which employed Venetian blind-like slots, so that when he moved them, a new figure would appear on the surface of the machine. In this section is also The Ray, a static, iconic figure influenced by Archipenkos historic past, from Ukraine and the Byzantine tradition, explains Leshko, and is an interesting counterpoint to Médrano.
Archipenko was constantly incorporating new processes and materials, like plastic, bakelite and formica, which Construction, Materials, Colors examines. Architectural Figure is a wonderful example of his reintroduction of painted wood and terra cotta into sculptural forms. In Bather and Woman with Fan, his sculpto-painting, a merging of painting and sculpture, is evident.
In 1923, Archipenko moved to the United States. Six years later, he purchased a stone quarry in Bearsville, N.Y., near Woodstock, which became the site of his home, studio and art school. Four years before his death in 1964, he married Francis Gray, one of his students, who has established the Archipenko Foundation. Its main mission is to encourage scholarship and the exhibition of Archipenkos work, most of which is warehoused Upstate.
For Gray, this exhibit is revisiting a lot of things the foundation is trying to bring forth, especially for young people, she said. What I like so much about this particular venue is that its close to Cooper Union and a whole population of artists and art historians that are going to look at it with a fresh eye.
Public programs, including a lecture series, a symposium and gallery talks, will accompany the exhibition. An illustrated 180-page bilingual catalogue, written by Professor Leshko, is available for purchase, as well as educational material for teachers, students and families. The exhibition will run until Sept. 4 and will then travel to the Elvehjem Museum in Madison, Wis. (March 31 to July 30, 2006) and to Smith College of Art in Northampton, Mass. (Sept. 16 to Dec. 3, 2006). The Ukrainian Museum building, an awesome $9-million, 25,000-sq.-ft. three-story brick-and-glass structure, represents the culmination of a decade-long project that has finally come to fruition, thanks in large measure to the overwhelming support of Ukrainian communities across the country. It is designed by Ukrainian-American George Sawicki, a 1968 graduate of Pratt Institutes New York City School of Architecture, whose firm Sawicki Tarella Architecture + Design, P.C. is located in Soho. The gracious building includes spacious galleries, a state-of-the-art collections storage facility, an auditorium, a library, a gift shop and a cafe.
In its cramped headquarters on Second Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts. since 1976, the museums extensive collections of Ukrainian folk art, fine art and photographic/documentary archives couldnt be adequately displayed. These treasures will continue to serve as the major sources for program development, while the museum takes its place among the citys major cultural institutions.
The Ukrainian Museum, 222 E. Sixth St., between Second and Third Aves. Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Telephone: 212-228-0110. Entrance fees: $8 for adults; $6 for students and seniors; children under 12 free, accompanied by a parent.