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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Shape-shifter
Alexander Archipenko worked out a modern approach to sculpture
on
New ways of seeing: 'Seated Black Concave.'
New ways of seeing: 'Seated Black Concave.'

Revolutionary Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko moved to Paris from Moscow just as the Cubist movement was getting off the ground. He came to know Marcel Duchamp and other avant-gardists in the early part of the 20th century, and his imagination was ignited by the new ways of seeing that were rapidly evolving in France. 'Alexander Archipenko: Vision and Continuity' (which runs through Nov. 26 at the Chazen Museum of Art) includes early pieces from that period of his career, reflecting budding modernism's fascination with 'primitive' African and Oceanic art as well as its interest in depicting moving, multi-dimensional bodies and objects. Archipenko works out the latter in the dynamic bronzes 'Dancers' and 'Boxers.'

Archipenko's innovations were manifold, and to provide some clarity, this traveling exhibition tries to organize things according to a series of formal sections such as 'Content in Form.' Some sections also emphasize his move to America. Unfortunately, the Chazen has staged much of the show in the larger of its Brittingham Galleries, and the sheer number of pieces that fill it makes following this schema a chore. We get it all here '- his experiments with color, his use of widely different materials, his fusions of painting and sculpture, his reduction of the female human torso to a fish-like shape in repose -' but at times everything seems like a bit of a jumble.

That said, 'Vision and Continuity' is crammed with wonderful pieces that are just as rewarding without reading the wall texts. Several, including the blue-black bronze 'Seated Black Concave,' make striking use of voids and scooped-out concave sections to represent female forms, a new way of suggesting volume for which Archipenko became well known. Examples of his innovative, plaque-like 'sculpto-paintings' are another highlight, particularly the sumptuous 'Cleopatra' and the more austere 'White,' richly worked pieces in which he achieved an intriguing balance of colorful painted effects and polished light-colored wood and Bakelite sculptural forms. Produced in the '50s, these two works are both decorative and complex and are wonderful distillations of Archipenko's formal preoccupations. One of the good things about the way 'Vision and Continuity' is arranged is that they're presented as a kind of culmination of his artistic life.

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