On a recent gray windy Monday morning, two young men could be found looking up and apparently studying intensely the sculpture of a Native American man that graces the corner of the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company’s Tower building at 9th and Hamilton Street.
Told by a passer-by that it was done by Alexander Archipenko, one of the young men said he was aware of that and identified himself as someone who helps maintain the sculptures. He noted that there was some concern about possible deterioration and how best to preserve them as they have been in place since 1927.
Over the years, PPL, as it now calls itself, has made many efforts, despite the changes in its mission, to preserve the Art-Deco tower that has been its home for almost 100 years.
While time’s tide and technology have understandably been responsible for many of the necessary interior changes to the building, its exterior, with the exception of an extension added in the mid -1960s and a new formal entrance on 9th Street, has remained largely the same as it was when a loaf of bread cost a nickel, Cal Coolidge was in the White House, and moviegoers were wondering if “talking pictures” were really here to stay or just a fad.
One of the remarkable things about the PPL Tower’s past has to do with the unique relief sculptures at its base. By an apparent combination of design and circumstance, one of art history’s major figures sculptor, Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) was chosen to do that work. And judging from the state of his life at the time, the PPL work may have been his first commercially successful project in America.
Archipenko was born in Kiev, now Kyiv, in Ukraine, then a province of the Czarist Russian empire. His father was an engineer and inventor. Some of his father’s mindset may have been passed to Archipenko because in the future, he would make various attempts to combine sculpture with machine-like movement. He studied the art of classical sculpture which was popular at the time, but found it stultifying and rigid.
Archipenko was not particularly political but following the unrest in Russia in 1905, local officialdom found his modern -themed work unsettling. If not revolutionary itself, the work was unorthodox. Finally, tired of answering the inane questions from the Czarist police and seeking the freedom to be left alone to create, in 1908 he fled to the art mecca of Paris.
There for the first time, Archipenko found an artistic milieu in which he could feel at home. Young artists from all over Europe and some from America were drawn to it.
Manet, Monet, Degas and a host of Impressionists had broken away in the 19th century, but those on the cutting edge in 1908 suspected them of hankering after bourgeois respectability.
Thanks largely to sales of paintings to wealthy Americans like Bertha Potter Palmer of Chicago by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, by the early 20th century, Monet was able to afford his comfortable country home at Giverny where he could house his family and paint in peace, in the fading sunlight (and in his failing eyesight), his beloved water lilies.
Patriotic Frenchmen that he was, the painter would occasionally grouse that so many of his works were crossing the Atlantic. But all evidence suggests Monet never turned down “le cheque”.
Avant-garde artists like Picasso were the heroes breaking all the rules. The cult of speed and machines was worshipped by the period’s poets. According to biographer, Brenda Wineapple, it was in 1905 that American expatriate art critic Bernard Berenson was asked by Leo Stein, fellow American, art collector and brother of the more famous Gertrude, to name a modern artist he might suggest collecting. Berenson replied, “Do you know Cezanne?” Cubism had entered history.
Paul Cezanne as a painter was far more conservative than those, like Picasso, who were creating abstract shapes and women that were at times barely recognizable as human. Archipenko’s shapes and twisted figures gradually found their way into his sculptures.
His first work recognized as Cubist was 1911’s “Draped Woman.” This was followed by the “Dancers.” It shows the heads of two figures reduced almost to pointed pikes and stick bodies. They were also painted multi-colored, a sacrilege in the art world of his day.
It was how figures and objects defined themselves in space that became an obsession for Archipenko. He would later note that the traditional belief that “sculpture begins where material touches space” was no longer true. “Sculpture may begin where space is encircled by material. Art in the shape of empty space should be no less important than the shape of solid matter.”
This idea of the role of space in defining sculpture, that the space was more important than the work of art, was widely misunderstood, sometimes deliberately. And Archipenko certainly did not make any money selling it. In the evening, he and fellow artist Fernand Leger would walk through the streets singing for their supper.
With the outbreak of World War I, Archipenko followed a large part of the art community from Paris to Nice in southern France. Here under the bright blue sky, he created sculpto-painting that combined a combination of wood, cloth and paper in the form of raised colored relief work. By the end of the war in 1918, his work had become more and more abstract.
In 1913, some of Archipenko’s works were in the famous New York Armory show where they were almost too obscure to be laughed at along with the bigger pieces that were laughed at.
In 1921 he had his first solo show in New York. Since no one apparently could begin to understand Archipenko’s art, they simply made fun of it. His sculpto-paintings were laughed at as little more than toys. The New York Herald had fun with his use of space. “Instead of doing the thing, Archipenko does the absence of it. He expresses their non-being as well as their being. Rather cosmic is he not?”
But while America laughed, Archipenko was the talk of the avant-garde. Now living in Berlin, the center of modern art for the new Weimar Republic, and teaching with a large number of praise-worthy notices in the press by the critics, he should have been thrilled.
However, the unsettled nature of the political scene in the German capital made him unhappy. As right wing and left wing mobs of armed thugs battled in the street outside his apartment, he was fearful of an unstable future. One side or the other would win. Whichever the victor, Archipenko suspected the outcome would not be good.
While in Berlin, Archipenko met and married his student Angelina Bruno-Schmitz, a sculptor and teacher in her own right who later worked in America under the name Gela Forster. Arriving in 1923 on the SS Mongolia, the couple discovered absolutely no one in America wanted Archipenko’s art.
Art critics laughed in his face when he tried to explain his theories. And from the public, caught up in tales of movie stars, jazz and bathtub gin, it was even worse. He was ignored. He did two conventional works, the busts of two senators, that were looked on as childish.
Suddenly around 1926-27, his friends in Europe noted a change in Archipenko’s letters. Instead of expressing regrets to ever having left Europe, they were upbeat. He wrote that he could not live anyplace else but America. By 1929, he had gotten together enough money to buy a 13- acre property near Woodstock in upstate New York. He also made the commitment that same year of becoming an American citizen.
Since chances are good Archipenko was not playing the stock market in 1929 and pulled out just before the crash, there is probably another reason for this sudden burst of prosperity that happens to coincide with the PPL sculptures.
That link very well could be Wallace K. Harrison (1895-1981), an architect who was working on the building with its primary designer, Harvey Wiley Corbett (1873-1954).
Corbett did not build many buildings, but he was a pioneer of the Art-Deco striped classic skyscraper with its signature “setbacks” that was to remain the preferred style of tall buildings until the glass curtain wall buildings of the late 1950s.
At his last known interview, given to the Morning Call shortly before his death, Harrison called the PPL tower, “Harvey Corbett’s great building.” Harrison recalled how Archipenko came out from New York by train and stayed in Allentown for several days overseeing the work’s placement. It is quite possible that it was at Harrison’s urging that Archipenko was selected for the PPL project.
WALLACE K. HARRISON AND THE ROCKEFELLERS
Harrison was later to become famous as one of the premier architects of the 20th century, participating in the architectural team that designed Rockefeller Center, designing the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center and serving as Director of Planning on the United Nations complex among many other things.
Harrison had a long-standing interest in modern art starting in the time he spent in Paris at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in the early 20s.
In 1926, Harrison married Ellen Hunt Milton whose brother was married to Abigail “Babs” Rockefeller, the oldest child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Trained by their mother, Abigail “Abby” Rockefeller, a long- time art patron, the Rockefeller children grew up with an appreciation for art.
In 1929, the Rockefellers founded the Modern Museum of Art, aka MOMA, in New York. In the early 30s, Harrison established some ultra-modern buildings on his estate in West Hills, Long Island that provided a place for European and American artists to meet and share ideas.
When representatives of the management firm for the Rockefeller Center wanted to drape Harrison’s RCA building in Byzantine and Romanesque trim, he complained all the way up to John D. Rockefeller Jr. who backed him up.
Where many wealthy families in America laughed at modern art, the Rockefellers did not. One of the most passionate was Nelson Rockefeller who, while governor of New York (1959 – 1973), employed Harrison in many projects, in particular the government mall center in the state capital at Albany. He also oversaw projects like the placement of sculpture for Nelson at Kykuit, the family’s New York estate.
The governor, grieving over the death of his son Michael in New Guinea, and frustrated by statements of 1960s political pundits that Americans would never put a divorced man in the White House, devoted more time to art. He got so worked up on one project, he had the sculpture lifted and moved by helicopter.
ARCHIPENKO’S LATER YEARS
It is unknown today what Archipenko was paid for his work on the PPL project but, perhaps more important were the links it made for him with those in the modern art circle like Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art.
Later Barr and Archipenko would clash over what direction modern art should take, but those initial contacts helped the artist find a place for himself in the New World.
In the 1930s, sculptor Ann Weaver Norton, later a prominent sculptor in her own right, served several years as Archipenko’s apprentice. In that same decade, Archipenko and his wife would live for some time in southern California and New York. In the 1940s, she taught sculpture in Mexico.
By the 1950s, Archipenko was doing what he loved most, teaching and making abstract art. His Woodstock area property had become a thriving summer art school. He also enjoyed cooking dinners for students, once saying cryptically something like, “if you don’t enjoy garlic, you can’t really appreciate modern art.”
Tragedy struck in 1957 when his wife died after a long illness. In 1960, Archipenko married again to a former student, Frances Gray.
Archipenko’s income also allowed him to keep a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. It was there on February 25, 1964 while working passionately on a sculpture, after ignoring advice by his doctor that he slow down, he died of heart failure.
Chances are good Archipenko would not have wanted it any other way.