“Cárdenas belongs to a group of kindred spirits who during the 20th century have made sculptures an intellectual activity, ‘a mental thing’ according to Leonardo’s principles, but without cutting off contact with beauty, beauty that discovered its fundamental truth in the primitive art of Africa, native America and the Pacific. Thus the true peers of Cárdenas are Brancusi, Arp and Henry Moore...”1
On the occasion of Frieze Masters from October 6 to 9, 2016 in London, Almine Rech Gallery is pleased to present Agustín Cárdenas’s sculptural work. This exhibit, along with the important parallel retrospective of compatriot painter Wifredo Lam at the Tate from September 14 2016 to January 8 2017, will together showcase two of the most significant Cuban artists of their time.
Born in Cuba on April 10, 1927 Agustín Cárdenas was the son of a tailor, whom he worked with as a young man. In 1949 he turned to sculpture, which he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in San Alejandro under a former student of Antoine Bourdelle, Juan Jose Sicre, and whose assistant he also became. Cárdenas retained from the master’s classicist training a form of monumentality less rhetorical than plastic. In an intense phase of exploration, he built his style and established “his feminine canon on large stratums, on voluptuous roundness, raising thin stelai with hollow terracing”, letting emerge the motifs of the couple and maternity, which would be widely recaptured later on.2 Before leaving for Paris, then a genuine world center for creativity in his eyes,3 “it is a Dogon totem reproduced in a book that gives the first impulse to a ‘return to the African sources’. The influence of his compatriot and elder Wifredo Lam may also be at the origin of a bursting of the figures’ shapes: twisted, stretched, hollow (but not in Henry Moore’s way), which makes the subject hardly recognizable”.4 Throughout his career, “like Wifredo Lam, his compatriot and spiritual brother, Cárdenas translated black magic – not from the model – but as a realization of an essential abstract belief ”.5 Wifredo Lam, the other great Cuban artist, whose paintings dominated by man-animal figures merge cubism, surrealism, African and Afro- Cuban art, met André Breton in Paris, where he settled in 1952. In 1955, the arrival in turn of the young sculptor in the capital was a decisive step: “According to his own confession, it is in Paris that he becomes aware of his negritude in the way Césaire and Senghor perceive it. He discovers it in ethnographical museums, and above all through his hold on contemporary art.”6 Soon after moving to the city, Cárdenas became associated with the Surrealist circle and was invited from 1956 into galleries of Breton’s allegiance, such as the Etoile Scellée gallery – just like Wifredo Lam in 1953 – where he exhibited his work with another of his compatriot painters, Fayad Jamis. In 1959, he had a solo exhibition at La Cours d’Ingres gallery for which Breton wrote a text that concluded in praise of Cárdenas: “Here comes flying out of his fingers the grand blossoming totem who, better than a saxophone, curves the belle’s waists.”7 That same year, he took part in the 8th International Surrealist Exhibition presented at the Daniel Cordier gallery. “Breton instantly recognized at La Cours d’Ingres a visionary capable of restoring lost powers to mankind, a creator whose hand “holds in suspension what increasingly greedy, alas increasingly weaned men, will aspire to see, to hear, and also to feel, taste...”8 Around 1959 Cárdenas returned to large-scale works in marble and stone (granite, lava from Volvic) that he presented at the Dragon gallery in 1961, the year of his second solo exhibition, garnering the admiration of Edouard Glissant, the poet from Martinique. These new materials provided an alternative to wood, initially favored in the sculptor’s work, and the production of new motifs. During this same period, Cárdenas interest in large-scale works progressed toward the monumental, and the artist participated in several international sculpture symposiums in Austria, Israel, Japan and Canada. In 1965, he presented Après le feu (After the fire), comprised of in burnt wood, at the last International Surrealist Exhibition L’Ecart Absolu, (The Absolute Discard), organised by Breton at the Oeil gallery in Paris. An invitation to the May Salon in Havana, organised by Wifredo Lam in 1967, offered Cárdenas the opportunity to return to Cuba after twelve years of absence. From 1968, the sculptor mainly lived and worked in Meudon-Bellevue and Nogent-sur-Marne near Paris, but also in Canada, Austria and Japan, and the Italian town of Carrare, where he sculpted marble, and in Pietrasanta where his bronze sculptures were cast. In 1972, Le Point Cardinal gallery granted numerous exhibitions to Cárdenas and promoted his work to global recognition. Cárdenas retired to Cuba in 1995 where he died on February 9, 2001.
1 André Pieyre de Mandiargues, ‘Remercions Cárdenas’, Panorama 74, Paris, 1975. 2 Jean Leymarie, ‘Cárdenas’, Haim Chanin Fine Arts, New York, 2002.
4 Maurice Allemand, ‘Cárdenas’, Cimaises, Paris, 1971.
5 Emile Langui, ’Cárdenas sculpteur exceptionnel’, Galerie de France et du Benelux, Brussels, 1974.
6 Jean Leymarie, ibid.
8 Jean-Michel Goutier, ‘Eloge de la caresse, Agustin Cárdenas et ses amis surréalistes’, Château Biron, Dordogne, 2012.