In the same year that this sculpture was created, Agustín Cárdenas participated in an exhibition in Paris that was intended as homage to the sculpted works of Brancusi. It was a fitting place for Cárdenas, given his close attention to the sensual, minimalist forms of his predecessor. As this lovely bronze sculpture reveals, organic forms and consideration of line were always of significance to the artist. Cárdenas's graphic works have also indicated his preference for areas of flattened, sensuous form combined with significant interventions of line.
The work's title is perhaps most significant, for it tells of the artist's growing sense of self, including the escalating influence of his culture and heritage on his work in Paris. Couple Antillais, or (Antillean Couple), speaks volumes about the subjects. The word originates from Antilia, which has been found on medieval charts denoting this part of the world. After Columbus's exploratory trips, the area was designated Antilles, which includes all the islands of what is now the West Indies. By virtue of naming his sculpture this way, Cárdenas makes reference to his own "authenticity" in light of his Parisian experience.
By the mid fifties, Cárdenas was creating the works with which he would become most closely associated, exemplified by increasingly elongated forms inspired in some measure by African art. Although throughout his lifetime Cárdenas specifically denied any overt influence in African forms prior to his first trip to Paris, it was in Cuba in the early 1950s that he encountered a Dogon "totem" in a book of poetry. Many of his drawings from this period reveal a strong affinity with Africanizing forms. Cárdenas constructed impossibly tall, elongated objects that again mimic organic forms at the same time that they clearly referenced Africanized subject matter. By this time, Wifredo Lam's influence in Cuba would also have been extensive enough to make Cárdenas at least consider the possibility of incorporating African forms into his work. As one critic has noted:
If only accidental similarities can be discovered in the vocabulary of both Lam and Cárdenas, there nevertheless exists a deep kinship: there is the same fundamental impulsiveness, the same outbreak of inner demons, the same faith in sensuality's dynamism...There is no doubt...that both the young sculptor and his senior, the painter, entered a state of grace the day the "African fairy" (in the words of Rimbaud), entered the Surrealist castle. (1)
When Cárdenas settled in Paris in 1955, he became acquainted with the work of the Surrealists and with André Breton. He had a successful career in Paris, showing his work almost immediately in various galleries including Gallerie L'Etoile Scelle, Galerie Suzanne de Connik and the Salon de la Jeune Sculpture. He also participated in the 1957 Realites Nouvelles exhibition and was included in the International Surrealist exhibition at Daniel Cordier Gallery in 1961. Another of the artists with whom Cárdenas certainly would have been familiar is the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta (1911-2002). Matta had left New York in 1954, settling in Paris in the same year. The figures in Cárdenas's sculpture bear a significant similarity to the elongated, ephemeral figures often seen in Matta's paintings of the mid-1950s. The presentation of the figures's limbs, their height and their relationship to one another bear a striking resemblance to Matta's own figures, simultaneously streamlined and complex.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Ph.D.
1) J. Pierre, "Cárdenas: Images and Aspects." La Sculpture de Cárdenas, 1971, 132.