Agustin Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)
Agustin Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)


Agustin Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)
burnt oak
110¼ x 19 x 14¼ in. (280 x 48 x 36 cm.) including base
Executed in 1969.
Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas.
Acquired from the above.
Milagros Maldonado collection, Paris.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 20 November 2001, lot 6 (illustrated in color).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J. Pierre, La Sculpture de Cárdenas, Bruxelles, La Connaissance, 1971, no. 105 (illustrated) and p. 117 (illustrated).
Exhibition catalogue, Agustín Cárdenas: Esculturas 1957-1981, Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes, 1982, no. 15 (illustrated).
Paris, Fondation Nationale des Arts Graphiques et Plastiques, Cárdenas, 16 June - 30 September 1981, no. 11.
Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes, Agustín Cárdenas: Esculturas 1957-1981, August 1982, no. 15.

Lot Essay

"In Paris I discovered what a man is, what African culture is, what it is to be a Negro," Cárdenas declared in 1967, twelve years after his arrival on Christmas Day of 1955. (1) For Cárdenas, as for Wifredo Lam a generation before, his encounter with West African culture in Europe would be a watershed moment in the development of his sculptural practice. Although the presence of African culture was ubiquitous in Cuba, spread through the santería and palo monte religious cults, very few visual remnants survived the colonial period. Cárdenas had first encountered a Dogon totem in a published reference in Cuba, but only in Paris did he discover firsthand the vitality of Africa's artistic tradition, powerfully awakened through his search for dynamic and universal form.

Cárdenas arrived at his first "totems" in 1954-55, and totemic preoccupations persisted through the following decades as his sculpture evolved upward and took on myriad archetypal and anatomical dimensions. The articulate alternation of fullness and void, elongated in the vital upward impulse of his mature work, suggests important sources in the visual traditions of African and Oceanic tribal arts. Yet Cárdenas's sculptures also make reference to the humanist and existential concerns of the postwar period, evoked in their fluid dissections of the figure and organic syntax of bone and tissue. "The overall formal silhouette of the figure or object is pierced by positive and negative spaces both equally conceived in biomorphic forms," Ricardo Pau-Llosa has remarked. "It is the elements of the anatomy, stylized and abstracted, which, entwined to form a new aesthetic anatomy, represent the mounting or habitation of beings and things by invisible powers."(2)

A totem of a male warrior, the present work embodies a powerful virility in the striking angularity of its interpenetrating forms and in the erotic transfiguration of anatomic volumes. The towering vertical energy of this work, suggestively calibrated through organic contours and hollowed space, creates an integral plastic rhythm that breathes masculine energy into the blackened grain of the wood. A muscular counterpart to Cárdenas's many female totems, Lui projects an aggressive monumentality: skeletal forms ascend upward in a syncopated rhythm, joints and tissues puncturing the opened volumes with powerful centripetal force. Cárdenas blackened the wood of Lui by burning it, imparting as a result a rough luminosity to its surface: the accentuated veins of the wood echo the verticality of the totem itself and nod to an innate relationship with the material and its looming figural presence.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) A. Cárdenas, quoted in J. Pierre, La sculpture de Cárdenas, Brussels, La Connaissance, 1971, 132.
2) R. Pau-Llosa, "The Prism of Universality: An Approach to the Sculptures of Agustín Cárdenas," Agustín Cárdenas, Coral Gables, Gary Nader, 2000.

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