Agustín Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)
Agustín Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)

L'histoire n'est pas finie III

Agustín Cárdenas (Cuban 1927-2001)
L'histoire n'est pas finie III
burnt wood
149 x 2¾ x 2¾ in. (379 x 7 x 7 cm.)
Executed in 1958.
Galerie du Dragon, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Paris, Galerie du Dragon, Cárdenas, 1961.

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] Supported by a grant from the Cuban government, Cárdenas settled into the Cuban pavilion of the Cité Universitaire, joining the pioneering generation of young Cuban and Latin American artists who descended upon Paris in the 1950s. For Cárdenas, as for Wifredo Lam a generation before, his encounter with West African culture in Europe would be a watershed moment for the development of his sculptural language. Although the presence of African culture was ubiquitous in Cuba, eminently spread through the santería and palo monte religious cults, very few visual remnants had survived the colonial period. It would be in Europe that Cárdenas would discover the artistic forms of African culture, powerfully awakened through his search for dynamic and universal form.

Cárdenas first encountered a Dogon totem in a published reference in Cuba, and as his sculpture began to evolve upward he arrived at his first "totems" in 1954-55. Totemic preoccupations persisted through 1958, leading to the vertical leanness and almost geometrical stylizations of works such as Chevalier de la nuit, Composition verticale, and L'Histoire n'est pas finie. "In the early works in wood," Ricardo Pau-Llosa has remarked:

Cárdenas stressed the blunt presence of the medium itself while evoking, through formal allusion and titles, the world of Afro-Cuban ritual. Cárdenas associated totemic approximations of the infinite and the archetype of the Great Chain of Being, to the tension between the voluptuous and abstract properties of organic forms.[2]

The articulate alternation of fullness and void, elongated in the vital upward impulse of Cárdenas's totems, draws deeply from the visual traditions of African and Oceanic tribal arts. The totemic connotes more than a simple cultural allusion, however, and Cárdenas's slender vertiginous volumes also embody universal aspirations that share in the humanist and existential concerns of the collective post-war ethos.

In the work of Jean Arp, Henry Moore, and above all Constantin Brancusi, Cárdenas found the conceptual premise and visual precedent for his sculpture. The vertical energy of L'Histoire n'est pas finie III, calibrated through organic contours and hollowed forms, creates an integral plastic rhythm that breathes vital energy into the blackened grain of the wood. Like Brancusi's Endless Column, the present work gravitates upward in measured movements, opened volumes alternating with solid forms in serial permutations that ascend upwards, stretching over twelve feet high into space. Sharing a commitment to a truth to material aesthetic with his European peers, Cárdenas capitalized on the direct carving technique to erect his tapering wooden totems, respecting the integrity of the material. Cárdenas blackened the wood of L'Histoire nest pas finie III 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 primitive.

"For me," Edouard Glissant concluded in his analysis of the early sculpture:

Cárdenas work is one of the first in modern art in which one can sense at once the presence of history. . . . But we are subject always to an injunction of the sculptor, through which he leads us to an illumination that is of our time.

This history is not yet over, as Cárdenas reminds us in the title of the present work; and indeed Glissant reflects that in "this great silent art" there is already written "the memory of the future."[3]

[1] Agustín Cárdenas, quoted in J. Pierre, La sculpture de Cárdenas, Bruxelles: 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.
[3] E. Glissant, "The Legendary World of Cárdenas," in Agustín Cárdenas, Chicago: Richard Feigen Gallery, 1961, 11-13.

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