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Calder's cosmos: more than mobiles.

A centennial exhibition reveals The playful Alexander Calder to have Been more serious, multifaceted, and complex Than previous shows have allowed.

Of all modern artists, Alexander Calder remains one of the hardest to get a fix on. Say what? Calder is everywhere--his mobiles and stabiles are in innumerable public and private spaces. Emblematic of Calder's renown is the giant mobile suspended above the concourse of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, in which the artist's delicate, almost-lighter-than-air sculptural language is inflated beyond all meaning into a Brobdignagian public art. Even the idea of the mobile itself, once so innovative, has fallen victim to ultimate mainstream acceptance--the transformation into a child's crib toy. It's a case of the artist as poster boy. What's important, in this view, is not what an individual work tells us but rather what it stands for--civic renewal, hipness, and the like.

Calder's very ubiquity, then, has paradoxically worked against him, reducing his accomplishment to a one-dimensional caricature to the point where it has been difficult to measure that very accomplishment. Was he a major twentieth-century sculptor, or just a kind of upscale toymaker who happened to hang out with the right crowd?

In other words, for some time it's been easy to dismiss Calder as, forgive the pun, a lightweight. To complicate matters further, a series of exhibitions over the last two decades has alternately confirmed and called into question this assessment.

In 1976, for example, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a soup-to-nuts retrospective that only unquestioningly perpetuated the received wisdom about Calder as a major modern artist and shed little light, on his work or accomplishment. About this time, the museum placed Calder's original Cirque Calder (a miniature circus of articulated figures that brought him renown in the late 1920s) on permanent display in its lobby. These two events cemented the artist in the public mind as basically an entertainer.

Then in 1987 the Whitney organized Alexander Calder: Sculptures of the 1930s, a small exhibition of sculptures the artist had made in the immediate aftermath of his discovery of abstraction and the aesthetic principles of Modernism. Suddenly, a completely new and more substantial artist emerged, one that anyone familiar with only the work of the 1960s and '70s would never have glimpsed. Here was an artist capable of transcending his materials and the constructivist technique to evoke a subtle interior poetry.

This was followed in 1989 with The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, a show that consisted solely of the objects the artist made for his private use or as gifts to others--decorations, pieces of jewelry, and household utensils. It was a marvelous exhibition that showed as nothing previously had the inner workings of his sensibility. For the first time we saw a mind very similar to Picasso's, one that could see in the smallest, most insignificant object, part, or fragment from the material world the germ of a totally new creation. One came away from this show feeling that, like Picasso, Calder was incapable of looking upon something and not imaginatively transforming it. Here again was an artist of greater weight than one had previously thought.

But then came Picasso and the Age of Iron at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1993. In this show, devoted to the origins and legacy of constructed sculpture, Calder was in company with (aside from Picasso) Gonzalez, Giacometti, and David Smith, and the results were a disaster. Around those heavyweights Calder again looked like a lightweight, a confectioner.

So there's never been an artist more in need of a retrospective--not to celebrate, as many of them simply do, but to examine. Fortunately, this long-overdue exercise has now taken place in Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through July 12 and traveling to San Francisco this autumn. And it is a superior show, inasmuch as it presents us with a wholly new view of the artist--deeper and more nuanced than we have had in a generation. It has to be considered the definitive Calder show of our time, an exhibition destined to shape our understanding of this artist for the foreseeable future.

Proper Focus

Organized by Maria Prather, curator of twentieth-century art at the gallery, this show, despite what its title suggests, is not a retrospective of the kind the Whitney organized twenty years ago. While it does include a generous selection of work from the 1920s and earlier--particularly the celebrated wire "three-dimensional drawing" sculptures--it focuses, quite rightly, on the period of the 1930s and '40s as Calder's richest and most ambitious phase, the ground on which arguments for his importance should take place.

Those early pieces are a revelation. If the measure of an artist is his ability to draw, then Calder certainly had what it takes. He had the same keen eye and ability to capture the essentials of three-dimensional form through line as Matisse and Picasso, the same skill at suggesting volume by means of a carefully wrought and calibrated contour or outline drawing. The difference is that he chose to draw in wire instead of pencil, in three dimensions.

These wire pieces and the even earlier carvings are notable for something else that would carry over and become central to Calder's later abstract work: their emphasis on pose and gesture, weight and balance, physical stress and strain. Most of his wood animal carvings--Lioness (1929), Elephant (1928), Horse (1928), Cow (1928), Pelican (1929), and Nymph (1928)--show living form at rest or else in motion, either tensely or languorously still or else in transition (twisting, running, or stretching). Calder's keen sense of the inner stresses and strains of human and animal bodies are what mark these sculptures as more than the early, experimental work of an artist who still has to find his true voice. They are central to his subsequent development.

As is widely known, two pivotal encounters shaped the maturing of his art. In 1925 in New York, Calder drew pictures of the circus for the magazine National Police Gazette and became mesmerized by its spectacle and excitement. In 1926 he moved to Paris for a time, and four years later he visited Mondrian's Paris studio, where, swayed by the Dutchman's abstraction, he became a committed Modernist. Calder's mobiles, invented in the early 1930s (and christened "mobiles" by Marcel Duchamp), grew out of his early wire drawing/sculptures. In the mobiles, he brought to a climax modern sculpture's obsession with making space an integral plastic ingredient, and also its lesser interest in motion through that space. And in a way perhaps not seen in modern sculpture since Picasso's painted Cubist absinthe glasses of the teens, Calder's mobiles unashamedly engaged with painting. In their forms and arrangements (if one can use such a term in speaking of sculptures whose parts are designed to be in continuous, somewhat random motion), Calder's sculptures are frankly pictorial, their evanescent, insubstantial forms appearing to inhabit an illusory realm accessible to the eye but not the hand.

Layers of Meaning

One of the major revelations of this exhibition is the view it gives us of Calder as a many-faceted artist. There are levels of thought and meaning in his work one has rarely, if ever, seen before. Anxiety is one. For all the playfulness of the sculpture and Calder's artistic persona, undercurrents of tension pulse through his work. The poise of a 1945 sculpture that is both mobile and stabile is bluntly undercut by the sharp, spiky tendrils of the stabile part and by the work's title: Bayonets Menacing a Flower. Clearly, World War II made itself felt on even so sunny a sensibility as Calder's.

Also, during the 1930s and early '40s Calder became in a way the foremost Surrealist sculptor. In works such as Gibraltar (1936), the artist's trademark engineering skills are harnessed to a poetic sensibility to produce work that, for all its physicality, is suggestive of an interior world of dreams. Particularly Calder's two-dimensional shapes often function in the same way as the biomorphic forms in the Surrealist vocabulary of Miro and Masson. Wooden Bottle With Hairs (1943), with its intimations of the repulsive, might be Calder's equivalent of Meret Oppenheim's Fur Teacup. And in keeping with the Surrealist outlook, a pronounced sexual dimension is discernible in Calder's sculpture. However much the conelike shape in Elephant Head (1936) may suggest a pachyderm's trunk, its position halfway through a hole in another metal form clearly suggests something else.

It also becomes clear that Calder's infatuation with the circus was not a passing romance but something that enduringly influenced his art. The poise, balance, leaping through space, and sheer physicality of circus performers became translated directly into his constructed sculpture from the 1930s on. Often, for example, the supporting members of a stabile are shaped to suggest that they are supporting, in the dangling and floating mobile members, a great weight. They look tensed. This is a direct sculptural counterpart to the circus strongman holding aloft, on a single upraised arm, a female acrobat.

(Interestingly, one of Calder's earliest carved efforts, Totem Pole (1929), depicts something very similar: three men standing on each other's shoulders.) Unaltered by this exhibition is the childlike sensibility, the playfulness at the core of Calder's art. Until now that's all we've seen. The achievement of this exhibition is to give us an artist in the round.

Alexander Calder, 1898-1976 is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through July 12 and is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from September 4 to December 1.
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Title Annotation:Alexander Calder
Author:Griess, Ernest
Publication:World and I
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Words:1602
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