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Much has been seen of the American artist Alexander “Sandy” Calder (1898–1976). And much has been said. Despite the perpetual relevance and freshness of Calder’s art, it is hard to speak about him without descending into cliché-land. Even my words, as I type them right now, sound in my head like a narration from some 1970s documentary on Calder, spoken in a British accent over a soundtrack of “modern” percussion and atonal squeaks, as grainy footage of a Calder mobile — rotating in the breeze with a surprising gracefulness for something its size — rolls across the screen.
But anyway, fear of clichés aside, here’s my take on things: Born in Pennsylvania of Scottish ancestry, Calder had a big body and a bigger personality — and an even bigger pedigree, descended from a line of classically-trained sculptors. (It is rumored that works by three generations of Calder-family artists can be seen, spectacularly, from a single vantage in Philadelphia, looking out across the city from behind the Calder mobile that hangs inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
I remember, at a young age, identifying with Calder’s childlike innocence when I viewed his “Circus” video, which was a permanent fixture in the lobby of the Whitney’s Breuer building. The ancient video conveyed the sense that Sandy was something of a gentle giant, while his odd speaking voice made him sound like an incomprehensible teddy bear.
The essence of Calder is, without a doubt, his dexterity and sense of scale with wire and thin metal. He was all about making stuff. His ability to “draw” in 3-D space by bending, coiling, and linking wire, riveting pieces of metal, and painting his creations in buoyant primary colors, always formed a direct, fluid, and graphic connection between his hand-eye facility and our curiosity and visual attention span. It works.
But the Calder myth would be nothing if he hadn’t broken through to the unprecedented concept of the mobile. Interestingly, the word “mobile,” appears to have been coined by Calder’s close friend Marcel Duchamp in 1931. Duchamp was of course thinking partially in French by combining the word for “motion” and “motive.” The mobiles turned out to be remarkably well engineered, and responded not only to air currents, but to light, humidity, and the slightest human interaction. Installed in the upper atmosphere of many living rooms and large museum atriums, Calder’s mobiles are breathtaking, and breath-making.
You could say Calder cornered the market on the mobile industry. And with this leap into mid-air, he escaped the problems that most sculptors were (and still are) faced with — the ground. But this entailed breaking the cardinal rule of sculpture: that dangling things from strings (or, say, fishing wire) is bullshit. Because it skirts the central formal concern governing modern sculpture: going from the ground up. This rule-of-thumb goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and then the Renaissance, where contrapposto was invented as a means to twist (and thus unlock) the figure from its solid blocky totem through a very tricky game of removal, via hammer and chisel. While most traditional sculptor dudes were banging their heads against the ground, Calder stepped into an entirely new paradigm, closer in a way to that of the model airplane hobbyist or light fixture designer.
While Calder’s invention of the mobile is an achievement of epic proportions, it was Calder’s invention of the stabile that matters most to his conception of and contribution to sculpture. The stabile not only grounds Calder’s ideas, providing stability to his thinking, but it allows him to build freestanding, empathetic creatures, with heavy frames and big hearts just like ours, that remain connected to the figurative tradition. (Even Calder’s bent-wire works resemble the hidden interior armatures used in clay figure sculpture. While making it new, Calder, to his credit, stayed with figuration, as did other abstract artists of the time, like Henry Moore and Anthony Caro.)
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The minute I arrived at the Dominique Lévy Gallery on 73rd Street to see the new Calder show, I was handed a pair of paper shoe covers, like the ones surgeons wear. The elevator opened onto the 3rd floor, and I sat on a little bench outside the exhibition space trying to get them on. A big security guard saw me struggling and sweetly came to my rescue. He got down on one knee, fumbled with the little baggy and stretched its elastic band over my shoe. (Now, why couldn’t I do that?)
I would have loved to just take my shoes off and enter the room in my socks, but I thanked the cool security guard anyway and cautiously ventured inside the first of two immaculate white rooms, each filled with about twenty petite and/or miniature Calders.
The floor was white as hell! White retro Arp-ish curved stages had been installed, with maybe ten poles extending a few feet up and topped by circular mirrored trays, upon which were sitting (or hovering) dainty Calders. The gallery, which had been aesthetically enhanced by the architect Santiago Calatrava (b. 1951 in Valencia, Spain) and his son, Gabriel, was now a boutique.
Problem. As I homed in on the first brilliant, wiry Calder to study the exact way it achieved stability and balance, and how it rose with such grace and surety from the surface, I became confused. Frankly, I could not understand what I was seeing. Where did the sculpture stop? Where did the plane of the ground establish its authority? Why had a rational, present, three-dimensional thing been transformed into a flat, dizzying, receding mess? Even my camera was too confused to focus.
Immediately I knew that the architects were to blame. Their mirrored circular trays (more like cheesy cocktail lounge tables-for-two, to be honest) required that each sculpture be set down on top of, well, a mirror. In my most far-out imaginings, I’d compare it to those 70s disco shows where dancers boogied down on their own little elevated private platforms. The mirrors even reflected shadows of the sculptures back up onto the ceiling, forming another “far-out” distraction.
I could not see, and thus feel, the “touch down” of these works — the point where all the Calder-delight, suspended in the stabile’s forms, comes in for a soft landing. I could only see upside-down and backwards. All the specificity of the Calder — the exact pinpointing of intersecting planes, lines, joints, ties, links, rivets, nuts, and levers — had been shot off into an optical “no man’s land.” (Dan Graham might have a good time with these optical impossibilities, brought on by the vague disorientation of metal-meets-mirror.)
The show’s press release clearly states what the Dominique Lévy Gallery and the architects had in mind:
Each of these platforms present several works, with each work placed on its own mirrored disc. The mirrored discs are then mounted on thin poles of varying heights. The reflective bases create an illusion of expanding the physical size of Calder’s pieces, while paradoxically enhancing the sense of intimacy with the viewer by providing perspective at all points of the sculpture. The various heights provide each work with its own area of suspended space, creating a kind of ‘individual atmosphere’ around every one of Calder’s objects.
Sounds great. But I’m not so sure if the mirrored pedestals really did provide increased intimacy, atmosphere, or perspective. The following line, on the other hand, is not conjecture or wishful thinking, but an undeniable fact: “The reflective bases create an illusion of expanding the physical size of Calders’ pieces […]” But why?
I was put off, to say the least. Each work, I would argue, must be suspended over or set down on a solid base to be observed carefully, soberly — to be understood. It was now a strain to sense the work’s core, its center of gravity, and to experience its minimal combination of gestures. Calder’s thinking — his sculptural articulation — is what counts, and how carefully each work is balanced without ever a hint of the enemy: symmetry. Smoke and mirrors are simply unnecessary when you’re dealing with objects that possess this degree of perfection and charm.
And yet, Calder’s talent as a sculptor (and engineer) speaks for itself, even as the architecture interferes. And this show, with its amazing inventory of works on loan from the Calder Foundation, delivers on its totally earnest goal of rolling out the red carpet for Calder’s positively masterful small works. (It is well worth the trip up to 73rd Street.)
Finding myself close and yet far from their tidy, unifying balance, I began to focus on fragmented details, and to home in on a few mobiles incorporating found stuff — a little lost button or a cute pebble — that were indicative of Calder’s urge to go into assemblage, I suppose. The most striking detail I took away was found in one piece that had three or four very tiny circles suspended by screw-eye formations off a tiny rod. All I could think was that the smallest of the tiny white circles was the exact — and I mean exact — size of the circular paper chads left behind by those ubiquitous hole-punchers we all used to have in grade school.
There was another delight in the show that truly blew me away (more conceptually than visually). I am referring to one of Calder’s “kit pieces,” which are well described in this passage from the press material:
In 1945, his close friend Marcel Duchamp proposed a presentation of Calder’s small-scale works, many created from scraps rendered in the making of other works. ‘Let’s mail these little objects to [Louis] Carré in Paris, and have a show,’ Duchamp suggested. Calder liked the idea and, intrigued by limitations on parcel size imposed by the United States Postal Service, began to conceive of larger, collapsible sculptures that could be easily transported via the international airmail system.
* * *
The single most striking work of the show (in person and in photograph) is a stabile in black, with triangular spikes tilted up and out in numerous directions (“Cafritz Fountain” [maquette], 1966). This iconic piece, despite its diminutive size, held my attention from across the room. And it reminded me of what Calder is all about — or what viewing Calder is all about — the tension between 2-D and 3-D perspective.
Peripeteia. Your eye gets hooked on a 2-D shape from a distance and as you are compelled to move towards this stimulant, a 3-D field begins to open up. Amidst this 3-D field emerge new 2-D planes and shapes that were previously obscured… and onward. Your eye follows these new shapes (like visual bait) until you have traversed the sculpture inside and out. By the time this has happened, you have, most likely, circled the entire piece without really being aware of your own physical movement — you had gotten lost in the looking experience. By twisting us up in a game of, let’s call it, “dimension switch” — from 2-D to 3-D and back again to 2-D — the piece, in fact, moves. But without actually moving. It moves because it has made us move. In fact, the stabile holds its ground.
Ironically, Calder’s work with mobiles contradicts what I am saying about his stabiles, for they are kinetic. In a few hybrid works, Calder assigns a stabile the task of holding a mobile. Here, our investigative steps as we encircle the stabile fold in with a more relaxed, passive observation of the motion of the mobile, and the work comes to life like a gentle giant dancing in his socks in the rain.
Alexander Calder: MULTUM IN PARVO continues at the Dominique Lévy Gallery (909 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 13.