The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2017

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JUL-AUG 2017 Issue


On View
Pace and Acquavella Gallery
Alexander Calder & Joan Miró: Constellations
April 20 – June 30, 2017
New York
On View
Whitney Museum of American Art
Alexander Calder: Hypermobility
June 9 – October 23, 2017
New York

Whimsy found little purchase in 20th-century modernism. Humor in Picasso’s Cubism notwithstanding, levity was hardly a priority in the march towards abstraction and universality. Piet Mondrian did not lighten up until he got to New York and channeled bebop in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43). Barnett Newman was an affable New Yorker, by all accounts, but his art is unremittingly serious. Whimsy was not part of the equation. Neither was pathos, sentiment, affection, nor figuration. Attractiveness, also, was a kind of neutral zone for many modern artists, not required, nor necessarily encouraged.

From Calder/Miró: Constellations. Alexander Calder, Constellation with Diabolo, 1943 wood, wire and paint 24 1/2" x 18 1/4" x 16" ©Calder Foundation, New York; Promised Gift of Holton Rower.

The art of Alexander Calder (1898–1976) was so radical because it was all of these and more. He redefined and expanded an entire medium, while fulfilling the purported prime directive of mid-century modernism: abstraction. Calder’s use of abstraction made it difficult for critics to discount him, but even as he adopted the visual strategies of Joan Miró, Jean Arp, and others, he retained a sensibility initiated in his famed and figurative Cirque Calder, begun in 1926. In the 1930s, he combined abstraction with a quality of entrancement through movement, in homemade contraptions of both delicacy and charge. In 1943, Clement Greenberg derided his work as “felicitous,” “gay,” and “exuberant”—inadvertently hitting on what has made the artist a lasting presence.1 For Calder was the Wes Anderson of modern art—formally rigorous yet fanciful, with a consistent, individualized vernacular. As Greenberg caustically and misguidedly continued, his “creatures all have the same personalities.” The buoyant impact of Calder’s creatures has spread far and wide, in the likes of Chris Burden, Mark di Suvero, George Rickey, Pae White, Tim Hawkinson, Niki de Saint Phalle, Nick Cave, Andy Goldsworthy, Olafur Eliasson, Dale Chihuly, and others—where would contemporary art be without his discovery that animation was an essential expansion of Cubist collage, Futurism’s frozen dynamism, and the Constructivist expansion into space? Perhaps still stuck in more rigidly defined performative, installational, and immersive strategies that are so much of today’s viewing experience. As seen in two concurrent, absorbing exhibitions of particular elements of his oeuvre, Calder is now embraced for who he was, for his innovations and innate humanist whimsy. Not just for being, like Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley—all of whom have just had big New York exhibitions—a pre-Abstract Expressionist American artist who participated in and then transformed European modernism.

From Alexander Calder: Hypermobility. Alexander Calder, Two Spheres, 1931, wood, wire, and paint, with motor. 21 1/2" x 11". Calder Foundation, New York; Promised Gift of Holton Rower Media. ©Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The great supporter of Calder in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art—in whose Studio Club the artist was a fellow in 1926, five years before the museum opened for exhibitions—has teamed with the Calder Foundation, established by the artist’s descendants in 1987, to produce an exquisite display of his early kinetic sculptures. Curator Jay Sanders, with Greta Hartenstein and Melinda Lang, opened up the entire eighth floor, breaking through part of the east wall to the adjacent cafe and its view of the city, to install thirty-six works in this single, floodlit space. Sanders said this open plan was inspired by seeing the top floor while it was under construction, and the effect is terrific. The shorter east and west walls have been painted a gorgeous symphony blue, and works are arrayed on platforms along the perimeter or overhead. The atmosphere is generous, and the sculptures can breathe.

From Alexander Calder: Hypermobility. Alexander Calder , The Helices, 1944. Bronze, 31" x 31" x 24" © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But they do more than that, per Hypermobility’s theme—to show how Calder, in his own words, was able to “compose motions” in his mobiles and motorized constructions. Against the deep blue, the connective wires of Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry) (1946)—a mobile over eight feet high owned by the museum—disappear such that the gently twirling array of white sheetmetal discs becomes an enveloping snowstorm. There are many such lovely moments in the display, including Two Spheres, a motorized work that has been restored to run properly for the first time since it was made in 1931. Against a two-by-one foot black background, two golfball-sized white spheres move painstakingly up and down or in a circle. If you arrive expecting an active, immersive spectacle on the level of Hawkinson or Eliasson you will be disappointed. Calder’s is durational, subtle, experiential art, demanding sustained looking. Museum staff animate the mobiles, and a selection of eight carefully restored motorized works are turned on a few times a day, although I have been there twice when works mystifyingly began to move. There is something marvelous about such randomness, but one must visit repeatedly to hope to see each in action. More dependable are the works put in motion by air currents as the gallery fills with visitors and the HVAC rears up, by gentle nudges from staff, or even a furtive blow from one’s mouth.

From Alexander Calder: Hypermobility Alexander Calder, Whip Snake (Snake on the Post), 1944. Bronze, 24" x 24" x 24" Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc. ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Brian Kelley.

Tracing artistic gesture through engineered motions was paramount in the artist’s three-dimensional practice. With his mobiles, he was able to draw or paint in air through the use of lines and colored forms moving in space. What gave rise to it? Perhaps Loie Fuller’s flowing use of mobile fabric in her dances; the permutations of flowing imagery in early film, such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924); or the quality of line in Miró’s paintings, one of the few modern artists who traded in whimsy and seriousness in equal measure. This affinity between the friends Calder and Miró is made plain in Calder/Miró: Constellations, a two-gallery show at PACE and Acquavella Galleries.

PACE President Marc Glimcher’s luminous and deeply researched show reveals Calder’s powerful reaction to America’s two-front war. Undrafted for military service and repulsed in his attempt to serve as a camouflage artist for the Marines, Calder hunkered down in Roxbury, Connecticut, and in 1942 began his Constellations series. The best of these twenty-some works are the Vertical Constellations that hang on the wall and “dictate their own height and perspective,” according to PACE. Specifically, their placement is determined by the angle at which the various carved and painted wood “objects,” as Calder termed them, burst out and upward like shrapnel from a central explosive core—they never sit flush on the vertical wall, but touch at corners or edges, like tethered rock climbers repeatedly bouncing off a craggy surface. Vertical Constellation with Bomb (1943) concretizes the metaphor—the artist had cryptically suggested they resembled “some kind of cosmic nuclear gases.”2 Like Miró’s contemporaneous Constellations, on view at Acquavella, they appear to be responses to a civilization in conflict.  From head-on they appear inert, but from four feet away and below, they defy gravity in their web of wires. In this way, they mimic Renaissance one-point perspective pictorial systems, which demanded viewers perceive works from one spot—they do not work from the side or directly underneath—you must find the visual sweet spot. Unlike the Whitney’s mobile works, the Constellations are static, but like true constellations in the heavens, remain unintelligible from a remote perspective. In Hypermobility, motion became paramount, controlled in the mechanized works, and through chance operations of natural energy in the many mobiles on display; but at PACE, the later Constellations through form alone break up the traditional harmony, solidity, and rootedness of sculpture in wires treated as force lines and elements propelled chaotically out into space. Additionally, at both the Whitney and PACE, shadows amplify the experience, creating secondary, ever-changing forms through the play of natural light over the course of a day. It is these dynamic ways of thinking about the expansion of the work into both the viewer's physical and temporal space that is most advanced in Calder’s fervid art of this period.

The limitation of the Whitney show is its absence of a catalogue (PACE and Acquavella have produced a three-volume set with Rizzoli). This is a worrying trend in present museum circles: frequent exhibition turnover stretches curators, rendering their ability to produce accompanying publications a challenge. The Whitney is to be commended for engineering a formidable online presence to complement the show, but this is dependent on the perpetuation of the institution and its servers. It is unfortunate that Sanders and his team, who have put in years preparing the display and digging through material in institutions and the Foundation—much of which now presumably only exists in their personal computers and heads—have been limited to three very brief wall texts and no object labels. The bold premise of this show, and its revelations, deserve to be commemorated in print. It is important that published scholarship, rapidly seeming a lost art, like Calder’s marvelous mechanical creations of four score years ago, be preserved and made functional for posterity.


  1. Quoted in Douglas Dreishpoon, “Sculptors and Critics, Arenas and Complaints,” in Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976 (New York: The Jewish Museum, 2008), 221.
  2. See the Calder Foundation’s chronology.


Jason Rosenfeld

JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail. 


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2017

All Issues