New York CityPace
September 14 – October 26, 2019
A fascinating glimpse into the origins of Alexander Calder’s thinking and evolution, this abbreviated retrospective is a rare opportunity to examine the artist’s early experimental and tentative production. The show follows Calder’s singular career, illuminating the artist's later, resolved and fully realized work, deploying some 70 objects from the mid-1920s through the 1950s. These are marked by surprise and variety, starting with Calder’s exuberant animal sketches, followed by his sketched-in-wire portraits set in space with shadow-play perspective, and culminating in his strictly abstract paintings, created in the 1930s.
The tiny, dashed-off animals on torn squares of paper embody movement itself. Whereas the early, minimal, primary-colored paintings are perilously close in spirit and geometry to the essentially static work of Piet Mondrian (whose studio Calder visited in 1930). There are also unlikely references to the warmer, modernist abstractionist Arthur Dove and Joan Miró’s celestial paintings and sculptures. All of these allusions place Calder in time and often in place (from Paris studios to the Central Park Zoo in New York).
Despite his absorption of the European avant-garde, Calder was decidedly American. Such figures as the comedian-actor Jimmy Durante and the multi-dimensional Russian-born artist-theorist John Graham—subjects of Calder’s wire sculptures—testify to the character of his artistic and intellectual involvements documenting the 20th century’s integration of dance, theater, film, and music as well as sculpture and architecture in the generation of his work. And certainly, there’s a strong undercurrent of improvisational jazz in the often-unexpected, syncopated movements of the sculptures.
Best of all, this show underscores how insistently Calder connected his art and work, and the gallery space does the same with its curved, embracing walls that seem to mimic and activate the sculptures. Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33), Calder’s first hanging mobile, includes the many elements of his mature practice—not least, geometry, motion, decoration, kinetic art, and music. Two strong, affecting sculptures that bridge the artist’s early- and mid-career are the table-top, motor-driven Double Arc and Sphere (1932) and Dancing Torpedo Shapes (1932). Marcel Duchamp coined the term “Mobile” after seeing these sculptures in Calder’s studio. The sculptures have an appealing roughness about them with their unpolished, painted surfaces and their handmade quality
Then there are the Matisse-like cutouts in the mobiles of the ’50s, such as Black Mobile with Hole (1954), with spatula-shaped limbs and palms, almost adding a touch of domesticity to the work. The subtle yet dramatic installation also exudes a moodiness and deadpan theatricality that conjures the hermeticism of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957). We expect to see Buster Keaton shuffling around the props, including a mute broken-down crate and a bunch of listless bottles.
As in a Cubist painting, points of reference in many of Calder’s sculptural works continually shift with each movement of the observer’s head and body. Volumes seem to vary in density as they do in tone— making perspective nearly ungraspable. The motion brings the forms to life, and volumes reflecting light and caught in shade seem to vary in density. We perceive weight as we do color. As the sculptures are turned on by the participation of viewers, minds and senses are in turn activated by the works. Walking through the exhibition, the viewers, like the mobiles, move and perform.
We can see in the early paintings, more than in the black and red finely finished pieces of the ’50s, the charm and reach of Calder’s works, just as we can discern in his Mondrian-ish paintings have a touch of the future with coarsely painted surfaces that call to mind Robert Ryman’s. Calder, who was trained as a mechanical engineer, conveyed the strength and stolidity of his steel medium at the same time that he revealed the delicacy and spontaneity of his craft using string, wire, and paint. Double Arc and Sphere and Dancing Torpedo Shapes combine dignity and wit—posing like punctuation marks and assuming dancer-like postures, always appearing about to strike or topple. Calder moved from the lightest possible forms to the weightiest, provocatively maintaining a delicate balance. One interesting and disconcerting aspect of this show is that it is essentially a sampling of signature Calder-isms, showing a trajectory as well as confusing it with a sense of this-and-that-ness—an inevitable consequence of its being a retrospective that draws unequally from different times, styles, and mediums. His signature, though, is nevertheless unique and unmistakable.