High-Wire Act

Article excerpt

IT'S DIFFICULT TO KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF ALEXANDER CALDER. He is solidly positioned within the pantheon of twentieth-century sculpture but doesn't quite fit the conventional academic narrative that runs from Picasso's Guitar through David Smith to Minimalism and beyond. He is arguably one of the most beloved and readily identifiable artists of his time, but it can be tough to take him completely seriously. Even if he's given a free pass for painting Braniff airplanes (a commercial undertaking that seems almost prescient in light of the until very recently expanding appetite for spectacle in the art world), his work still has a tendency to slip into the reference frame of decoration. It can seem slight. And even though Calder's sculptures are staples of public art, relatively little thought is given to their genesis. This is a shame, because for better or for worse there is really nothing else like them. "Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933," now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, sets out to place Calder's eccentric sensibility in a historical context and to shed light on the origins of his later and more familiar work.

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Between 1926 and 1933, Calder spent most of his time in Paris. He was the child of two artists who had themselves lived there, so his personal history may have amplified the generic pull that a curious and ambitious young American would have felt toward the mecca of artistic culture. By the time he left for France, Calder had passed through phases as an engineering student, an illustrator, and an aspiring painter heavily in debt to the Ashcan School. He already possessed the basic tools and turn of mind that we associate with his later work, but his whimsicality and structural inventiveness had not yet found their places within a coherent, personal artistic idiom. The Parisian art scene obviously focused him and allowed him to take seriously elements in his own nature that were waiting to be turned loose in his art.

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Calder brought an American pragmatism to art, in both the colloquial and philosophical senses; his art needed to do something, and to operate socially, in order to feel meaningful to him. He had been precociously playing with sheet metal and wire since he was a kid, making sweet, nutty little animal figures and toys for his own and his family's amusement. Just before leaving the States, he published a how-to book, Sketching Animals (1926), that reveals much about his future approach to his work, as well as his profound identification with the animal kingdom. Calder's inner illustrator was never far from him. He had astonishing facility as a "wire caricaturist" and made numerous portrait heads of public figures (Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Durante) and of the people he was meeting in the Parisian art world (Fernand Leger, Amedee Ozenfant, Joan Miro, and many more). These manage somehow to have both the immediacy of street sketches and the gravity of Roman busts. By 1929, he had appeared in a news-reel called "Montparnasse--Where the Muses Hold Sway," making a portrait head of Kiki de Montparnasse, a key social figure in the Parisian art scene. His reputation as "the wire guy" was by this time widespread.

In addition to portraits, Calder's imagination ranged across an array of subjects not normally associated with cutting-edge art: mythological scenes, animals, sports figures, and his beloved circus acrobats. The sculptures vary widely in scale and complexity; some, like Hercules and Lion, Spring (Printemps), and Romulus and Remus (which wryly incorporates found wooden knobs as nipples and genitals), all 1928, are surprisingly large and forecast Calder's greater ambitions. (In 1929, the latter two were exhibited in Paris and received some critical notice.) Hercules and Lion is a particularly provocative object. It hangs from the ceiling, predicting a central feature of the artist's future work, and renders the violent and ferocious fight between man and beast with piercing economy. …