Calder's Cosmos: More Than Mobiles

Article excerpt

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. …