The “starchitect” Frank Gehry shares a passion of mine (and many others): He’s an ardent Alexander Calder fan, having been smitten by this master of motion at a Guggenheim retrospective in 1964. Working with Stephanie Barron, the curator of LACMA’s modern department, Gehry’s group respectfully and sensitively designed this comprehensive exhibition’s display space. In her blog on the museum’s website Barron expresses “the desire to slow down people’s looking at the works of art. We purposely limited the selection to feature 50 objects—giving the art ample space to breathe. Gehry’s design underscores how to look at the works. We also wanted to encourage people to spend more time with individual objects so that the gentle movement can be observed.”
Although this is the first retrospective of Alexander Calder’s work to be displayed at in a museum in Los Angeles, his association with LACMA goes back to the opening of that museum in 1965 when the museum commissioned “Three Quintains (Hello Girls).” This joyous piece is installed in a pool near the Japanese Pavilion, just over the balcony that surrounds the museum cafeteria.
Unless otherwise noted, all the art displayed in the show is owned by the Calder Foundation.
Organized chronologically, the show begins with several eye-popping early “panels,” which Calder produced after meeting Joan Miro in 1928 and Piet Mondrian in 1930. Their influence, and that of other surrealists, prompted Calder’s radical foray into “kinetic 3-D” painting. Calder, in fact, first proposed the idea to Mondrian. “I suggested…that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.” Made in 1936, “White Panel,” is a standout of this period. Plywood, tubing, sheet metal, string, and paint fuse to create a mesmerizing piece that seems to contain the seeds of all the work to come.
More early wire sculptures in the
adjoining room include the charming “Small Feathers,” 1931, and “La Demoiselle,” 1939 (Glenstone Collection, Potomac, Maryland). By now, Calder is off and oscillating. Marcel Duchamp coined the name for this new art form: mobile. As Calder’s friend and contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, the mobile exists “halfway between the servility of a statue and the independence of natural events; each of its evolutions is the inspiration of a moment.”
In an alcove hovers the spectacular “Snow Flurry,” 1948. This breathtaking piece is given a private, almost sanctuary-like space in which it’s able to move and float in serene isolation, casting shadows on the walls. When Sartre saw “Snow Flurry” he wrote, “…suddenly, when the agitation had left [the mobile] and it seemed lifeless again, its long majestic tail, which until then had not moved, came to life almost indolently and almost regretfully, spun in the air, and swept past my nose.”
Another stand-out is “Boomerangs,” 1941, with its loopy suspension and bright yellow flock of boomerang shapes. Also made in 1941, “Tree,” is a delight. Of his work at this time, Calder said these “…abstractions are like nothing in life except in their manner of reacting.” Those of us who blew on the objects were scolded by the museum guards.
During WW II, Calder worked in wood, as metal was harder to come by. Echoes of his early interest in surrealism can be seen in “Constellation with Two Pins,” 1943, calling up the work of Arp and Magritte, as well as his long-time friend, Joan Miro. Included in the show is a wonderful photograph of Miro and Calder at the opening of the Calder Foundation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence.
Works after World War II include the affecting “Little Pierced Disc,” 1947, and “Blue Feather,” with its unpainted pieces and vivid Yves Klein blue “feather.”
In the fifties, as Calder’s reputation grew, he was invited to create large sculptures for public spaces in cities all over the world. Although these large “muscular and anchored” stabiles don’t turn in the wind, they nonetheless convey great movement and dynamism, as we see in an intermediate maquette for “La Grande Vitesse,” 1969 – the completed work is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Les Arêtes de Poisson,” 1965 (another maquette is seen here) virtually explodes at the Hakone open-air museum in Japan.
Nearby hangs a gouache and crayon design for the poster announcing the opening of LACMA and next to it is the poster itself.
The final treat was to watch the 16 millimeter film directed by Herbert Matter, “Works of Calder,” 1950, and narrated by Burgess Meredith, with music by John Cage. Rippling into view were waves in the ocean, breezes in the trees, a child flashing a mirror, reeds in the water. The natural world provided Calder all the inspiration he needed for form, movement, line and color. As the artist himself put it in 1962, “The basis of everything for me is the universe. The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle. I represent them by discs and then I vary them. My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses, and movement.”
Spending time with these pieces of art creates a profound sense of having seen remarkable, never-before-thought-of creations that possess the power to awe, charm, and inspire. In fact, seeing this show first made it almost impossible to look at any other art in the museum afterwards. If you happen to be in Los Angeles before July 27, do stop in. If not, check out “Hello Girls.” They’ll be happy to see you, and it’s guaranteed they’ll wave.