"Bottle Rack," 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

“Bottle Rack,” 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

Unless you want to spend your Valentine’s Day at the Hirshhorn Museum here in DC (hey, not a bad idea…) you will have missed the surrealist exhibit Marvelous Objects. If you don’t drop everything and go, stick with this post. It’s a fascinating show, and I say that as not the world’s biggest fan of melting clocks, De Chirico’s chilly dreamscapes, or one-trick dadaist ponies, like Duchamp’s urinal. Ho hum. But the objects gathered here are, many of them, marvelous indeed.

The first gallery, entitled “The Object” does have some moldy figs including Duchamp’s 1920 bottle rack (making wonderful shadows on the gallery wall). From there on, surprises abound.

"Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing," 1928. by Jean Arp Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT Purchased through the gift of James Junius Goodwin, 1937.91

“Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928. by Jean Arp

Among them is a fabulous array of Jean Arp’s two-dimensional pieces. The wall notes tell us that Arp developed his biomorphic nature-based art as an antidote to the horrors of World War I. I do love these works, maybe because they remind me of the papier-maché bas-relief pieces my father created in the ’fifties and ’sixties. “Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928, is one of them. A lot of their charm lies in their whimsical titles, which evoke a smile and a twist of one’s initial perception of the piece. As in, “Head with Annoying Objects (Mustache, Mandolin, and Fly),” 1930, bronze.

"Head with Annoying Objects...," 1930, by Jean Arp

“Head with Annoying Objects…,” 1930, by Jean Arp

Alberto Giacometti said of his artistic process, “I search, groping to catch hold of the invisible white thread of the Marvelous that vibrates in the void; from it escapes facts and dreams with the sound of a stream running over small, precious, living pebbles…” This crystalline vision is dashed by “Woman with her Throat Cut,” 1932, a creepy thing lying in the middle of the space like road kill. In his excellent review, The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott observes: “…it’s a strength of this exhibition that curator Valerie Fletcher is forthright about the almost inevitable direction that the freeing up of the creative mind would take so many of these men: straight to the rag-and-bone shop of mis­ogyny.” I prefer the serene “Reclining Woman who Dreams,” bronze and paint, 1929.

"Reclining Woman Who Dreams," 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

“Reclining Woman Who Dreams,” 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

Salvador Dali’s “Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, is a refreshing take on seduction and sexual ambiguity, featuring both a men’s shirt collar and tie and a brassiere tucked inside the jacket. The shot glasses originally held peppermint schnapps and viewers were invited to take a sip. A brave move, as some of the glasses have spiders suspended in the green liquid. As I viewed this amusing piece, a young woman chewing gum approached, giving the experience a minty verisimilitude. Also on view here is Dali’s “Lobster Telephone,” 1938. In the original, a real lobster replaced the receiver, and eventually added another fragrance to the viewer’s all-too-interactive experience.

"Aphrodisiac Jacket," 1936, by Salvador Dali

“Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, by Salvador Dali

I’m grateful to the curator for broadening my notion of surrealism by including such exemplars of “international biomorphism” as Henry Moore, David Smith, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro. One look at Miro’s “Lunar Bird,” 1945, bronze, and you know where Jeff Koons got a lot of his inspiration.

"Lobster Telephone," 1938 by Salvador Dali

“Lobster Telephone,” 1938 by Salvador Dali

The American visionary, Joseph Cornell, is given an entire room to display his “Dream Worlds in a Box.” Cornell, while working with many of the same materials as his brethren (found objects, printed ephemera, marbles, feathers), avoided any hint of sex or violence, preferring to create charming assemblages that evoke childhood fantasy, as in “Medici Princess,” 1948-1952.

"Lunar Bird," 1945, by Joan Miro

“Lunar Bird,” 1945, by Joan Miro

Providing “a darker view,” according to curator Fletcher, Isamu Noguchi is another artist whom I would not classify as a surrealist. Indeed, the Noguchi foundation’s website says the artist didn’t belong to any school or movement but “collaborated with artists working in a range of media.” Those artists include my beloved dance teacher, Erick Hawkins, for whom Noguchi designed beautiful stage sets. In any event, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was incarcerated for seven months at an Arizona internment camp for Japanese-Americans. The foundation’s website tells us that he asked to be placed there as part of his activism on behalf of Nisei writers and artists.

"Medici Princess," 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

“Medici Princess,” 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

Of his experience at the camp, Noguchi wrote, “The memory of Arizona was like that of the moonscape of the mind…Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent…where the imagination may roam to the further limits of possibilities, to the moon and beyond.” Made of cement, electric lights, cork, and string, “Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, is his testament to the experience.

In a gallery called “Industrial Strength Surrealism,” I was thrilled to see Alexander Calder’s “Fish,” (metal, wood, painted metal, glass

"Lunar Landscape," 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

“Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

and ceramic), 1944, an old friend featured in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks. You’ll also see it in the banner on this website. In this show, the piece is hung at eye level. Denizens of DC are used to seeing “Fish” float above them in the Calder room in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, now closed for renovation.

"Fish," 1944, by Alexander Calder

“Fish,” 1944, by Alexander Calder

Forged from farm implements and scrap metal, David Smith’s “Agricola 1,” steel and paint, 1951-52, is perhaps a better example of industrial art. This sculpture, with its bold and forthright abstraction, has a spirited presence. Once again, this admired artist would not fit my formerly narrow idea of a surrealist. No matter – I appreciated the more inclusive vision of the curator.

"Agricola 1," 1951-52, by David Smith

“Agricola 1,” 1951-52, by David Smith


And I hope you, dear reader, have enjoyed this glimpse – especially if you don’t get to see the show before it closes February 15, 2016.




"Three Quintains (Hello Girls," 1965

“Three Quintains (Hello Girls),” 1965

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.”

"White Panel," 1936

“White Panel,” 1936

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.

"Small Feathers," 1931

“Small Feathers,” 1931

More early wire sculptures in the

"La Demoiselle," 1939

“La Demoiselle,” 1939

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.”

"Snow Flurry," 1948

“Snow Flurry,” 1948

"Boomerangs," 1941

“Boomerangs,” 1941

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.”

"Constellation with Two Pins, " 1940s

“Constellation with Two Pins, ” 1940s

"Little Pierced Disc," 1947

“Little Pierced Disc,” 1947

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.

"Blue Feather," 1948

“Blue Feather,” 1948

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.”

"La Grande Vitesse," 1969

“La Grande Vitesse,” 1969

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.

"Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 1965," 1965

“Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 1965,” 1965,