By Michele Leight
Alexander Calder is one of
the most beloved American sculptors of the 20th century with the
uncanny ability to make us gaze at his creations with the wonder
of children long after we have left childhood behind.
Calder turned serious sculpture
into "play," but a new show "Alexander Calder:
The Paris Years," at The Whitney Museum of American Art projects
an edgier, more intentional Calder during seven influential years
he spent in Paris, 1926-1933, where he created his first mobile
"Alexander Calder: The
Paris Years" is sponsored by CIT and is on view at the Whitney
in New York from October 16, 2008 to February 15, 2009, when it
moves to the Centre Pompidou, Musee National d'Art Moderne in
Paris, from March 18 to July 20, 2009.
Surprisingly, this show focuses
primarily on wire portraits and caricatures transformed from hardware
store wire, and many depict famous friends and fellow artists.
There are winsome early toys, utilitarian objects and Calder's
beloved "Circus," that show the youthful sculptor's
metamorphosis from playful inventor to the now universally recognized
creator of aerial sculpture - "or mobiles."
Fans of "Calder's Circus"
will be pleased to find an expanded version of the one usually
on permanent display at The Whitney - a gift of the sculptor -
that throws new light on this extraordinary creation as a catalyst
for his ground-breaking mobiles, and his first mobile is included
in the show.
Other Calder works include
early oil paintings and sculpture, a marvellous scrapbook that
serves as a fascinating autobiography of Calder and his circle,
virtuoso impressions of circus animals and their trainers in sketchbooks,
as well as photographs and newspaper articles that offer an atmospheric
and lively framework for viewing his progress during these influential
years. These are accompanied by riveting documentaries, shown
for the first time in the United States, including "Montparnasse
- Where the Muses Hold Sway," (1929) in sepia tones, that
conveys the exciting, yet uncertain times that preceeded World
War II with rare footage of Josephine Baker "strutting her
stuff," and where Calder is seen as a member of the artists
community in Montparnasse, creating wire portraits of Kiki de
Montparnasse, the most famous artist's model of the time.
This atmospheric documentary
offers a fascinating glimpse into the café society life
in which Calder and his peers moved, including the nightclub where
legendary Josephine Baker held audiences spellbound with her elegant,
exotic, "Jazz Age," dancing. She is thankfully preserved
forever in celluloid, leaving no doubt as to why she impacted
so many artists of her generation, including Calder, who created
four wire sculptures of her, three of which are re-united for
the first time at this show.
"Le Grand Cirque Calder,"
1927 (1955), also shown for the first time in America, is a documentary
film made by Jean Painleve, who first saw the artist perform his
Circus during his "Paris Years," and made the film some
25 years later. It is in color and shows Calder "performing"
with his Circus, which he did to amuse and impress audiences that
included such giants of modern art as Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp,
Joan Miro, and Fernand Leger, who became lifelong friends. They
sat fascinated, serious, on packing crates or on a bed in his
Paris studio, while Calder operated the cranks and pulleys that
activated trapeze artists and tightrope walkers and a retinue
of circus animals. Special effects included dropping chestnuts
behind the performing elephant, after which Calder somberly "pooper-scooped"
In the exhibition catalog "Alexander
Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933," Joan Simon, co-curator
of the show writes:
"In addition to creating
and performing what might now be called an early example of performance
art - given the necessity of the artist himself for its presentation,
the fact that improvisation altered his commentary as well as
the sequence of acts, and that it was staged in places other than
theatres - Calder made mobile toys for his own amusement and commercial
production, as well as animals of wire and found objects. Calder's
first Paris-made. three-dimensional objects were in many ways
unclassifiable, in part because they were made with commonplace
materials and because their mechanical workings gave some a gadget-like
appearance, but mainly because his works did not look like sculpture:
they lacked mass, had the linearity of drawing outlining volumes,
and often moved through space. These led Calder to his first fully
wire sculptures, also caricatures, of celebrity Josephine Baker
and a boxer in top hat and tails, and doll-sized wire sculptures
of public figures, social types, sports stars, as well as fully
three-dimensional, open form wire portrait heads."
With coils of pristine wire
ripe for manipulating in the background, young "Sandy"
Calder is shown with pliers in hand in a photograph by Therese
Bonney (1894-1978) on the title page of the exhibition catalogue,
edited by Joan Simon, Whitney Curator at Large, and Brigitte Leal,
Curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, who are also co-curators
of the exhibition. The catalogue is a pleasurable and informative
read, published by Yale University Press.
From the first toy dog Calder
made for himself at the tender age of 11 to the circus animals,
sophisticated wire "Josephine Bakers" with spiral breasts
and swinging hips and his first "mobile," sculpture,
Calder's creations are infused with what inspired him the most
Calders's radical contribution
to modern sculpture is that he took it off the floor, replaced
traditional marble and wood with light metal wire, suspended it
from the ceiling, and made it move. The greatest sculptors
of the past were ground-breaking in their day, but Calder pushed
the envelope, triggered by what he described as a "shock"
after he visited Piet Mondrian's studio in Paris in 1930. The
"mobiles," which look new and exciting today, had to
be even more dazzling in the context of his lifespan (1898-1976).
The name "mobile"
was given by his friend Marcel Duchamp, a perfect description
for the abstract, airborne sculptures that Calder liberated from
"mass," incorporating movement as a "material"
itself for the first time. The sculptor described it as "drawing
The "Calder Scrapbook"
(1926-1932) is a revelation. Clippings and memorabilia assembled
by him, including newspaper and magazine articles, often annotated
in his own hand, plunge us into Calder's life and times during
his "Paris Years," and by all accounts it was an exciting,
vibrant place to be for artists, a city where American writers,
entertainers and artists cut quite a swath.
The backdrop of this exhibition
is Paris, but the historical context includes Prohibition (1920)
and The Great Depression in America, which began in October 1929
with the stock market crash. Many expatriate artists and writers,
including Calder, moved to Paris in the hope of finding work,
to attend art classes, or to write - and definitely to sit in
a public cafe and drink alcohol without fear of being handcuffed
and carted off to jail! Hemingway, who preceded Calder to Paris
by over a decade, wrote famously of expatriate Jake Barnes in
"The Sun Also Rises," a hugely influential novel
that describes the years following World War I in Europe, and
notably Paris and Spain.
Published by Scribners, New
York in 1926, "The Sun Also Rises" was the closest
Hemingway came to an autobiography. In it he describes the lingering
emotional turmoil wrought by a devastating war that has just ended,
the experience of being among American expatriates abroad, and
the spectacle of bull fighting. The allure of other cultures,
especially Spain and France as Hemingway described it had an enormous
impact on Calder's generation - and Calder. The Jazz Age, with
its excesses and wayward pleasures offered a vibrant interlude
between two world wars. It is sobering to realize that World War
II would begin only six years after Sandy Calder's return to New
York from Paris in 1933. It is no wonder that dancing, singing,
circuses - entertainment and performance - held such importance.
A superb little bull created
by Calder at The Whitney Show recalls the machismo of the
bullfight, the vigor of The Jazz Age, and male virility and power
in a world increasingly threatened by economic uncertainty and
the dark cloud of war. The bull is well documented in newspaper
and magazine articles in Calder's scrapbook and it appears beside
him in the photograph mentioned earlier, by Therese Bonney in
It may come as a surprise to
many that Calder first wanted to be a painter, and long before
he went to art school he attended The Stevens Institute of Technology
in Hoboken, where he studied mechanical engineering which he did
not enjoy, but it became invaluable training when he gravitated
to mechanical toys. These brought him much needed income, and
enabled his tiny "Circus" trapeze artists to negotiate
the high wire without embarrassing themselves. When Calder was
drawn deeper into sculpture and abstract art, his earlier mechanical
training became a huge asset, the critical underpinning of mobile
sculpture that he called "drawing in space."
Perhaps the most important
revelation of this show is Calder's groundbreaking "performances"
with his beloved "Circus," an art form that did not
even have a name then. "Performance" was not accepted
as "art" in Calder's day, as it is now.
Unless the onlookers were Le
Corbusier or Marcel Duchamp, who understood Calder's genius, he
must have looked like an eccentric who could not resist tinkering
around with artifacts from his childhood toy chest. For many today,
Calder is probably most famous for his playful, "Circus,"
a fantastical tour de force comprised of wire circus animals
and their caretakers, circus tents and trapeze artists. The wonderful
trunks he used to transport this menagerie are on view at this
show, smothered in labels of hotels and the cities and countries
where he performed with them. Calder's "Circus" was
an intrinsic part of "the Paris Years," a pivotal and
important period in his creative life that is prominently displayed,
at the show, together with a moving film of the artist performing
and doodling in wire gave birth to magical forms from the humblest
of materials. His art resonates because it is presented without
artifice or posturing, or the intellectual mantle often ascribed
to the art of his peers, who were among the most cerebral artists
of all time - like Mondrian and Duchamp. Calder possessed just
as much "intellect" and "smarts" as any of
them, he just used it differently.The motorized "mobile,"
illustrated above, is a wonderful "smart" sculpture
worthy of an architect.
Atmospheric paintings and sketches
of the circus, including many of animals, by Calder show the impact
circuses had on him at a critical time in his creative evolution.
The first spontaneous sketch
of his circus and how it was to be laid out is one of the highlights
of this show. It is a wonderful art historical document.
like the wire sculptures, and his later mobiles, was not static
- he chose to "perform" it. Movement was essential to
Calder, and he devised a way for animals and performers to move
with his help. Later, he engineered his mobiles to "move"
on their own, free of earthly constraints or human manipulations
Through extraordinary photographs
of the young Calder wearing a dachshund he designed for a circus
clown - he was a pioneer of wearable art and body sculpture -
this show puts forward the idea that Calder was one of the first
This is a badge of honor that
continues to stick to him even in these days of 24/7 wrap around
visual stimuli and entertainment incorporating video games, computers
and cable television. Art lovers of all ages still stand spellbound
in front of his circus, and original film footage of Calder as
the magician/puppeteer extraordinaire of his extraordinary original
The woman in the photograph
above watched Calder working with his trapeze artist in the film
as a child might, and when it was over she waited for it to replay,
and she watched it all over again, beaming. It takes genius to
return us to childhood, if only for a few, brief, shining moments,
and that is the enormous importance and allure of Calder.
In the documentary film, a
middle aged Calder manipulates his imaginary "Circus"
as a child might act out their special fantasy, his just happens
to be populated with wire lions and their tamers, trapeze artists
and acrobats, and a host of other delightful circus animals and
personalities plucked from his imagination, wrought from everyday
bric-a-brac that most of us would throw away. Among other mundane
tools of his trade, Calder's creative materials included tin cans,
wool, string, nails, bottle caps, and always, always wire.
"I think best in wire,"
At the press preview I found
myself in conversation with Joan Simon, Curator at Large of the
Whitney Museum of American Art and co-organizer of this exhibit
with Brigitte Leal, curator at the Centre Georges Pompidou in
Paris. Ms. Simon sportingly agreed to pose for a photograph, and
introduced me to a security guard, Douglas Burnham, standing nearby
in the gallery filled with early Calder oil paintings of the circus:
"He was a guard at the
first Calder show at The Whitney, back in 1976," said Ms.
"It was wonderful, Calder
was there, people loved his Circus," said Mr. Burnham, recalling
the show over forty years ago with a smile.
"Let's make sure we don't
stand in front of the painting!" said Ms. Simon, as they
posed for a photograph. Consummate curator and art lover that
Ms. Simon is, she never lost sight of what matters most - the
Among other treasures at the
Whitney show are sophisticated early mechanized moving "abstractions,"
animals from Calder's wonderful bestiary that have never been
seen before, and Calder's first ceiling suspended mobile.
His paintings and graphics
are stunning, a clear indication that he was as talented in the
medium of oil and gouache.
The wire portraits are incredible
for their accuracy, their ability to get a true likeness of their
subject and for their humor, but most of all because they would
be difficult enough to achieve as line drawings, let alone as
wire sculptures. They literally are "drawings in space."
Calder's legacy endures today
primarily for his mobiles. They are prized and sought after by
museums and collectors. "A-list" museums here in America
and across the world prominently display at least one seminal
Calder mobile within its walls, or a large sculpture by him on
its grounds. The winsome "Circus" will always be a crowd
pleaser, but something amazing happens while viewing the extraordinary
film of Calder peforming with it. Years melt, age blurs as a grown
man makes magic out of his own wire lions and trapeze artists,
continuing a tradition that reaches far back to the beginning
of civilization - he is the eternal magician, entertainer, street
performer, holding his audience spellbound.
Calder never let go of the
fundamental need to connect with others. He gave it his all, especially
through "performance." The fact that his creations were
designed to "move" with the help of the wind, air or
the human hand setting cranks and pulleys in motion explains only
part of his intention.
What Calder relished was wide-eyed
wonder; what he really wanted was to hear us say "wow!"
In Calder's case, we say "wow"
for his wire sculptures, "wow" for his abstract paintings,
and "wow" for mobiles.