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Drawing in Space
Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

October 16, 2008 - February 15, 2009

Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

March 18 - July 20, 2009

"I think best in wire," Alexander Calder

Wire Sculptures by Alexander Calder at the entrance of the show, including "Varese," (left foreground), 1931; wire, 13 3/4 x 11 5/8 x 14 1/2 inches,Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 50th Anniversary gift of Mrs. Louise Varese in honor of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
(All Photographs by Michele Leight, Courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art, Copyright The City Review)

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 sculpture.

"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.

"Lion and Cage" from Calder's "Circus"

"Lion and Cage from Calder's Circus, 1926-31," wire, yarn, cloth, buttons, painted metal, wood, metal, leather and string, dimensions variable, Whitney Museum of American Art

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."

"Six-day Bike Race"

"Six Day Bike Race," by Alexander Calder, 1924, oil on canvas, 30 by 30 inches, 1924, Calder Foundation, New York

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.

"Circus Scene"

"Circus Scene," by Alexander Calder, gouache on canvas, 69 1/4 by 83 1/2 inches, 1926, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Richard B. Bailey and Nanette C. Sexton in memory of Margaret Calder Hayes

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.

"Aztec Josephine Baker"

"Aztec Josephine Baker," by Alexander Calder, wire, 53 by 10 by 9 inches, circa 1919, Calder Foundation, New York

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.

Steamer trucks for Calder's "Circus"

The steamer trunks Calder used to transport his "Circus"

"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" them up.

"Blue Velvet Cow" and "Chevalier"

Sculpture and Toy by Alexander Calder: "Blue Velvet Cow," velvet and wire; 6 by 12 by 3 1/2 inches, circas1927, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Calder Hayes, class of 1940, left; "Chevalier," wire, wood, cork, leather, velvet, string, rubber tube, and lead, 8 by 10 by 6 inches, 1926-1931, Calder Foundation, New York, right

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."

Calder toys

Toys by Alexander Calder: "Hinged Horse," painted wood and wire, 12 by 23 by 16/18 inches, circa 1927, private collection, courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul, top; three toy horses by the artist, circa 1926, below

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 - movement.

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).

"Untitled" by Calder

"Untitled," by Alexander Calder, wood, iron, wire and paint; 70 1/2 by 34 1/4 by 59 1/3 inches, 1931, MACBA Collection, Fundacio Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona

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 in space."

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.

"Circus" detail

Detail of Calder's "Circus," including trapeze act, circa 1926-31, Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of the artist

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.

"Weightlifter" and "Old Bull"

Photograph of Alexander Calder by Therese Bonney, with the bull, top; Below: "Halterophile (Weightlifter)," bronze, 8 1/2 by 6 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches, 1930, Calder Foundation, New York and "Old Bull," brass, 10 1/2 by 20 by 4 1/2 inches, 1930, Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase, with funds from the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc., both by Alexander Calder.

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 the catalog.

"Untitled" by Calder

"Untitled," by Alexander Calder, oil on canvas, 38 1/2 by 28 3/4 inches, 1930, Calder Foundation, New York.

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 with it.


"Mobile (Motorized Mobile)," by Alexander Calder, painted wood, paintedmetal, metal wire and string, 23 1/4 by 24 3/4 by 7 1/4 inches, irregular, 1931, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966

Calder's "tinkering" 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.


Calder's first sketchbook, with detailed instructions for performance his "Circus."

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.

Calder's "Circus," 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 "performance" artists.

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 creation.

Video of Calder performing with Circus

A woman watches the documentary of Calder performing with his "Circus" at The Whitney

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," said Calder.

Cecil Weekes, Joan Simon and Douglas Burnham

Cecil Weekes, Joan Simon, Curator at Large of The Whitney Museum of American Art, and Douglas Burnham, who was a guard at the first Calder show at the museum in 1976, with "Fireman's Dinner for Brancusi," oil on canvas, 36 by 42 1/2 inches, 1926, Whitney Museum of American Art. Gift of the artist.

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. Simon.

"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 art.

Calder gouaches

Gouaches by Alexander Calder: left to right, "The Venomous Potato," gouache and ink on paper, 30 by 22 inches, 1932, collection of Mortimer B. Zuckerman;"Monde etrange," gouache and ink on wove paper, 22 1/4 by 30 1/4 inches, 1932, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls; "Untitled," ink and colored ink on paper, 30 1/16 by 22 1/2 inches, 1933, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

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."

"Cone d'ebene"

"Cone d'ebene," by Alexander Calder, wood, rod, wire and paint, 106 by 55 by 24 inches, 1933, Calder Foundation, New York

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.

"Requin de Baleine"

"Requin de Baleine," by Alexander Calder, wood, rod and paint, 34 by 40 1/18 by 6 1/18 inches, 1933, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

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.

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