Alexander Calder looms so large in mid-century modern art, it’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing his work. Yet it’s the premise of Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy — curator Lynn Warren’s current exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center — that the seven young artists who are also included here had to “re-discover” him.
Considering the near-ubiquity of Calder’s work in the ’50s and ’60s, it’s a rare human being who doesn’t know it in some form. His art — especially the ‘mobiles’ — is immediately distinctive for its lightness and movement, its playfulness and delicate engineering. The mobiles even influenced contemporary furniture and lamp design, and as for his ‘stabiles,’ today, there are 75, giant, public examples all over the United States. Kind of hard to miss.
So … what’s to “re-discover”? But as Nasher director Jeremy Strick explains on Think TV — it’s a case of generational change and relevance and Oedipal defiance of parents and teachers. Calder did not speak to many artists going through the upheavals of the later ’60s and Watergate. His work seems to lack obvious “theory” or “confrontation.” It’s not particularly subversive. One can see why conceptual artists, political artists, performance artists, artists concerned with history, psychology, sexism, racism, colonialism, deconstruction or figurative art — why such artists and their art-school teachers would simply bypass Calder. He seems either too obvious, too child-like or too Establishment. His work seems … simple.
But it was actually, once, an incredible simplicity, as radical and sophisticated an achievement in reduction and abstraction as anything developed by Analytical Cubism. Calder’s thinking was partly shaped by the breaking-things-down and making-do-junkshop aesthetics of Dadaism, particularly the works of Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. Even a child will respond to Calder’s whimsy. His charm bypasses the brain and goes straight to our pleasure centers. Yet Calder’s mobiles were the first sculptures to reject the pedestal (and the floor, for that matter). Even as they’re made of ordinary sheet metal and bent steel rods, there’s a purity to them. Like ballet dancers, they defy gravity and their own material substance. They dance — slowly — on currents of air.
Only recently, as Strick argues, does a return to Calder seem “transgressive” because he sets aside so much of the past two or three decades. Of the seven young artists’ works assembled here, Dallas-born Nathan Carter‘s delightful assemblages also capture some of that spirit but in a more comically frantic manner (above), as does Hanging Garden, Kristi Lippire’s brass-and-copper sprinkler-system-taking-root. Her Fumigated Sculpture, however, doesn’t evoke Calder’s influence much (more like Claes Oldenburg, actually) — except insofar as the work’s fat ridiculousness — it’s a stacked series of carnival-striped, over-stuffed, vinyl cushions — can make you smile.
Many of the other artists take inspiration from Calder mostly as a “recycler” of discarded materials. But many of their collages lack much of his transformative elegance. Frankly, putting them in the same galleries with the Calders makes them seem clunky. That’s the difficulty with being put up against such a giant: Does your work reflect (and therefore seem derivative) or does it defy and diverge (and therefore seem out of place)? Only Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Bougie du Isthmus (below, from 2005) seems to channel the magical ability of Calder’s works to be both itself, just fishing rods sprouting from a wine rack, and something silly and aspiring, a lot of flags (actually, scarves) lifted aloft, signaling, one wonders, defeat or flirtation.
Living in Connecticut in the late ’70s, I had occasion to drive past Calder’s Roxbury home and studio (Calder had died in 1976). Some of his works still stood in the tall grass, and for all their humor and modernist construction, they had a home-made, tin-snip and bent-wire aesthetic that suited Calder’s well-worn, practical, New England barn and house.
Yet Calder’s artistry seems equally at ease in the sleek and chic Nasher. With its airiness and light, its crisp floors and glass walls looking out on the garden, the Nasher helps the collected Calders seem like “an exaltation of larks.”
They take flight.