Alexander Calder's Parasite (1947) Photo Credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society, New York
In the past 100 years, no visual artist has contributed more to the sum total of human happiness than Alexander Calder. If you think about it, this generating of happiness, to the extent to which it retains any cultural prestige these days, is seen as the domain of musicians and writers far more than of painters and sculptors; rather, since the rise of modernism, vexing the public has been the more likely mission of visual art. But if the works on view in the Whitney’s current Calder: Hypermobilityexhibition, devoted to his kinetic sculptures, are among the most revolutionary of the past century, they present themselves with such grace and modesty and charm that even small children, knowing nothing of vanguardist aesthetics, respond with all the delight that Calder clearly wanted them, and us, to feel.
Calder’s ability to communicate with children was, in part, a consequence of his own famously childlike nature. At his birth, in 1898, he weighed in at 11 pounds, and for the next 78 years, his large and usually overweight frame did nothing to dispel the impression of a big baby. “Powerful but not agile, fat but not tubby,” is how a friend describes him in the first installment of Jed Perl’s new biography, Calder: The Conquest of Time, which seems well on its way to being the definitive work on the man. But it was Calder’s demeanor, even more than his corpulence, that suggested the overgrown man-child. His affinity for play was not unique among modernists—Jean Dubuffet and Joaquín Torres-García, to name only two, mined similar terrain—but Calder’s thorough absorption in it, his appearing to find nothing adorable or noteworthy about it, distinguishes him from all his contemporaries.
Calder was still in his twenties when he conquered Paris with Cirque Calder, now in the possession of the Whitney. This was an elaborate contraption, roughly the size of a tabletop, in which metal wires were twisted to resemble contortionists and sword swallowers, musclemen and barking seals. To judge from the surviving footage of his improvised performances, he led these figures through their elaborate paces as freely as a boy fighting the Battle of Blenheim with armies of toy soldiers.
“I seem to have always liked + had toys,” Calder once wrote, and this ludic impulse, sustained from earliest childhood well into his seventies, is clearly the key to his career. Both formally and thematically, many of the works in the Whitney exhibition have their genesis in children’s toys. Their open-form structure is certainly radical in the context of the early 20th century, but if it is an innovation that Calder greatly developed, it is not one that he can claim to have invented: It originated with Picasso and Julio González. What is truly revolutionary about Calder’s art is the introduction of movement into sculpture. This movement takes two forms: Either it is motorized, especially early on, or it exploits the simplest laws of gravity. This latter option is especially evident in Calder’s mobiles, those pendent acts of virtuosic equilibrium that reinvent themselves in accordance with the ficklest whims of the air. Usually, in museums and galleries, Calder’s kinetic sculptures are displayed in a state of distorted stillness. It is one of the draws of the present show that the museum staff drops by several times a day to set the art in motion.
The objects on view at the Whitney emerge out of a surrealist aesthetic that throughout the 1920s and ’30s permeated the Parisian art scene of which Calder was such a prominent part. Through them one senses in Calder a sort of divided artistic self: He is always at play and he is always serious. If there is an element of play in even his purest and most Apollonian works, there is something of high seriousness even in such sportive pranks as the Cirque Calder. But if the motivations are equivalent in these two halves of his output, the results are not. Some of the buzzing, cranking, spinning efforts of his early years are surely fun, but, like the Cirque Calder, they fall short of the real greatness that is evident in the mobiles that he began to make in the mid-thirties. As the spectrally floating metal discs of Hanging Spider (1940) fan out on steel wires, it asserts its distinct personality as surely as anything that ever truly lived. Multicolored or monochrome, Calder’s mobiles are majestic and serene, alien and yet as consolingly familiar as those crib-adornments that first suggested them to the artist’s mind. Simply put, they are among the finest objects of the 20th century.
The Whitney exhibition, however, does not quite rise to the eminence of its subject. In part, this is due to some lackluster works exhibited among the masterpieces; there is nothing at all wrong with them, but one often feels that better examples could have been found. In larger part, however, this sense of insufficiency is a consequence of the display. It is now over two years since the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, opened in lower Manhattan, and several things are becoming clear. The vastness of its canyon-like spaces and the almost promiscuous modernist flow of one zone into the next may (or may not) serve the interests of those large-scale installations that contemporary artists favor, but the design is lethal to most earlier modernist works, which, like Calder’s, were usually conceived on a far smaller scale. To make matters worse, the entire eastern side of the exhibition is mounted in such a way that there rises, just beyond a low partition, the supremely visible distraction of the museum’s eighth-floor restaurant, from which the aroma of espressos and double lattes mingles with and nearly overpowers the art itself.
And yet, notwithstanding those distractions and the relatively pallid selection of objects, Calder’s genius shines through. The press material for Jed Perl’s book acclaims its subject as “America’s greatest sculptor.” There is something new and polemical in that claim, but it sounds about right.
James Gardner’s latest book is Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City.