Exhibition Review: Calder Explores the Third and Fourth Dimensions

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic November 24, 2013–July 27, 2014 Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Calder Foundation, New York, photo © Fredrik Nilsen.

By Michael Webb

Forget the shopping and enjoy the best seasonal gift that you or your friends could imagine: LACMA’s pitch-perfect Alexander Calder retrospective. Curated by Stephanie Barron and installed by Frank Gehry in the Resnick Gallery, it’s an ideal fusion of art and architecture, form and space, stillness and motion. Calder and Abstraction, from Avant-Garde to Iconic comprises 50 sculptures and maquettes that trace the artist’s career from 1931 to 1975, the year before his death. Most are grouped in shallow curved bays to encourage visitors to focus on one at a time and surrender to their leisurely rhythms. Gazing at the mobiles as a current of air animates one part and then another, you realize that Calder took the surreal abstractions of Joan Miró, whom he met in Paris in 1928, and added the third dimension of depth and the fourth of time. The compositions are constantly shifting so that each mobile incorporates a multitude.

The catalog (published by LACMA with Del Monico, a division of Prestel; $55) is an indispensable companion to the exhibition. In her introductory essay, Barron suggests that Calder’s achievement may have been obscured by his popularity. Pompous, humorless critics disparaged an artist whose work brought a smile to every face. A Pollock or a Judd challenged the viewer; the gravity-defying grace of a mobile speaks to the child in all of us. And the monumental stabiles of his later years are almost too familiar. Calder cared little for critics or theories. As he wrote: “When an artist explains what he is doing, he usually has to do one of two things: either scrap what he has explained, or make his subsequent work fit in with the explanation.” 

Other essays in the catalog explore the relationship of art and science, Calder’s seminal contribution to the concept of public art, his travels in South America, and the water-powered mobile commissioned by the newly founded LACMA, now displayed in the museum’s sculpture garden. Visually stunning, the catalog includes an illustrated history of Calder exhibitions going back to the first, a group show of 1925 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Seeing how often the works were crammed together in a single gallery makes one even more appreciative of the subtle ways in which Gehry has installed them and how he was inspired by the Guggenheim retrospective he remembered from 1966. 

The LACMA exhibition is up through July 27, providing many opportunities to revisit this confluence of beauty and invention.

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