Calder hangs on at the National Gallery of Art, Washington

The master of mobiles and his relation to Parisian Modernism reassessed


The National Gallery of Art is presenting “Alexander Calder; 1898-1976,” a career survey intended to reconsider the popular image of the artist. His late stabiles and seldom seen early ones meet near the show’s entry in the East Wing, beneath the giant black and red mobile that Calder made to order for the National Gallery shortly before his death.

A passageway busy with wire sculptures—Calder’s first innovation—leads the viewer to the artist’s precociously mature work of the Thirties. Here are seldom-seen mechanised works and early gouaches that seem to have found their own path to a sort of cosmic surrealism.

Works such as “Gibraltar” (1936) and “Starfish” (1936), indebted to Miró and Giacometti, remind us how aware Calder was of the Parisian avant-garde. The hanging elements in early mobiles such as “cone d’ébène” (1933) dangle like bait for the imagination, refreshing the visitor’s sense of what a startling development the mobile was in its day. (It was Marcel Duchamp who proposed the term “mobile” to Calder.)

The chronology slows so the exhibition can present the fullest possible view of Calder’s work from the Thirties, including pieces such as “Snake and the Cross” (1936) that combine painting and sculpture by suspending metal forms in frames or in front of monochrome panels. Later work is represented, but the show is conspicuously weighted toward the early decades.

“My hope was that the more serious side of Calder could be a crowd-pleaser,” said Marla Prather, organiser of the show and curator of twentieth-century art at the National Gallery. “This past weekend we had 61,000 people in the gallery. Though many were not here only for the Calder, attendance has been very healthy. I worried about the safety of some of the objects, but so far it’s not been a problem.”

Ms Prather views her show as a continuation of the 1943 retrospective organised for the Museum of Modern Art in New York by Calder himself and James Johnson Sweeney.

“It was clear that the idea of a reassessment was in the air,” Ms Prather said of her project. Interest was stimulated by two recent exhibitions in which Calder’s early work stood out: the 1993 “Picasso and the Age of Iron” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and “Americans in Paris” at The Phillips Collection in 1996.

“There was a lot of discussion of Calder here at the National Gallery in relation to our outdoor sculpture garden, which is scheduled to open this fall,” Prather explained. “With that, plus the centenary (of Calder’s birth), it evolved into a full scale show. When we approached the family, they were very interested.” Alexander S.C. Rowere, the artist’s grandson and director of The Alexander and Louisa Calder Foundation, collaborated with the National Gallery for the show.

The National Gallery is a key repository of Calder’s work: it owns fifty-eight pieces, representing all points of his career. “I thought I knew a bit about Calder,” Ms Prather said, “but when I started delving into the family’s holdings I was amazed at how much early work remains unknown because it just didn’t sell, even though he’s always had a healthy market.”

The current retrospective gives priority to Calder’s early years in Paris and America. Calder originally trained as a mechanical engineer but in his early twenties decided to become an artist. After attending the Art Students League in New York, he worked as an illustrator for a tabloid. In 1926, he moved to Paris, where he soon became known in progressive art circles for wire sculptures that set drawing in three dimensions.

“There is a lot of foreshadowing in the show,” Ms Prather pointed out. Looking at Calder’s spare abstract paintings from the Thirties, one thinks of Ellsworth Kelly. The cantilevered poise of his large stabiles can bring Mark di Suvero and even Anthony Caro to mind. The interaction of the wire pieces with their own shadows even brings to mind Christian Boltanski.

Ms Prather sees the influence of Calder’s kineticism as pervasive. “I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of performance and happenings,” Prather said. “The idea of sculpture invading a room and taking over, that whole temporal aspect of contemporary art that we take for granted, we owe to Calder.”

“Alexander Calder; 1898-1976” at The National Gallery of Art, Washington until 12 July, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 4 September-1 December.