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Alexander Calder

The Royal Academy shows Calder in the first British show for thirty years

Underappreciated in Britain, the Sackler Galleries mobilise for this modern master

The small retrospective exhibition of Alexander Calder in the Sackler Galleries of the Royal Academy, until 7 June, is a rare and welcome opportunity for a British audience to meet one of the most popular and distinctive of modern American artists. Widely known for the large painted steel sculptures which brighten plazas and lobbies throughout the United States, and for his regular appearances in the New York salerooms, he is surprisingly unfamiliar in a London context and has not been treated to a museum exhibition in this country since the Tate Gallery’s survey of 1962. By contrast, his work is more widely appreciated on the continent and he was the subject of a major exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in the winter of 1989-1990.

This exhibition has been sent from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it was seen at the end of last year in a larger version and under the title “Celebrating Calder”. Drawn, with one exception, from that museum’s rich collection of material, which, in size and importance, surpasses both the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, it travels to the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia (12 September-8 November) and to Korea’s Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art (21 June-19 September 1993). In addition to twenty-seven sculptures on all scales and from every period in Calder’s long career, the selection includes a strong representation of works on paper—ink drawings, gouaches, etchings and lithographs—one oil painting, “Fireman’s Dinner for Brancusi” (1926), and several examples of his jewellery.

Among the early works in the exhibition are four wire sculptures including “The Pistil” (1931) and “Varese” (1931), one of those deceptively simple but convincing portrait heads. Predictably, Calder’s miniature “Circus”, which he created in Paris in 1926, was deemed too precious and fragile to join the exhibition’s circuit, but the Royal Academy is screening the film of the artist commanding his ring of performers in 1961. “Calderberry Bush” (1932) is the exhibition’s earliest mobile, a term of description provided by Marcel Duchamp for his moving sculptures.

In place of a new catalogue, the Whitney Museum republished Calder’s Universe, the book which served for its more comprehensive retrospective exhibition of 1976, the year of the artist’s death. The Royal Academy is publishing a pamphlet with essays by John Russell and Stephen Bann.