Alexander Calder, the god of the house of MoMA, still holds
When it came to the museum of modern art, sculptor Alexander Calder looked like his American Picasso. Both were the precocious children of academically trained artists. Both were shaped by their own life-changing encounter, three decades apart, with the Parisian avant-garde. The Modern exhibited them early and often and acquired their work in abundance – although, of course, at MoMA no other artist comes close to Picasso’s numbers. Much of the success of each artist was closely linked to that of the museum; to some extent, the two were part of the MoMA brand, albeit in very different ways. For one thing, Calder has been MIA for quite some time.
The exceptional exhibition “Alexander Calder: modern from the start” is his first major solo at MoMA since 1969. It’s an in-house work that looks primarily at the museum’s Calder fonds and archives to tell the story of his relationship with this first favorite. Several unknown loans from the Calder Foundation complete the story.
It includes the artist’s first toy sculptures of farm animals and his brilliant portraits and wire jewelry; its famous mobiles suspended gently drifting; its wall constellations and its terrestrial stabiles; and a pinch of exceptional works on paper.
The show’s caption evokes Calder’s sudden conversion to the new when, during a visit to the Paris studio of painter Piet Mondrian in 1930 at the age of 32, he suddenly understood what it was modernism and abstraction. Likewise, it signals his rapid rise in MoMA’s pantheon of largely European artists, where he occupied a different niche than any other American until the arrival of Jackson Pollock.
The epiphany and the ascension were linked. Part of Calder’s stature at MoMA has to do with his having an unusual European pedigree for American artists of the time, because his artistic life really started in Paris and because he skillfully filtered tensions. European modernism through its rustic American sensibility.
After graduating with an engineering degree in 1919, Calder committed to being an artist and enrolled in the Art Students League of New York, painting and shaping animals out of wood, then wood and wood. wire.
By 1926 Calder was in Paris, where he spent most of the following years, and where a friend told him to lose the wood and keep the thread. He gathered his toy-making instincts into a miniature circus of some 100 pieces – ingenious, almost fatally cute – and began performing the “Cirque Calder” in Parisian artistic circles, instantly making fans of Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp. , Jean Arp and Mondrian.
Calder’s debut at MoMA took place in December 1930, when four of his clumsy wood carvings were seen in “Painting and sculpture by living Americans», A collective exhibition that opened barely a year after the museum was inaugurated. By this time, Calder was artistically elsewhere, stimulated by Mondrian’s example. In fact, he was becoming an omnibus modernist whose work could fit in several places on the museum’s nascent map of advanced styles and mediums. In 1936, for example, he was in both “Cubism and abstract art“In the spring and at the end of the year,” Fantastic art, Dada and surrealism “to name just two of the museum’s pioneering shows. It must also have been a safeguard against growing complaints about MoMA’s European bias.
“Modern From the Start” was curated by Cara Manes, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and opens with a gallery of large all-black sheet metal works – three sculptures, two models from the 1930s to 1950s – then becomes chronological.
The austerity of the first gallery is surprising. It may have something to do with the pandemic, but it mostly reminds us that while the visual spirit is rarely absent, Calder’s work has its dignified and dark side. The next gallery is small, dominated by his remarkable wireframe works from the late 1920s – including portraits (a full-length render by French-American artist Joséphine Baker) and several farm animals, including an elegant sow and a cow in silver steel. wire with three tiny brass coiled cow pies.
The contrast between the first two galleries – the large black sculptures and the delicate pieces of wire – forms a Calder primer. Constructed from multiple planes of cut sheet metal, the sculptures emphasize his control over nuanced forms, both rounded and straight, and his ability to tilt them together so that your interpretations change endlessly among animals, humans, and the abstract as you step in. move around them. . The folded wire pieces testify to his extreme sensitivity to line, including the linear shadows cast by the wireframe portraits, which provide alternate and more moody expressions.
As the show progresses into the next gallery, look down and to the right to see the 1930 “Shark suckerA clean little log that Calder turned into a fish with a few well-placed ax pricks and a pierced eye. Call it tailored ready-to-wear.
The remainder of the exhibit is a large, loosely divided space that follows Calder after 1930, examining the different ways he made modernism his own. The first pieces here involve wire, wood, painted spheres, and motors (unfortunately no longer working). The first examples of kinetic art, they bring out the hitherto unknown playfulness of Russian constructivism. These are some of the most adorable abstractions in modernist art history, in part because they’re too carelessly handcrafted to be purely abstract. They are bursting with personality, a condition of much of Calder’s art. This section begins with “A universe»(1934), a series of several circles of wire, two spheres and two S-shaped undulations, one in thick black pipe, one in wire. As its title indicates, the whole forms a small autonomous universe. It was the museum’s first Calder, purchased the year it was made.
In the 1930s, Calder recovered some of the animal energy of his first pieces for more elegant semi-abstract works such as the ineffable “Spider” (1939), whose repeated appendages have a regularity of a corps de ballet that is also cinematographic. . “Swizzle sticks(1936) leans Constructivist with four wooden sticks weighted down by small lead balls, and swinging in front of a bright red panel, dancing on the air. Great “Gibraltar»(1936) is a surrealist object par excellence, a small peak of roughly cut lignum vitae sliced by a plane of polished walnut which supports two spheres and a crescent, two above and one below.
Alongside “Gibraltar”, two exceptional, albeit less sweet, pieces from the Calder Foundation. From “White Panel” (1936), a large black C curves outward around two sturdy intersections of painted metal and looks like an offbeat science model. “Apple Monster” (1938), which combines raw and sculpted wood, painted in white, black, red and green, seems to be the work of the great outsider Bessie Harvey.
While Picasso became a god at the Modern, Calder was more of a domestic god. He wasn’t above making, when asked, a beautiful mobile for the Bauhaus staircase in the museum’s new 1939 international-style building, or even coming up with an incredibly clever candelabra for the party celebrating his first decade. (It’s on this show.)
But the museum’s emphasis on Calder was inconsistent. In 1943 he wrote to a curator telling him he needed his financial and moral support, which seems to have prompted the museum’s big Calder poll later that year. (Tellingly, the Modern bought its first Pollock in 1943, “The wolf‘, Done that year.) The artist expressed her gratitude by donating many major pieces, including – in this show -‘ Shark Sucker ‘,’ Gibraltar ‘,’ Spider ‘and’ Sandy’s Butterfly ‘, a hardy and bright perennial in the sculpture garden. The museum’s last great nod to Calder was a tribute to a hundred works in 1969.
And here we are. Half a century later, the Modern once again welcomed Calder with a show-stopping beauty that over the next few months will make the world a better place.
Alexander Calder: modern from the start
Until August 7 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan. 212-708-9400; moma.org.