PRINT March 1965

Calder at the Guggenheim

RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITIONS ARE HISTORICAL ABSTRACTIONS which show objects out of their time. Even when carefully arranged in chronological sequence, only the spacing of the artist’s evolution is evident, not the distance each stage spanned; nor can the backgrounds of successive phases be shown. While it is true that some art objects outlive the circumstances of their production and, because they possess that quality we call “timelessness,” can exist in the present without historical accessories, most of them do not—to sustain their artistic worth they need special considerations of temporal and circumstantial relativity which are usually offered by an exhibition catalog tracing the artist’s development against the changing background the exhibition cannot show.

When in 1855 both Delacroix and Ingres were given private exhibition rooms in the Paris World’s Fair, Ingres hung only those of his paintings which displayed his achievement; Delacroix showed thirty canvases chosen to reveal the important stages of his artistic growth. It has happened that, in staging development retrospectives, museums have followed Delacroix’s example (dealers have followed Ingres’) which, because it emphasizes the process of art rather than its product, is in line with the traditional purpose of a museum. Since the huge 1937 Cézanne retrospective in San Francisco, telescoped impressions of the life work of artists have been the chief product of the art museum process. Today it seems impossible to exhibit a large sampling of an artist’s work without displaying it chronologically, as if the development was in every case important. Artists like Cézanne, whose process and stylistic evolution are as imbued with greatness as their major works, have been exalted by retrospective showings; others, like Renoir who produced remarkable works in the sixties and seventies but whose evolution after 1880 was marked by hesitation and stylistic reversions, have irreparably suffered. Recent retrospectives of Van Gogh, Monet, Motherwell, Kline, Bonnard, and Beckmann have shown them to be greater artists for single works or for short periods than for their developments as a whole, whereas the comprehensive retrospectives of Smith, Ferber, Rothko, and Gottlieb, to cite examples, showed that isolable achievements in a developmental sequence can add up to a whole with greater significance than its parts. Perhaps in our time the final test of an artist’s worth may be a full retrospective; but are museums justified in putting every artist to this test?

Alexander Calder’s exhibition at the Guggenheim, because it was a comprehensive retrospective, therefore historically oriented, forced an historical viewing. For most of the quarter million viewers the sequence was simply the way down the ramp—the circus and the toys, the mechanical stabiles, the mobiles, the stabile-mobiles, finally the ground floor with the giant stabile. Every viewer knew the mobile idiom, most had seen a Calder before, for many their reward for coming was a broader image of Calder’s art, a look at his ingenuous circus performers, his ingenious mechanized contraptions, and the graceful mobiles—the sequence did not make much difference. Viewers more knowledgeable of American sculpture in the twenties and thirties, while aware of the singularity of Calder’s achievement, his unique place in a provincial phase of modern art that remains hardly understood, surely sensed the inherent inconsistency of Calder’s sculpture, the fact that the formal elements of his early work were French, his personality and to a large degree his craftsmanship was American. When in the early thirties Leger called Calder’s art one hundred percent American, he was referring to Calder’s mechanical ingenuity and his wit; when at the same time the New York critic, Henry McBride, wrote that there is nothing American about Calder’s art, it is all French, he was referring to Calder’s form, the shapes and colors he used, the fantasy of his Miróesque Surrealism. Now, over thirty years later, depending on one’s point of view, Calder’s retrospective may still be seen as either a complete image of an American craftsman or a long, thin detail of the larger picture of European modern art in the late twenties and the thirties.

The question whether Calder’s art merits a comprehensive historical retrospective perhaps isn’t a fair one to ask if it implies that the Guggenheim’s only choice was between a retrospective and a selection of isolable achievements. A third choice was at hand. In Calder’s case, which is not a unique one, a chronicle of his production was simply not a history of his art. From Calder’s point of view, perhaps from Thomas Messer’s (he directed the show and wrote the catalog), the exhibition was a true picture of the artist’s life as an artist, though, because it did not include everything Calder made, it was also a grand abstraction and an unfortunate extraction of Calder’s art from the history in which it participated. Because it treated Calder’s art as a self-sufficient historical phenomenon, the exhibition appeared terribly weak when related to the larger image of twentieth century art. Had it included a number of Mirós, Mondrians, Arps, Kandinskys, and Helions of the years around 1930, had it shown the great interest the circus had for many Parisian artists and literary intellectuals during those years—could it have shown Calder in Paris in a bright orange suit with a spectacular moustache—the image of his art in the early thirties would have been somewhat more true. And had the catalog presented the intellectual and formalistic aspirations of these artists, easily available in art and literary magazines (especially in “Cahiers d’Art”), along with the ideas expressed earlier by Gabo, Rodchenko, perhaps even by Klee, the motivation of Calder’s sculpture could have been freshly explained. In avoiding the complex background it presented Calder as a more clearly articulated figure than he was.

I am not arguing to detract from Calder’s unique achievement. Innovation in the mechanics of art is not by itself of much importance; what counts is the process through which inspiration is sustained for a sufficient duration to permit the realization of the idea’s potential. If it is to Gabo’s credit that he first formulated principles of kinetic sculpture, that he foresaw the limitations of mechanized forms and predicted that moving sculpture would one day have to depend on temperature changes and radio power to stimulate unpredictable movements, it is not to Calder’s discredit that Gabo’s inventiveness preceded his by some ten years, or that Paul Klee had made wind-propelled sculptures earlier than he. If Calder’s moving sculptures of about 1930 were stimulated by the interests of other artists in both virtual and actual movement in art, it was much more his earlier experience with mechanical toys, especially those in eccentric movement, that aroused him to realize that movement was a logical means for a fuller realization of the kind of abstraction with which Miró, Kandinsky, and others around him were then involved. And it is a remarkable fact that the transition from Miró’s paintings to Calder’s early stabiles was as logical as the transition from Analytical Cubism to the three-dimensional assemblages that immediately followed. By 1930 the paintings of Miró’s circle, the Abstraction-Creation group, were reduced to strictly flat, hard-edged, and linear shapes set against a two-dimensional plane. By pasting cut-out wooden biomorphic shapes to a two-dimensional surface, Arp had already responded to the three-dimensional potential of this form. The complete omission of the background presented itself as the next step to take—figures no longer seemed dependent on the figure-ground formula of illusionistic easel painting. Calder’s panel-mobiles took the step: the edges of the picture plane were retained but the background was simply left out. The figural shapes, however, still needed physical support, and because the frame was the only stable part of the “picture,” the support had to come from it: the shapes were hung by strings from the top edge. To further differentiate the relationship of shapes to the frame of space, to overcome the verticality of gravity, wire supports extending from the sides or the bottom edge of the frame were also used. Calder’s early stabiles, therefore, must be seen in a continuity with the figure-ground interplay of Miró’s paintings and its extension by Arp into the third dimension. By omitting background altogether, Calder carried the process out of illusion into the third dimension. In so doing he found himself faced with new and complex possibilities for the spatial interaction of the shapes through movement.

Certain paintings by both Miró and Kandinsky from the late twenties show their interest in virtual movement excited by intricate relationships of shapes, lines, and colors, just as certain Cubist paintings of 1913-14 had predicted the subsequent physical disengagement of figures from backgrounds. Having found the means of construction for freeing the figures from their ground—somewhat the same means he had used in making his circus animals and performers—Calder could then realize actual movement by the methods he had employed much earlier in the activation of toys. Perhaps certain influences, such as the mechanical bird cages which chanced to be exhibited adjacent to Calder’s stabile and wire show in 1928, and the Japanese wind-bell (which Messer neglected to mention), were stimulants to the first mobiles of 1932, but the primary mobile principle was inherent in the frame stabiles of the previous years. Whereas in the frame mobiles the figural elements had been freed from a two-dimensional background, they continued to be suspended from a two-dimensional frame. The elements of Calder’s earliest mobiles hang from what may be called the top edge of a number of space frames which, being free to turn in suspension, distribute their figural elements within a full-dimensional space. Consistent with the space and movement of the whole, the elements, which, when stationary, had been flat geometric shapes derived from the painted surface, became three-dimensional and biomorphic.

I am stressing Calder’s early work in Paris first because it was formative within an important phase of Surrealism, second because, while it is historically datable, it is not stylistically dated. His stabiles of 1930-34 involved problems of form with which some artists are struggling today: moving abstract shapes in a fixed space-frame, simultaneous patterns of unlike movements—the organization of non-geo-metrically aligned objects painted in non-harmonizing colors continues to challenge optically minded painters. The current Whitney exhibition of recent sculpture, excited by color, reminds us that Calder was one of the first to paint sculpture for formal purposes. For that matter, in view of the flourishing international interest in kinetic sculpture, the mobiles are still of the present, and the recent stabiles are achievements of extraordinary importance. If only by the power of their presence they stand out with the recent work of Smith and Ferber as mature statements of the formative generation of American abstract sculpture which remains fertile for new ideas.

It is unfortunate that Messer described the late stabiles as “sculptural masses,” their openness as “negative mass” and contrasted them with the mobiles by calling them “maternal” and “in repose.” Mating the stabile with the paternal mobiles, Messer called their offspring the stabile-mobiles which contrast mass with weightlessness. He ignored the fact that the stabile-mobile principle predates either of its pure-blooded “parents.” “Mass” is not a term one can use in describing Calder’s sculpture. The spatial principle of the stabiles, and certain of the intersecting plane mobile elements, goes back to its source in Cubism, to Picasso’s sculptured “Woman’s Head” of 1908, to the sheet-plastic Heads which Gabo made around 1916. There is no need to talk about these structures as great masses in order to assert their physical importance. Intersecting planes do not create mass, rather distance. Calder’s art has always been a matter of distance, carefully calculated distances between elements. Even the slow, sometimes imperceptible movements of some mobiles is related to supple differentiations of distance; the endless movement of the mobiles as a whole relates to the poetry of scientific motion that Gabo had conceived: “Look at a ray of sun,” he once wrote, “the quietest of the silent strengths—it runs three hundred thousand kilometers in a second.” Nor can the space of Calder’s mobiles be measured by volume—volumes are enclosure, not distances. Had Messer added a degree of scholarship to his adulatory guide, the museum visitors would not have been obliged to view Calder’s unique plasticity through a conceptual screen of obsolete phraseology. Calder’s own terminology for his sculpture, expressed in the announcement to his Galerie Percier show in 1931, included “sphériques, arcs, densités, movements, arretés,” but not “mass” and “volume.” For Calder and his Paris associates, mass had been rejected as a measure of plasticity, and volume was passé as an expression of space.

I do not think that Calder’s art has ever been taken as seriously as it should be. To some extent this may be Calder’s wish. He tends to be uncritical of his work; by personal behavior he supports an image of himself as an easy-going, overgrown child, something of a circus clown himself, with a fascination for clever stunts and, more recently, for great big sculptures to be held in awe. Sweeney, in staging the first major Calder retrospective, went so far as to say that humor was Calder’s unique contribution to contemporary sculpture. He ignored thereby an awful lot of Surrealist material, especially the whimsical constructions Picasso made in the late twenties and the Gonzalez sculpture they inspired. If humor was omitted from Messer’s ponderous catalog, it was everywhere in the show: gracefully conceived, elegant mobiles hung in the path of the moving crowds were banged and cajoled into movements they were not engineered to make; in light-boxes, precious little mobile “modelli” were activated by streams of air at ridiculous speeds eliciting such viewer responses as “Look at that little one whiz!”; the wire portrait plastered against the fourth tier parapet wall looked very funny indeed!

A serious installation would have considered the fact that the giant mobile suspended from the oculus of Wright’s great space could hardly be seen against the extraordinary richness of the color and movement of spectators on the opposite ramp. Realizing that the length of the supporting wire of a mobile is carefully considered by Calder, the small mobile hung by a sixty-foot wire from an upper parapet looked a bit uncomfortable; Mr. Messer’s cumbrous aphorisms fixed above certain bays, especially the “Repose and Figuration Reassert Themselves in Calder’s Art” over “Flying Fish,” a fantastic aquatic creature with flailing human arms, struck me as self-conscious seriousness out of keeping with the exhibition as a whole. Finally, thanks to Calder’s own intervention, most of the potted plants were removed from the installation before it opened. But too many of them remained to decorate and artificially unify an exhibition which was already competing, and unsuccessfully, with the plastic spatial power of Wright’s building. Fewer objects, given more room to exist as entities, would have revealed the strength of Calder’s spatial conception—the exhibition might possibly have succeeded in showing what too many automatically assumed was shown, Calder’s sculpture in a valid kinship with Wright’s architectural vision.

Wayne V. Anderson is Associate Professor of the History of Art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.