PRINT February 2009


André Kertész, Portrait of Alexander Calder with the Circus, 1929, black-and-white photograph, 7 1⁄8 x 9 1⁄2".

IT’S DIFFICULT TO KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF ALEXANDER CALDER. He is solidly positioned within the pantheon of twentieth-century sculpture but doesn’t quite fit the conventional academic narrative that runs from Picasso’s Guitar through David Smith to Minimalism and beyond. He is arguably one of the most beloved and readily identifiable artists of his time, but it can be tough to take him completely seriously. Even if he’s given a free pass for painting Braniff airplanes (a commercial undertaking that seems almost prescient in light of the until very recently expanding appetite for spectacle in the art world), his work still has a tendency to slip into the reference frame of decoration. It can seem slight. And even though Calder’s sculptures are staples of public art, relatively little thought is given to their genesis. This is a shame, because for better or for worse there is really nothing else like them. “Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926–1933,” now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, sets out to place Calder’s eccentric sensibility in a historical context and to shed light on the origins of his later and more familiar work.

Between 1926 and 1933, Calder spent most of his time in Paris. He was the child of two artists who had themselves lived there, so his personal history may have amplified the generic pull that a curious and ambitious young American would have felt toward the mecca of artistic culture. By the time he left for France, Calder had passed through phases as an engineering student, an illustrator, and an aspiring painter heavily in debt to the Ashcan School. He already possessed the basic tools and turn of mind that we associate with his later work, but his whimsicality and structural inventiveness had not yet found their places within a coherent, personal artistic idiom. The Parisian art scene obviously focused him and allowed him to take seriously elements in his own nature that were waiting to be turned loose in his art.

Calder brought an American pragmatism to art, in both the colloquial and philosophical senses; his art needed to do something, and to operate socially, in order to feel meaningful to him. He had been precociously playing with sheet metal and wire since he was a kid, making sweet, nutty little animal figures and toys for his own and his family’s amusement. Just before leaving the States, he published a how-to book, Sketching Animals (1926), that reveals much about his future approach to his work, as well as his profound identification with the animal kingdom. Calder’s inner illustrator was never far from him. He had astonishing facility as a “wire caricaturist” and made numerous portrait heads of public figures (Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Durante) and of the people he was meeting in the Parisian art world (Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, Joan Miró, and many more). These manage somehow to have both the immediacy of street sketches and the gravity of Roman busts. By 1929, he had appeared in a newsreel called “Montparnasse—Where the Muses Hold Sway,” making a portrait head of Kiki de Montparnasse, a key social figure in the Parisian art scene. His reputation as “the wire guy” was by this time widespread.

In addition to portraits, Calder’s imagination ranged across an array of subjects not normally associated with cutting-edge art: mythological scenes, animals, sports figures, and his beloved circus acrobats. The sculptures vary widely in scale and complexity; some, like Hercules and Lion, Spring (Printemps), and Romulus and Remus (which wryly incorporates found wooden knobs as nipples and genitals), all 1928, are surprisingly large and forecast Calder’s greater ambitions. (In 1929, the latter two were exhibited in Paris and received some critical notice.) Hercules and Lion is a particularly provocative object. It hangs from the ceiling, predicting a central feature of the artist’s future work, and renders the violent and ferocious fight between man and beast with piercing economy. The subject matter is apparent only from certain points of view; from others, the sculpture loses all narrative sense and becomes a lyrical cloud of dynamic lines and squiggles—a dissolution of comprehensibility that Calder clearly courted by dispensing with a stationary base.

Among the first wire sculptures Calder made in Paris were full-figure portraits of Josephine Baker, the black American singer who was a big star and popular sex symbol in France. The “sex” is strangely distant from the “symbol” in Calder’s representations of Baker (they are more puppetlike and fan-clubby than raunchy), just as the many male acrobats that he rendered during this period lack any real sense of virile physicality (all apparently suffer from steroid-induced microphallus). He had no interest in representations of sexuality or even sensuousness in the conventional sense, unlike Picasso or Matisse, both of whose graphic sensibilities overlapped with Calder’s to some degree. Calder’s libido, at least as far as art was concerned, seems to have been utterly redirected toward a more general and innocent idea of pleasure, which could err on the less compelling side as “fun” but also resulted later in his life in statements of clean, unfettered purity. One striking exception that perhaps proves the rule is Pigs, 1930, a small representation of two pigs copulating. The much larger boar is made of a heavier-gauge wire than the sow, which he mounts from behind while raising his snout to the sky in a triumphant howl. The open wire frame leaves visible the inner anatomy of the female (including a piglet in utero) and a rigid axis of force running from the rear end of the male through his member, giving one the sense of simultaneously observing surface reality and structures beyond the visible. This philosophical depth is not present in all of Calder’s wire objects, but two disarmingly modest works from 1929, Aquarium (Fishbowl) and Goldfish Bowl, are striking in this regard. The counterintuitive decision to render three kinds of substances (liquid, transparent solid, and living creatures) by means of a single wire line results in a delicacy and multidimensional poetry that one could look at forever and never really understand.

Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus (detail), 1926–31, wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, 54 x 94 1⁄4 x 94 1⁄4". Photo: Sheldan Collins.

During his early years in Paris, seemingly endless loops of wire passed through Calder’s hands, but while he may have been gaining renown as “the wire guy,” he was concurrently building a more efficacious reputation as “the circus guy.” Calder expended enormous energy on this open-ended project, which served multiple purposes for him as multimedia sculpture, performance art, a channel for excess energy, a relief from (and in some sense a solution to) the “seriousness” of his search for identity, and a branding device and calling card. Between 1926 and 1931, he made hundreds of little sculptural elements from all sorts of random detritus and fashioned a theatrical narrative consisting of numerous short circus acts that he performed using friends and enthusiasts as assistants (during one 1929 performance, Isamu Noguchi controlled the record player for the music). The bulk of the material in Calder’s Circus (“Cirque Calder,” as he frequently advertised it in both Paris and New York) is familiar to us; it remains one of the most frequently exhibited and enthusiastically beheld (at least by the lay public) holdings in the Whitney’s own collection. The folk-artish sensibility is primitive in a real, emotional sense. The impulse to transform junk into things of such celebratory and ritualistic significance evokes Native American potlatch ceremonies, and the crude physical animation of animals feels close in spirit to the art in ancient caves.

But these fun and funky objects convey none of the intense determination and ambition with which the artist apparently arranged for “Cirque Calder” to be performed for the benefit of many people at the center of the art worlds on both sides of the Atlantic. In his studio, in private homes, at the invitation of patrons, and at Calder’s own apparently charming insistence, it was performed over and over again, evolving as time passed. Artists loved it, and its renown spread as many leading lights of the Parisian art scene (Man Ray, Miró, Frederick Kiesler, Le Corbusier, Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg—the list goes on and on) saw it performed. It also must have achieved some social cachet. In 1929, the New Yorker announced that performances could be arranged through the Junior League entertainment center at Saks Fifth Avenue. There has been such a deep change in the fabric of American social life since then that it is difficult even to imagine what an analogous arrangement would be today, but suffice it to say that the common image of Calder as a jolly provincial in a flannel shirt becomes more complicated the more we learn about how he rolled his game. For Calder, fun was serious business. A film on view at the Whitney shows an older Calder performing his circus, and one can hear the laughter and squeals of delight from the audience as he puts all of his creations through their paces like a giant and somewhat morbid god ruling over his diminutive domain.

In late 1930, Calder’s work underwent a dramatic change, which he directly attributed to a visit he made to Mondrian’s studio. As he wrote years later in his autobiography, “This single visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract.’ So now, at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” There’s a lot to unpack in this version of events. Artists should be allowed their personal creation myths, but it taxes credibility that someone as smart and eager as Calder could have spent so much time in avant-garde circles and not yet engaged the general notion of abstraction. (He does use the qualifier “consciously” and connects “feeling” to the possibility of “knowing,” as in the present-day formulation “You feel me?”) Whatever the case, he seems to have been receptive to the purity of Mondrian’s aesthetic, though he was hardly a passive acolyte. He claimed to have suggested to the elder artist that the colored rectangles on the studio walls might offer some deeper truth if they were somehow put into motion. Mondrian replied with the teasing head-scratcher “My painting is already very fast.” (Apparently, it was very difficult to be annoyed by Calder.)

After his abstraction epiphany, Calder got busy (not that he wasn’t already). His initial response to his visit with Mondrian was to make small paintings in the general mode of Neo-Plasticism, but his thoughts about movement and his compulsion to tinker soon took over. During the rest of 1931 and 1932, he created a body of work that acknowledged the impact of Mondrian’s purity but went beyond it to connect with other recent trends in constructed sculpture from Germany and Russia. The central metaphor giving coherence to these sculptures—the orbits and relationships of the planets and “the cosmos”—removes them from the quotidian reality that had until then been so intrinsic a part of Calder’s sensibility, aligning them instead with the metaphysical intentions of most abstract art of the first part of the twentieth century. Some, such as Two Spheres Within a Sphere, 1931, are composed of circles, arcs, and lines of wire supporting little painted wooden balls. Mounted on bases like conventional wire armatures, they are evocative of early models of the solar system. In others, the planetary imagery is less straightforward (the circular, colored elements are not balls but disks cut from sheet metal, and the overall construction isn’t spherical), and there are tiny electric motors that power simple repetitive motions.

 Alexander Calder, Little Spider, ca. 1940, sheet metal, wire, paint, 43 3⁄4 x 50 x 55".

But in works like Little Ball with Counterweight, Small Feathers, and Object with Red Discs, all 1931, the different vectors of Calder’s formal vocabulary are conflated into something neither obviously referential nor mechanical, and his lightness of touch and brilliant understanding of physical structure (the young engineer of his earlier life finally found an outlet worthy of his skill set) are freed to be both abstract and “natural.” These are the first sculptures in which all the elements that we today think of as “typically Calder” function in concert. (It was also during this time that the now-ubiquitous term “mobile” was coined by Duchamp on seeing these works in Calder’s studio.) There is no hint of gadgetry, no wacky-inventor feeling; they wear their physical oddity easily. For the first time, Calder’s preoccupation with motion doesn’t seem trivial; the essential contingency of these works, their dependence on the “laws of nature” for their forms, makes palpable the ordinarily unseen forces that govern physical objects. These sculptures are also formally rather advanced; while they rely on some sort of base, they clearly point toward a future mode that would preclude such a need. In Little Ball with Counterweight, the sculpture-base relationship is internalized as a subject of the work, achieving a high degree of both abstraction and cosmic allusion, as well as an awareness of its own condition as sculpture. The similarities between these 1931–32 sculptures and certain elements of Miró’s graphic vocabulary are striking, and Calder freely acknowledged the influence of his lifelong friend. The colored disks and balls, the stiff yet evocative black lines, the feeling of things floating free of normal restraint—indeed, the entire philosophical and metaphorical edifice of “the Universe”—all underscore Miró’s profound effect on Calder during this crucial phase of his development.

The earliest of these abstract works were exhibited in the spring of 1931 at a Parisian gallery, with a catalogue containing an essay by Léger. Calder also included a number of wire portraits in the show, in an installation that appears from photographs to have been “futuristic” in a ramshackle way but also quite ideologically impure. The show attracted the attention of a posse of superficially like-minded artists who had recently formed a group called Abstraction-Création, which included Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Jean Arp, Antoine Pevsner, and Jean Hélion, among others, and they invited Calder to join. This gave his new work an intellectual context, but ultimately there was no single conceptual framework really adequate to his mixture of concerns. By 1933, he had already taken an apparent detour—but a necessary step—into a more direct engagement with Surrealism, the other great generative premise for abstraction, in the form of vaguely anthropomorphic wood carvings, not-so-distant cousins of some of the morphologies Noguchi was investigating and spadework for ideas Calder would explore in the ’40s, once he had returned to America. Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, 1932–33, one of the last works in the Whitney exhibition, is a sort of installation set in motion by a human hand. Two little balls, hanging from a long string and wire, swing in random orbits and hit various objects (empty wine bottles, a wooden crate, a gong) dispersed across the floor, which then emit different sounds in a kind of dumbed-down music of the spheres.

Calder always drew, and the spirit of the illustrator who worked for the National Police Gazette (times really have changed) never left him. At the Whitney, two groups of drawings from 1932 reveal him grappling with the different tendencies playing out in his work. One is a suite of pen-and-ink drawings of circus subjects, treated only in a delicate line that operates as a precise analogue to the wire of his slightly earlier sculptures while permitting a denser narrative layering. In The Wild Beast Cage, which delineates several lions and tigers with their tamer inside a barred cage, the transparent rendering builds a skein of overlapping elements not quite familiar from the sculptures. The other type of drawings, with trippy titles like Monde étrange and Space Tunnel, deploys more conventionally rendered blobs, ribbons, and spheres in deep space in an attempt to represent the essence of the “cosmic” subjects he had on his mind. From our vantage, these works seem utterly generic and point the way to the extensive body of later pictorial material (drawings, paintings, prints, rugs, wallpaper, fabrics, plates, cars, and airplanes) that is such a problematic part of evaluating Calder’s work as a whole.

By mid-1933, with war imminent, it was no longer safe to stay in Europe, and Calder returned to the United States, setting up a studio in Connecticut (after the mid-’50s he reestablished a base in France, where he spent part of each year for the rest of his life). Very soon after, he developed the “stabile” as an additional category of his sculpture (that term was provided by Arp, another colleague and clear source of inspiration), and by the early ’40s, the parameters that would define the remainder of his work were in place. The “mobile”/“stabile” nomenclature that he cultivated tends to obscure the fact that he was just making sculpture. It would be good if those terms were to atrophy and disappear, for Calder’s finest moments as an artist occurred in the opening between these typologies. Throughout the ’40s he made things that combined freestanding, organically derived elements of painted sheet metal with increasingly sophisticated and freewheeling mobile attachments, completely obliterating the distinctions between base (or support) and sculpture in both of his categories. The complexity of works like Little Spider, ca. 1940, Lily of Force, 1945, and Bougainvillier, 1947, signals a quantum leap of weirdness that echoes the natural world through surprising compositional disjunction. Little Parasite, 1947, is a tour de force of formal cunning. Its swooping extensions encircle the base element like a lariat, then cantilever away at a distance that should be impossible in something so seemingly provisional. All these sculptures embrace the plant kingdom as a source of structure, image, and metaphor; they seem to grow like metal plants. They come from an improvisatory impulse (Calder had said about himself at an earlier point, “I think best in wire”) yet crystallize into immutable facts. Much like the products of evolution, they can exist because they work. During this phase, Calder leveraged the potential of the Paris sculptures to far greater levels of suave modernity, even an idiosyncratic sort of “futurism.” One can see why he became so sought after by architects of public spaces at the height of the modern period. These are the artworks George Jetson would want in his apartment at the top of the mile-high needle tower.

Alexander Calder, Black Beast, 1940, sheet metal, bolts, paint. Installation view, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.

The “wow” factor of encountering the later, large-scale mobiles in public spaces tends to overshadow Calder’s other work and to define his place in our awareness. The ubiquity of his stationary sculptures in plazas and lobbies was a relatively late development, and, as with other modern masters, when Calder was given the keys to the city, his capacity for editing may have deserted him. But a work like Black Beast, 1940, shows the intensity of which these sculptures are capable. It was to some degree a proto–installation piece, exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1940. Its splayed black abstract shapes hover at the brink of coalescence as a collision of demons or dinosaurs, straddling the room on baseless points and reaching up to connect the ceiling and floor, pressing against the limitations of the architecture. Black Beast is both of its time and predictive; Tony Smith’s more deeply veiled anthropomorphism, while more palatable to much contemporary taste, is unimaginable without Calder’s precedent. To ponder that connection opens one door to the rehabilitation of the later Calder’s street cred. There can seem to be a generic modernity to Calder’s work, almost a New Yorker–cartoon version of biomorphic abstract art (a quality Arp certainly shares), but this is the flip side of something deeply essential in modernism: the somewhat cloaked use of nature as a conceptual and philosophical platform. Calder and others of his generation really did “feel” abstraction. The organically inspired forms that became increasingly central to Calder’s work place him in a stream that runs through modernist thought, past worldwide war and the dawn of the atomic age on its way to more recent (and less obviously cataclysmic) times, when it may appear to have run dry. But it stems from an archaic impulse, and it will be interesting to see if events in the world soon outpace our ability (or need) to effect its denial.

Calder was far from a decorator. It is difficult but not impossible from our current perspective to see his anthropomorphism and structural wizardry as expressions of empathy with the organizing principles of reality, his cleverness as a kind of genius, or to consider his apparent whimsy as a manifestation of faith—not in the degraded culture-war connotation of that word, but as optimism that, in some ultimate sense, things work. His idea of motion is really the idea that an artwork can have a kind of “life,” in the sense of being a whole made of integrated parts whose interrelationships are inseparable from the condition of the larger system. Calder’s sculptures might move, but they shift and rebalance within brackets of possibility strictly determined by the laws of their nature. They “hang together.” In this sense, they are analogous to (but do not represent) the discrete systems that we refer to as “animals” or “people.” “Alexander Calder: The Paris Years” performs a great service by teasing apart the complex ancestral lines of an artist we may think we have already digested. The unlikely melding of constructed sculpture, puritan formalism, and Surrealism shouldn’t have worked, but Calder had an uncanny nose for the trail that would offer the main chance, and the self-regard to trust that he was searching for something important. “Calder’s Universe,” as his apologists have referred to his sprawling body of work with no apparent irony, is, like our own, a mixed bag, but it is one undeniably inhabited by marvels.

“Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926–1933” co-organized by Joan Simon and Brigitte Leal, remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through February 15; travels to the Centre Pompidou March 18–July 20.

Carroll Dunham is an artist based in New York.