New York

Alexander Calder

These two monumental—indeed, gigantic—sculptures, Big, Big Black, 1957 (a mobile) and Spunk of the Monk, 1964 (a stabile), show the heroic possibilities of a master’s late style. It is as though Alexander Calder were epitomizing himself for posterity: offering allegorical self-representations as well as symbols of his artistic ambition. But this personalized rhetoric is deceptive: these works are not inviting. They give the lie to Calder’s supposed coyness and humor. He has constructed two uncanny, inhospitable spaces—forbidden zones that show abstraction’s power to evoke a sense of the inhuman absolute.

The sculptures are, to an extent, “creaturely,” as many of Calder’s works are. The mobile evokes a flock of birds, the stabile a spider. (Soaring into space and creating an intricate spatial web, they simultaneously effect what the best abstraction achieves.) They also have the signature abandoned, skeletal look of a Calder. This look is too little noticed, despite being the source of his expressive depth; here it is blatant, no longer masked by color. And, like all Calder’s sculptures, they celebrate and streamline the planar Modernism of Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. But they make something malevolent and threatening out of it. Calder’s sculptures have been viewed as impish constructions, but these two have a persecutory character, as though they were omnivorous machine-monsters ready to consume anything that crossed their paths. At the same time, their edginess, heightened by their blackness—they literally bristle with shark-fin edges—suggests that they might personify massive attacks of anxiety.

Esthetically, they are remarkable for the way they nervously spread over space, with a certain erratic lyricism, and at the same time seem self-contained and perfectly balanced. They arc also remarkable for their economy of means—“biomorphic” planes in Big, Big Black and “bow legs” in Spunk of the Monk—and for the relational mileage Calder gets out of them. In the former work the linkages add an air of technical delicacy, as do the “toes” on which the latter stands. Indeed, both have a special sense of balance, even as they are made all the more dramatic, stark, and mysterious by the gallery’s white walls, which function as a ground. At the same time, they challenge this ground, destabilizing the architecture they inhabit by their movement, whether literal or implied. They seem to have just stepped out of it, unexpectedly, becoming a kind of architecture themselves, that is, an open structure emblematic of a frontier mentality. In their contradictoriness and self-contradictoriness, they also stand—or float—on a frontier of feeling.

Donald Kuspit