Washington, DC

Alexander Calder

National Gallery of Art

For years a forced dose of Alexander Calder’s Circus, 1926–31, every time I passed through the lobby of the Whitney reduced his art to irredeemable kitsch. Of course, beauty and kitsch are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, the “in” where my renewed appreciation of Calder’s work is concerned came via an unexpected route: Mark Robson’s 1967 movie version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. Camp queens have always thrilled to the sequence in which the Ethel Merman–esque Helen Lawson character, played by Susan Hayward, wows the audience of a New Haven theater with a show-stopping, razzle-dazzle anthem of personal autonomy performed in the psychedelic shadows of a whirling, Calderian mobile. Special lighting effects gave the whole ensemble the aesthetic charge of disco illumination avant la lettre. “I’ll plant my own tree, and I’ll make it grow,” Lawson belts out, and one realizes that she is the tree trunk, and the Calder thing’s the leaves and branches. It’s trippy. Dipping into the literature that accompanies the National Gallery of Art’s centennial retrospective, I began to think my moment of access to the meaning and beauty of Calder’s art wasn’t so off. Consider Henri Pichette in “Poem to Alexander Calder and Louisa” (1954): “My ancestor, the mobile said, is the Tree Moved by the Wind.” What the Valley of the Dolls sequence succinctly represents is the movement from Calder’s own originary aesthetic moments, under the influence of the biomorphism of Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, etc., to the threshold of ’60s psychedelia. Such are the vagaries of the reciprocity of high art and popular decor: Calder is one of those figures whose absorption into popular taste is so absolute, whose work feels so generically moderne, that it is difficult to see his art at all. The National Gallery’s retrospective offers a welcome chance to return to Calder himself, to a beauty ossified long enough under the weight of too many baby-crib mobiles and hack public commissions.

While at his best Calder achieves grand effects, at heart he always remained something of a tinkerer. His parents were established Philadelphia artists working in academic traditions, but initially Calder opted for the more prosaic career of mechanical engineer—a choice that obviously served him well when it came to his innovation of the mobile. “I spent my childhood as a boy ... always enthusiastic about toys and string, and always a junkman of bits of wire and all the prettiest stuff in the garbage can,” the artist recalled in a 1929 biographic statement. Calder’s best pieces still suggest the playroom, and string and wire cleverly deployed in combination with the “junk” of metal plates form the basis of his art. Even when largish, they retain a sense of delicacy, like Pichette’s tree gently rustled by the wind. Which is why the huge, heavy mobile that is a permanent fixture of the East Building atrium is so ghastly: it is a graceless oversize bat frozen in space, undoubtedly more at home in a museum of aeronautics.

Curator Marla Prather’s exhibition is comprehensive, and for the most part edited so that the best of Calder’s work—and there is bad stuff; he was very prolific—holds center stage. Some of the 267 works on view are not of much interest: the early wire portraits of such contemporaneous personalities as Jimmy Durante and Josephine Baker; the jewelry, although enthusiasts assure me that Calder’s work in this area is great; and above all the stabiles. This last inclusion is somewhat unfair, as there are many exquisite stabiles (e.g., Black Beast, 1940), and the historical genesis of the term is at least amusing: Duchamp, having arranged a Calder show at Galerie Vignon in 1932, proposed the exhibition title Calder: ses mobiles. After having perused the show, Arp perhaps sarcastically designated the new static works “stabiles.” While many of the earlier, smaller examples are quite beautiful, they still seem to contain the germ of the later bad Calder: to wit, those dreadful piles of inert metal that litter public plazas and corporate atria across the country. Nonetheless, some of the artist’s most successful works combine elements of both the stabile and the mobile, the forms of traditional, grounded sculpture and those of fluttering movement, at once graceful and agitated. With its kooky evocation of ikebana, Un effet du japonais, 1940, looks forward to the kitsch/camp Calder of Valley, an aesthetic completely in tune with the decorative arts; as such it is an aesthetic that falls short of “seriousness,” remaining immersed in period style, yet it’s no less successful for that. Bayonets Menacing a Flower, 1945—a black stabile ending in sharp, somewhat dangerous-looking stalks, from which a wire tendril supports at some distance a frail, white mobile “flower”—harkens back to the “mean” Surrealist sculpture of previous decades, such as Giacometti’s famous Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932. Like Un effet, it too, as its date indicates, is something of a period piece: the end of the war.

Calder was an aesthete. He could be very vulgar (e.g., the ridiculous Finny Fish, 1948), but he seldom exercised the will to be consciously ugly (an exception is the crude, awkward, yet terrific Apple Monster, 1938). And while his roots, and many of his finest works, trace to the Paris years during which he absorbed the aesthetics of Surrealism, for me he remains caught, fortuitously, in the environment of the International Style as it flourished in the US during the late ’40s and ’50s. Exquisite works such as The Spider, 1940, and The Lace on the Edge of Your Panties, 1947, call out for a setting of steel and marble, for an austere corporate glamour, in which they could bloom unhindered by other decorative excrescences. Helen, a song, if you would.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.