Using tin snips and pliers, Alexander Calder fashioned his mobiles from sheet metal, wire, and bits of junk. After painting the sculptures in bright colors, he hung them from the ceiling where they move slowly in the air. Calder’s work is instantly recognizable, completely approachable, and a treat to the eye. There’s no other artist like him.
Everyone loves Calder, but critics underrate him, says Lynne Warren, the long-time Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) curator. Also, she adds, Calder has influenced many younger artists. To prove these points, Warren organized “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance Joy,” a show of 56 Calder sculptures and 32 works by seven living artists—Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry, Kristi Lippire, Jason Meadows, and Jason Middlebrook—who acknowledge Calder’s influence. The show runs at the MCA until October 17 and then will travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas; the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California; and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
“Form, Balance, Joy” draws upon the MCA’s Calder collection and Warren’s recognition of a “sea change” in contemporary art, away from the theoretical/conceptual/political, toward art that’s based on visual observation and contemplation. She dates this “sea change” to about 1995 when art students “were no longer content to swallow the anti-retinal/theoretical agenda that had so long dominated art school curricula,” writes Warren in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Instead of heeding academics, young artists “began roaming the modern galleries of art museums, making things with their hands, even tinkering.”
Installation view of Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, June 26 - October 17, 2010. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay. © 2010 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The exhibition occupies the two large galleries that flank the hallway leading to the MCA’s restaurant. Installed in open plan on low platforms or hung from the ceiling, Calder’s work fills the entire room on the left. Work by the living artists is placed in the room on the right and in the hallway.
The presentation of Calder’s work could not be better. It simply lifts the visitor off the floor. Since the MCA owns seventeen of the 56 Calder sculptures in the show, the majority were borrowed from private collections and other art museums. The MCA showed great intelligence in its selections.
Calder’s work is divided into six groupings: creative reuse, animal imagery, stabiles, spiders, small standing mobiles, and bronzes. Creative reuse here meaning sculptures that incorporate cast off materials and detritus, in this presentation it is mostly bits of broken glass and plastic. Calder made these sculptures during World War Two when metals and wire were scarce. Some of the found material came from an old junk heap on the artist’s farm property.
Alexander Calder, Finny Fish, 1948. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls; 1996. Photo by Lyle Peterzell. © 2010 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In his animal imagery sculptures, Calder simplified bodies into flattened forms and added balanced moving elements, connecting everything together with wire. His goal was to convey animal grace and motion, particularly that of seals which he found especially beautiful. The stabiles are kinetic floor pieces whose motion implies volumes.
In the spider mobiles, which seem to be influenced by Jean Hans Arp, semi-abstracted organic forms and gently curved lengths of wire combine to draw the eye diagonally up and down—and sometimes to suggest tree branches, waterfalls, or hillsides. The small standing mobiles are utterly charming animal pieces that employ wire lines and spirals, while the bronzes are sculptures in which Calder experiments with form and motion in cast bronze.
The MCA’s presentation makes us consider Calder anew and shows him to be an artist of unquestioned depth, variety, and resourcefulness. The sculptures are modest, beautifully balanced creations that seem to unfold as the viewer walks by them. There is much flatness in Calder’s sculptures. The artist could have welded his mobiles together or employed fasteners, but he wants us to know that they’re handmade.
Three of the living artists—Nathan Carter, Jason Middlebrook, and Jason Meadows—incorporate Calder’s line into their work, albeit in different ways. Carter is the most Calderesque sculptor in the show and the most fun. At the press opening, he explained that his subject is communication and miscommunication—and that he scavenges for his materials in city streets after automobile accidents.
Nathan Carter, RADAR REFLECTOR ORIGIN PETIT CALIVIGNY GRENADA, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York
Carter’s RADAR REFLECTOR ORIGIN PETIT CALIVIGNY GRENADA (2009, seen above) is a hanging circular welded steel rod framework, six feet in diameter, with rods crossing it to create triangular and trapezoidal openings where small colored objects are suspended on wires. The framework and rods are painted red.
Carter surely found some of the suspended objects that we see in this work, but most are chunks of colored plastic and other materials that he selected, cut to shape, and arranged with great care. Light, airy, and upbeat, RADAR REFLECTOR recalls Joan Miro as it follows Calder in its use of materials and reliance upon line to organize a flat space.
Nathan Carter, TYROLEAN ALPINE WIRELESS STATIONS MERANO TRENTO BOLZANO CORTINA D'AMPEZZO SARENTINO READY FOR RADIO CHECK, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist and Casey Kaplan, NY.
TYROLEAN ALPINE WIRELESS STATIONS MERANO TRENTO BOLZANO CORTINA D'AMPEZZO SARENTINO READY FOR RADIO CHECK (2009) is Carter’s commentary on pirate radio--and the best piece in this show. (The artist’s nutty titles add to the fun.) TYROLEAN ALPINE is six small painted wooden constructions with wires protruding from them and colored disks of different sizes suspended here and there. Carter’s constructions are arranged landscape-style on a shelf to suggest radio towers and transmission paraphernalia. He paints stripes on each wooden base and on the swooping wires too, making lines of dashes that recall Morse code. This artist is a tinkerer like Calder, an unpretentious maker, also, it seems, a happy soul.
In the wall text by his work, Jason Middlebrook declares, “An artist can always make something more interesting than they would buy in a store.” Proof of this is From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home to the Streets and Back Again (2009-10), a mobile that the MCA commissioned to hang above viewers’ heads in the hallway between the galleries where the “Form, Balance, Joy” show is installed.
Jason Middlebrook, From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home to the Streets and Back Again, 2009-10. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Courtesy of the artist and Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay
From the Forest to the Mill consists of a single Michigan log, which hangs at one end of a steel rod and, suspended at the other end, a starburst-shaped construction of discarded wooden floorboards, a wood dresser, and other wooden detritus that the artist rescued from different dumpsters. Middlebrook told the press that the piece did not balance correctly until he hollowed out the log and poured sand into it. From the Forest to the Mill puts Calder’s signature technique to fresh use, but coarsens his line.
Jason Meadows employs line and collapses space to produce some of the most visually provocative work in the show. His Ghost (2007) is a narrow, floor-mounted, five-foot high aluminum armature that supports a grid of colored lines. Most of these are vertical or horizontal with loose ends, but one red and one yellow line meander across the surface of the grid. Meadows uses unusual materials—six pack rings, nylon zip ties, nylon rope and cord, hemp, and wooden rod—to create a ghostly translucency. Ghost hovers between sculpture and painting, which is entirely appropriate for this artist who works in both realms.
Jason Meadows, Pig Latin, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Marc Foxx Gallery.
In Pig Latin (2008), Meadows shapes a red-painted metal rod into outline drawings of the heads and hindquarters of pigs, which he joins at the center such that half- pig drawings project out in all directions. As viewers walk around this sculpture, the space wavers between two dimensions and three.
When Aaron Curry was in art school, many of his classmates were doing work in video, which did not attract him. Instead he looked at Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures and found that they “were just as active as a video” when he walked around them. He makes his sculptures, which resemble Calder’s stabiles, from flat sheets of wood, aluminum, or steel, which he cuts to shape, paints, and slots together. Each sculpture has several personalities, depending on where one views it from.
“Form, Balance, Joy” is one of the MCA’s best shows in memory and should absolutely not be missed. It succeeds because it’s based on visual ideas. It contains nothing that bespeaks “the anti-retinal/theoretical agenda that had so long dominated art school curricula,” to use Lynne Warren’s fleeted phrase. But the MCA pushed that agenda too—and masses of other trendy trash—for decades. How nice to see the museum returning to art—and in such a triumphant way.
-Victor M. Cassidy.