Modern from the start – The Brooklyn Rail
modern Art Museum
Modern from the start
March 14 – August 7, 2021
In a published interview (with Carter Ratcliff in 1988), Louise Bourgeois spoke of three “charmers” working at the Museum Modern of Art, each of them a privileged artist of the directors: Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn and Alexander Calder. It’s hard to imagine Rothko the lovable courtier, but we know no one liked Sandy Calder.
The Museum considers Modern from the start the story of a relationship with his first and only “house artist”, but the exhibition cannot answer the question that Bourgeois’ tale leaves begging for: how did this artist and this institution get along so well? We’d love to watch the careerist in action, but this story could only play out in a novel or comprehensive biography, which has yet to happen.
The exhibition consists of two large rooms, connected by a passage. It’s not a career retrospective, but it’s a lot of things: mobiles, stabiles, models, various flatworks in many mediums, wall works, jewelry, two pieces in the garden, and the Lobster trap and fishtail (1939) in the stairwell, just outside. The first room is dominated by two stabiles, the very first of them, Black beast (1940), and a classic of the high period, Black Widow (1959). Stabiles alone would have made the career of another artist, but Calder actually had several. See these stabiles with Snow flurry I (1948), such a classic mobile, we can note that the stabile is a special case of the mobile: same vocabulary, wireless only, no longer just stove bolts. Both planes, with the same touch and displacement relationship with support and gravity, but the stabiles bristle with a threat that often disappears but never fully disappears from fully airborne works. Many of the creatures of reason have a mean tendency somewhere. Our brave man Calder had a much longer and sharper emotional spectrum than his reputation implies.
The passage is littered with Peripatetic wireframe works that Calder could cram into suitcases and travel from New York to Paris, and back again. Also, quite delicate motorized work, oscillating between an oddity adapted to their age (they are almost 100 years old) and their original and nervous DIY impudence. Hopefully they can be energized, intermittently, once more. With the exception of machines, these early works are all resemblances, and as often animals as people. Like Brancusi, Calder was an animal painter of a lifetime, whose gift for human likeness and character was matched only by the best portrait sculptors. Young Calder could enter a space with a roll of wire and put on a show there; these wire busts were a staple of his walk-in performances. Presentations Portrait of a man (circa 1928) is an unknown subject: apparently Calder couldn’t quite remember who this guy was.
After falling into abstraction, Calder avoided mimesis altogether, saying, “… sure if that meant anything it would be easier to understand, but it wasn’t worth it. Emptiness was something to strive for then, but if absence was her intention, she couldn’t hold it. His work, down to the last cut and folded ashtray, is imaginary. His talent as a fairground portrait artist for resemblance influences the least representative petal of each mobile. Snow flurry I is hardly “abstract” – we know every motive perfectly, every stabile is alive. The artist was an animist down to his fingertips. Its funny electricity zigzags between the intentional nothingness and the animal presence I can not help myself.
The final room, more varied and diverse than ever, contains relatively few moving parts and more non-planar books in the three filled dimensions. Cutting flat shapes from sheet metal, Calder was alone with himself and somewhat outside the story, but he sometimes sculpted and modeled throughout his practice. Many elements of the circus are skillfully carved, and some sheet metal shapes are quite delicately modeled – with a hammer. In wartime, limited access to metals, he made a number of “constellations” of carved and painted wooden elements, interspersed with straight grain and hung quite high on the wall. The headlines suggest something astronomical, and the artist has whispered something about some cosmic gases, but things seem to have receded from the high wall of the ground, on their feet.
Constellation with red object (1943), a reserve in the permanent collection, is here reinforced by two loans from the Calder Foundation, Black constellation and Wall constellation with row of objects (both in 1943). The exhibit might not answer some of its own questions, but these three pieces cast one that Clement Greenberg posed in the 1940s. He recognized Calder’s multiple talents and noted the slight commendations of his work, but was it enough? Calder had obviously borrowed everything but air from Miró. The “Constellations” are made up of something like the little Brancusi, Giacometti, Arp and Miró-esque play pieces, plus astral space: would that just be in good taste?
Right question, correct premise, inexplicably short-sighted answer. Calder had no equal in poetic practice. None of his creditors were more clearly allusive, muscular in compression, ruthless in their brevity or incisive in their precision. But industrious as he was fashionable, Calder was admittedly rather lazy in development. Donald Judd, admiring in addition, noted it in the reviews. Calder took his time. But went places. Judd complained about a first iteration of Mountains and clouds (1976). The monumental version, a late work now occupying the atrium of the Hart Senate office building in DC, is literally titanic. No equal anywhere. Pushing the nine-story skylight above, he is Continental America, and he stands up to the government.
Not wanting to dwell on the latent emotions visible in his own work, Calder mostly apologized, under what he took for a privilege inherent in abstraction. He substituted ineffable humor for visible subject matter, brilliantly, as James Johnson Sweeney noted in the 1940s (no one has written better on Calder since). As a result, he garnered his reckless popular appeal, but was burdened with chronic underweight. It could have so easily been otherwise, but he just didn’t care to confess. “That other people understand what I’m on my mind doesn’t seem essential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.
Calder is rightly loved for his simplicity, but there is an ethereal condescension somewhere in that egalitarian voice. Lightness, indeed. I know who I am. First lord of the air.
The mobiles did not leave the ground quietly; they tear up intellectual territory. Tearing it apart audibly, with something like the predatory cry of a jet engine. Calder was not an imperialist, but the mobiles were an exercise in raw power that cleared the ground beneath them to detonate the tarmac. He swept away the “sentiment,” as Sweeney put it, and razed the plain for the minimalists to come. But the stabiles arrived first. Granted by the sovereign, Saturnian, lonely and silent bard of his new land.