Alexander Calder at LACMA

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Most people know Alexander Calder as the inventor of the mobile, a kinetic sculpture that hangs in space. But like his friend Georgia O'Keeffe, he is a familiar and beloved figure to such an extent that it obscures the fundamentally radical impulse of his art. LACMA's senior curator, Stephanie Barron, recognized this dilemma around the perception of his work and acknowledged it in the title of her show, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant Garde to Iconic.


Alexander Calder, "Un effet du japonais," 1941
Sheet metal, rod, wire and paint
80 x 80 x 48 inches
Calder Foundation, New York; Bequest of Mary Calder Rower, 2011
©  2013 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource, New York

A Pennsylvania native, the son and grandson of artists, Calder made his way to Paris in the 1920's early in his career and was confronted with the biomorphic abstraction of Joan Miró and the primary color geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian. Calder began to seek similar effects in sculpture. When Marcel Duchamp saw some of his first attempts with shapes cut out of thin metal, painted red, white or blue and suspended from wires, he dubbed them "mobiles." For Calder, they were not isolated designs but inspired by the model of the universe with its planets and orbits, or by forms in nature.


Alexander Calder, "White Panel," 1936
Plywood, sheet metal, tubing, wire, string and paint
84 1/2 x 47 x 51 inches
Calder Foundation, New York; Bequest of Mary Calder Rower, 2011
© 2013 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource, New York

Barron was able to work closely with the Calder Foundation, run by his grandson Alexander -- Sandy -- Rower. So the show includes dozens of pieces that have rarely been on view to the public. The show is a manageable size, 50 some pieces, carefully edited to highlight the best in Calder's imaginative output. In short, it is a gorgeous group of works, some of the best ever made by the artist. The appearance of each is enhanced by Frank Gehry's superb installation in the Resnick Pavilion. Instead of rectilinear white boxes, Gehry added convex and concave dove grey walls that allow the sculptures to turn and move in space and to capture the shadows that are so important to the experience of a Calder. At the center of the exhibition is something of a chapel with white bays highlighting the flat black forms of three mobiles. At one side of the gallery there is a discreet corridor, with a moving quote by Jean Paul Sartre that leads to a largely white mobile that sways as gently as a eucalyptus branch in the wind. Looking at this work, Barron told me that Albert Einstein once spent 45 minutes lost in thought while examining a Calder sculpture. She hoped that the design of this exhibition might slow viewers to spend some time with each piece.


Alexander Calder, "Gibraltar" 1936
Lignum vitae, walnut, steel rods and painted wood
51 7/8 x 24 1/4 x 11 3/8 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist
© 2013 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, digital image
© 2013 Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York

As you drive by LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard, you can see Three Quintains or Hello Girls, a fountain commissioned by the museum in 1964 for its grand opening. It was Calder's first site-specific work on the West Coast and one of the few fountains that he ever realized. The exhibition concludes with maquettes for stabiles, the non-moving sculptures, often commissions for public spaces, that attracted the bulk of Calder's concentration after 1950. The show closes on July 27, 2014 and I promise, it is quite the holiday present.

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Banner image: Installation view of Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; © Calder Foundation, New York. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen