The works of Alexander Calder to be presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art starting Wednesday will probably please everybody who comes to see them. After all, nobody doesn't like his art.
His delightful mobiles, moving gently in the air, turn children into instant art lovers and make adults act like kids with a new toy. His big stationary metal sculptures, called stabiles, have a winning charm that makes them approachable. His early wire sculptures, often of circus figures, and his colorful prints also appeal in straightforward, uncomplicated ways.
Of all the serious artists of the 20th century, Calder is perhaps the most accessible.
And that's the problem with truly appreciating him. While the work of many artists is perceived as being so esoteric it takes an art history degree to understand them, Calder is just the opposite: He's so easy to enjoy it's hard to take him seriously.
"I think we underestimate his art-historical significance and complexity, and it's an irony," says Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture, who is organizing the "Celebrating Calder" showing at the BMA.
Calder's work, Richardson says, "is too charming. It's too much fun. And so we look at that level first and we forget to look beyond it to how radical this figure was."
"Celebrating Calder" includes 53 of his works from the collection of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, tracing the artist's career from the 1920s to the 1970s.
In the period leading up to the show, Richardson realized that she, too, had taken Calder too lightly. "I realized that I never thought about the work very much. I appreciate it and love it, and we have it in our collection prominently displayed. But I hadn't given real cerebration to what this work was about, and I was quite taken aback by how much there is to think about."
When Calder first made mobiles, while living in Paris in the early 1930s, it was a major development for the form. "He made abstract shapes move in space, not motorized but self-moving, with the wind, with the air, with the movement of people around them," says Richardson. "So, basically, his most fundamental importance might be in making sculpture one with us, not separating us from sculpture. In other words, sculpture was about density and mass, and he made it about light and air; and we share the same light and air that his sculptures share, whereas mass and density will always be isolated from us.
"I think also the reason it's so accessible is that it feels more like us. It's quirky in its movements; it's unpredictable, and people are like that."
Richardson thinks people have a similar relationship with Calder's stabiles, such as "100 Yard Dash," a large red stabile in the museum's Levi sculpture garden. "They're cut out of shapes that are then put together almost like leaves falling down that have a pattern somehow," Richardson says. "To me, the stabiles at their best have a very natural organic feel to them. If you're out in the garden and watch people with '100 Yard Dash,' they move in and around and amongst it. So even in a way the stabiles, contrary to their name, they do move, they change with the light."
Although Calder's mobiles and stabiles are abstract, one of the reasons people like them is the organic look of the component parts, says Jennifer Russell, formerly deputy director of the Whitney and now associate director of New York's Metropolitan Museum.
"His work almost always has some reference to natural or organic forms, and I think people like that," says Russell, who organized "Celebrating Calder," which debuted at the Whitney in 1991 and has been traveling the world since. "His art hovers between abstraction and representation, and that makes it easier for people to relate to."
People tend to forget that Calder was an innovator, says Russell. Aside from his mobiles, he was the first, or one of the first, to do several things that have become commonplace.
"Certainly he was one of the first to use industrial materials," she says. "Also, the whole element of chance. People like [composer] John Cage were not looking at Calder, but it's part of the same phenomenon, the reliance on chance. And another thing, he was one of the first to use color in sculpture. You look at a George Sugarman sculpture or somebody like [John] Chamberlain, color is a very important element. And people have forgotten that that was pretty revolutionary in the '30s when [Calder] first did it."
"Celebrating Calder" provides a great opportunity to find out what the artist was all about, says Russell. "The Whitney focused on his work primarily because of Howard and Jean Lipman, collectors of Calder, David Smith and [Louise] Nevelson. It's mostly because of [the Lipmans] that the Whitney has such an extraordinary representation, from the 1920s to the late stabiles."
Art and engineering
Calder was born in 1898 near Philadelphia to a family of artists. His father and grandfather were both sculptors in the representative mode of the time. He, however, went first to engineering school and only in 1923 began attending classes at the Art Students League of New York, where his father taught.
From the late 1920s on, he divided his time between France and America. One of his first major works was a toy, "Circus," made of small figures of people and animals. With this he gave performances of a circus, moving the pieces and providing sound effects himself. These were a great hit in Paris, and opened doors for him.
"His becoming appreciated in Paris was through this odd vehicle of the 'Circus,' " says Richardson. "Friend told friend and some of them turned out to be very extraordinary artists, like [Joan] Miro, for instance. They became lifelong friends after Miro came and watched him perform this circus."
Although the Whitney owns the "Circus," it does not travel, because of its fragility. But in a gallery of the exhibit set aside as a children's room there will be a video of Calder performing the "Circus" late in life. It's a sheer delight, and shows something of the lovable personality that drew people to Calder.
In an essay accompanying the exhibit, former Whitney curator Patterson Sims writes, "Calder was . . . without calculation, cant, pretense or rivalry. . . He was a singularly unaffected, uncomplicated person."
From Mondrian to mobiles
"Circus" was indirectly responsible for his greatest achievement. 1930, the abstract artist Piet Mondrian came to see the "Circus," and subsequently invited Calder to his studio. Calder, seeing some colored squares on the walls of Mondrian's studio, wondered what it would be like if they moved. "And then," says Richardson, "he made that leap, which is a very great leap. The idea of making abstract geometric shapes move in space had never been done before."
Thus was born the mobile, though it was about two years before Calder made the first ones. In the meantime he created the stabile -- making the early 1930s the period of his greatest advances.
He was to go on making art for almost 50 years, until his death in 1976. Mobiles and stabiles constitute only one part of his art; it also includes wire figures, watercolors, drawings, prints, tapestries and jewelry. All are represented in the BMA show.
Patterson Sims writes of Calder's work: "Almost all his energy was directed into his multi-faceted art, and it has generated more simple pleasure and spontaneous delight than the work of any artist of the twentieth century."
What: "Celebrating Calder"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 7
Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages
7 through 18
Call: (410) 396-7100
Note: Metropolitan Museum of Art associate director Jennifer Russell will lecture on Alexander Calder at the BMA at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18; the lecture is free and open to the public