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Calder exhibit at the BMA shows his unswerving dedication to art in balance


Alexander Calder, the American sculptor who created the mobile, was a prolific and versatile artist. His sculpture ranged from fragile wire figures of circus characters to abstract metal sculptures called stabiles, in sizes up to several stories high. And his work encompassed sculpture, drawings, watercolors, prints; even tapestries and jewelry.

All of the above are included in "Celebrating Calder" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a show drawn almost exclusively from the collection of the Whitney Museum in New York. The exhibit NTC reveals that while Calder created lots of different things, certain concepts run through his work with remarkable consistency.

From the beginning, physical balance was important to him. We can see it in the show's video of a Calder performance with the tiny circus figures he made in the 1920s. We see it in the wire sculpture ("The Brass Family" [1927]) of seven circus acrobats forming a human pyramid. And we see it in the mobiles, of course. But we also see it in the stabiles, where a big asym-metrical sculpture may balance on a few points.

The idea of visual balance is equally important. The mobiles and stabiles are asymmetrical, but they achieve visual balance through the positioning of their parts. A big piece over here will be balanced by four or five smaller pieces over there, giving the eye visual pleasure.

In both the mobiles and the stabiles, Calder also achieves a balance between the abstract and the representational. His shapes are abstract, but they look organic, like things in the world -- leaves or fish or birds or snowflakes -- without actually depicting such things. And Calder reinforced this referential aspect of his work with his titles: "Sea Scape," "Pomegranate," "Calderberry Bush," "Hanging Spider," "Seven Foot Beastie."

Movement was also an important concept to Calder, and not only in the mobiles. Whether wire sculptures or drawings, the early circus figures such as "The Handstand" or "Juggler with Ball" (both 1931) depict figures in the act of movement.

Not only can we move in and around the stabiles, so that they look as if they're moving with us, their forms also imply movement. They look like vaguely familiar creatures frozen in the act of walking around or doing some sort of stretching exercise.

Calder's colors reflect his consistency. With one exception (a green circle in the watercolor "Composition" of 1953), the three primary colors plus black and white are all that we see in this show.

Finally, Calder was one of the most consistently positive artists who ever lived. In a century of angst, alienation and anger, his work from beginning to end radiates optimism, happiness and joy. And it teaches us that those need not be superficial qualities. There is such a thing as profound joy, and Calder gave it to the world in big doses.

Celebrate 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

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