Exhibit of the week
Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926–1933
Whitney Museum, New York
Through Feb. 15, 2009

This “highly entertaining and enlightening show” captures a quintessential American artist at the crux of his career, said John Zeaman in the Bergen County, N.J., Record. Alexander Calder was just another art student when he moved to Paris in 1926. But he already had a unique habit of playing with rigid iron wire by bending it into funny shapes. “Using nothing but pliers, Calder would bend, wrap, and twist the material into a bird or a horse or a human figure.” The Whitney’s small collection of works from this brief span includes many that are mechanical or otherwise dynamic. “The fish in his aquarium swim when you turn a crank.” Figures seem to throw a shot put, swing a golf club, or play tennis. In Pigs, “the boar mounts the sow, who is already showing a tiny piglet taking shape in her interior.”

“Industrial steel wire was an ideal medium” for Calder, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. “It was cheap, malleable, portable, and equally adaptable to precision work and doodling” in three dimensions. Calder used the medium the way others used ink, creating expressive zigzags and jaunty curves. Calder quickly gained a name for creating amusing caricatures of celebrities such as Josephine Baker, John Rockefeller, Jimmy Durante, and Calvin Coolidge. “Each is a fabulous little virtuosic feat, abstract but exacting.” But prolonged exposure to the sophisticated Paris art world produced a pronounced change in the young artist, and a growing sense of ambition. Gone were the circus animals and whimsical tricks. “Now everything is floating circles and curving lines anchored by balls in space.” Still, in works such as Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, one can see the common elements that link the young artist and the mature one: “motion and play.”

A key moment in his transformation occurred in October 1930, when Calder dropped in on the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. The visit “alerted Calder to the possibilities of abstraction,” and the aspiring sculptor quickly incorporated lessons from Mondrian and other painters, including Picasso and Miró. The result was the “brilliantly inventive stylistic synthesis” that marks his famous abstract mobiles and even his monumental outdoor sculpture. Even before he left for France, Calder was one of the best raw sculptural talents in America. “What Calder brought to Paris” in terms of raw talent, however, ultimately wasn’t as important as “what he took away.”