Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Answer is Blowin' on the Art: Calder @ LACMA

 I have been blowing on art  since X first encountered an Alexander Calder mobile at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given the height and weight of the installation, it was unlikely that   I  would make any waves, but X wanted to have some way to interact with the art, especially given the hands-off rules of proper museum visitorship. It needed to move if it was to move me. For some reason, blowing on a van Gogh or other heavily textured work remains a reasonable encounter style to this day.

                                         The Calder retrospective “monographic” exhibition opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic”, gives one many reasons to blow, wink, wave and do all sorts of other seemingly harmless gestures toward his mobiles and stabiles, but the Frank O. Gehry installation keeps us at a reasonable distance along the periphery of some provocatively curved walls and barriers. The exhibition design, in fact, demonstrates Gehry’s infinite technical capacity to trump (almost) anything he is asked to wrap. L’arc de triumphe!

We think we “know” Calder because his work was the rage when most of the larger western contemporary art institutions were consolidating their collections. He seemed to animate beloved works of his contemporaries, Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Wassily Kandinsky to name just three. Given the materials, Calder is durable to say the least, and he seems to have an easy to grasp (no touching!!!) stylistic vocabulary: mostly black or white or primary colored discs, including modernist "kidney shaped "petals", dangling from black wires that have an uncanny resemblance to clothes hangers that propagate unchecked in one’s closet. 

Wondering whether his work has “held up over time, is not a useful question when viewing Calder in the 21st Century. It serves more as a benchmark for how the viewer has changed since first encountering his work. We think we see his work everywhere, but in fact, it is his influence that has become ubiquitous.

There are many classic balancing acts in this exhibition supported by the Calder Foundation, on whose website there is a warning not to be fooled by what may look "like” a Calder. Thus, the exhibition’s historical perspective is helpful in examining the maestro's process, one that is decidedly influenced by his education in physics-based engineering. (I am also reminded of Hayao Miyazaki's latest and last film, The Wind Rises,  where science is reflected in the creation of something destined to live in the air that is also beautiful for beauty's sake.) 

The earliest Calder pieces on display present the opposite of what we think of as trompe d’oeil.

Several of the pieces incorporate a “frame”: either a   field in the background or just a perimeter surrounding space. In this town of various cinematic trompes d’scopes and IMAX screens, it is relaxing to watch Calder’s pieces “simply” float in front of a basically flat background. Gehry comments that the museum didn’t have a proper space in which to install the work. This inspired him to create unique curvaceous panels to divide the broad, open rectangular footprint of the Resnick Pavilion, but the arcs seem rather large wide sweeps. Nonetheless, there are shadows on surfaces that do allow the pieces to dance in and with the light.

Each of the 50 pieces in the exhibition has something unique to say. Schools of aimless fish and flocks of maniacal birds define the “empty” sky and water environments that we, land-based animals, can only enter with aid. There is a multi-colored humanoid skeletal piece that tries to leave the earth. A few pieces, such as Yucca (1941), cast shadows that would be fitting in any xeroscape garden in LA’s now history-making arid climate.

Calder has admirers throughout the world, including Japan. Un effet du japonais (1941) does not particularly reflect any more japonais – ness than others. The freestanding work with hints of mobile-ism resembles two "conjoined" giraffes whose necks actually do meet in mid-air!  The piece predates his first exhibition in Japan by more than three decades. According to the Foundation, the Pennsylvania USA native had no previous direct encounter with Japan prior to that.

Photo by author

What attracted my eastern sensibility much more is Escutcheon (1954), a relatively small stabile that might be a Sogetsu ikebana arrangement. It is hung close to the ceiling near two cast bronze table top pieces that resembled natural branches that might have caught the eye on a walk in the woods. One resembles a snake and the other, to me, harkens to Picasso's She Goat.

Calder also worked in natural materials, including wood. Gibraltar (1936, MOMA NYC), constructed out of Lignum vitae, walnut, steel rods and painted wood, is in the genre of his galaxies. (LACMA’s grand exhibition of the work of James Turrell is still on display, enabling one to enjoy more-naked eye celestial observations.) 

The "milky way-like field that rings an island mountain is evocative of an image of Calder in his studio wearing a light visor at a rakish angle. Further, one of the elements, a piece of wood held aloft by a vertical rod, reminds me of a sotdae, Korean wooden spirit post topped by a simply rendered bird that is placed singly or in multiples at the entrance gate to a village to promote good harvest and luck.

I would never have had these insights when I blew on my first Calder. If his are the only "floaters" I see as I age, then I'll be very contentToday we have the capacity to do 3D printing, but if Calder had put a stylus on each of his discs and turned on the wind, we would have almost holographic creations. 

The answer may be Blowin' in the in the Wind, and Calder may be setting up the questions. It is not impossible to think that Calder's work takes me on a trip within the space inside my mind. I trust that he will continue to inform me about how “far” I’ve come.

For more information about Alexander Calder, I am happy to direct your attention to the wonderful resource Artsy