Peabody Essex Museum’s exclusive East Coast presentation of “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” is everything an art exhibit should be. It is welldesigned, sensually pleasing and intellectually stimulating. The 40 pieces by one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century reinforce PEM’s commitment to American art and celebrate Alexander Calder’s contribution of single-handedly transforming what would be thereafter thought of as “sculpture.”
Visiting the show is like entering an elegant abstract landscape, one where shadows have mass and gravity is irrelevant. The theatrical, dancing mobiles, which Calder invented, and stabiles (grounded pieces that still move) activate time and space in a way that creates an atmosphere of performance. Background avantgarde music by such composers as John Cage adds to the multisensory experience.
Calder was raised in Pennsylvania and his family included accomplished sculptors. He travelled to Paris frequently during the 1920’s and 30’s, befriending such surrealist and abstract artists as Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. When he saw Piet Mondrian’s paintings, which only used primary colors, Calder exclaimed, “I would like to do that, but I would like it to move.”
Trained as an engineer, Calder became fascinated by the challenge of liberating sculpture from its historical limitations. His goal was to take the static, hollow, pedestalled medium and reinvent it. “Just as one can compose colors or forms,” Calder said, “so one can compose motion.”
Calder started working with wire in 1930, and the gallery’s first pieces explore his development of mobiles, ethereal works that create lines in space and, thanks to the superb lighting design, moving shadows. Many of the works, such as a trilogy of mobiles mounted in front of colored panels, are owned by the Calder Foundation N.Y. and are rarely exhibited.
“Little Face” is a choreographer’s delight, untethered parts creating a cohesive whole. Calder’s engineering genius is evident in his knowledge of the precise weight and density of each black piece that would counter the elements above and below.
From the magical, slow wake of the mobiles, one next explores his stabiles. Moving more slowly, subtly and quietly than the mobiles, their effect is one of benevolent creatures that happily invite the viewer to connect emotionally.
The exciting “Un effet du japonais” is like an anthropomorphic animal dance, its three legs stationary, its two arms poised, ready for the frenzy a puff of air would create. “Southern Cross,” displayed nearby, is a blend of mass and weightlessness, of movement and stillness. The effect is spell-binding, and prompted Albert Einstein to remark, “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Before his death, Calder also revolutionized monumental sculpture constructed for large outdoor spaces. La Grande Vitesse, a landmark in Grand Rapids, Michigan, marked the first time the public embraced abstract sculpture.
Pictured at top: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource Un effet du japonais (1941)