Alexander Calder Contemporary Art: Form, Balance,
With Essays By George Baker Brooke Kamin Rapaport
And Bryan Granger Dominic Molon Diana Nawi Julie Rodrigues Widholm
10 12 14 18
94 110 160 171 175
Martin Boyce Dominic Molon
Nathan Carter Dominic Molon
Abraham Cruzvillegas Julie Rodrigues Wildholm
Aaron Curry Bryan Granger
Kristi Lippire Lynne Warren
Jason Meadows Diana Nawi
Jason Middlebrook Diana Nawi
Lenders to the Exhibition
Director’s Foreword Madeleine Grynsztejn Acknowledgments Lynne Warren Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art Lynne Warren
Calder’s Mobility George Baker Alexander Calder Plates
Why Calder is Back: A Modern Master’s Creative Reuse of Materials Brooke Kamin Rapaport Catalogue of the Exhibition
â€œHow can art be
...It must not be just a
fleeting moment but a physical bond
between the varying events in life.â€?
Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art
Jason Middlebrook, How Much thought and Consideration Goes into our Decisions (2008)
1 Alexander Calder. “Comment realizer l’art?” in Abstraction Creation, Art Non Figuratif, no. 1 (1932): 6, as cited in Calder, Sculptor of Air, Alexander S. C. Rower, ed., (Milan: Motta Cultura srl, 2009). Translation from the French by the Calder Foundation; Pedro E. Guerrero, Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder (New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1998), 63; Bernice Rose, A Salute to Alexander Calder (New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1969), 24; Alexander Calder, 1943 manuscript, Calder Foundation, New York.
If there is anything a study of contemporary art should tell us it is that its unfolding is unpredictable. Yet at any point those of us who follow art all seem to know what is going on and we mostly agree on what past artists and events are important to what is going on now. The consensus—they sometimes say about silence—can sometimes be deafening. And for the longest time, the consensus has been that there are artists of the early twentieth century, that is of the modern era, who are seminal to the initial and continuing development of contemporary art. Marcel Duchamp looms over all others, but the canon includes certain of the constructivists and various Dada artists. There are also those who, while perhaps not central to the tenets that define contemporary art—experimentation, self-reflexiveness, visual explication of nonvisual ideas and the reverse, nonvisual explication of visual ideas— are admired for their contributions; in short, those upon whom art historical developments hinged, such as Picasso. One need not be in the inner circles of the contemporary art world to be aware there are artists like the one at hand, Alexander Calder, who are given their due while at the same time they are given short shrift, as if their fame and popularity degrade their worth as innovative artists. It has been decades that the assumptions that feed the consensus have guided us. How is it, then, that a new generation of contemporary artists is re-viewing (seeing again or anew) the work of Alexander Calder? Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry, Kristi Lippire, Jason Meadows, and Jason Middlebrook represent this new generation. Each artist selected for this exhibition fits two very important criteria: that his or her work be full in itself (no need for long-winded extra-object explanations) and that it acknowledges or shows influence from Alexander Calder. Some of the artists, like Boyce and Carter, reveal obvious influence by Calder. Boyce’s Fear Meets the Soul (2008), especially when seen in reproduction, closely mimics such early Calder mobiles as Untitled (1933). Carter’s whimsical wire constructions have a direct pedigree; such works as Traveling Language Machine with #3 Frequency Disruptor and Disinformation Numbers Station (2007) have more than a passing resemblance to Calder’s Tightrope of 1936, which features simple wire shapes perched atop or hanging from a wire suspended between wooden forms. Others, like Cruzvillegas or Curry, are more subtly influenced, learning lessons of form, balance, movement, implied movement, or the activation of space by an object from the modern master. Abraham Cruzvillegas, who was a recipient of an Atelier Calder residency in
Sache, France, created the work Bougie du Isthmus (2005) during his time there; subsequently, his work has increasingly dealt with balance and actual or implied movement. Most recently, his stacks of cast-off wooden objects and other found items show a deep resonance with Calder’s Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere of 1932–33. This astonishingly contemporary piece places bottles, a can, and a wooden crate on the floor. A simple stand of bent wire carries a flat metal disc in a gonglike arrangement; a suspended rod with wires carries the “small sphere” and “heavy sphere” of the title. It would be right at home in many contemporary sculpture exhibitions or sharing a gallery with art by Jason Middlebrook, who also rescues bottles and places them in arrangements with other objects, as in How Much Thought and Consideration Goes Into Our Decisions (2008). Martin Boyce, Untitled (2007) The abiding notion that Calder hadn’t much to offer to the contemporary art discourse shows particular cracks when one realizes Middlebrook, an artist of wide-ranging media and methods, made a close study of Calder to create a particular work in the form of a mobile. In doing so, his eyes were opened to an artist who long ago had had the book closed on him, so to speak, and the lessons learned have shaped his subsequent production. For other of the artists, it is a new view on modernism in general that underlies the re-seeing of Calder, both for his particular innovations and wideranging creativity. Aaron Curry’s modernist influences are clear, especially those of Jean Arp (1886–1966) or Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). Yet the human and animal forms that Calder explored in 1930 in a lesser-known body of bronzes are especially apropos to Curry’s strategy of biomorphic, balanced forms.2 Meadows and Lippire reflect Calder’s concerns in that their engagement in the nature of materials, innovation of form, issues of design and balance, and use of color substantially ally them with the older artist. Calder worked intuitively, drew extensively from nature, relied on his own hands to create the work, and expected viewers to activate it, whether by stirring up the currents that caused the mobiles to swirl about, or by using their imagination to make the implied volumes fully three-dimensional.3 Meadows’s disdain of the postmodern tendency to spend more time in the context around a piece than with direct viewing of an object imbues his work with a particular Calderesque vigor.
2 Many of the bronzes were actually cast in 1944, during World War II when sheet metal was in short supply.
3 Except of course for the monumental works that were constructed in foundries under his supervision.
Lippire demonstrates deep resonance of method with Calder as well. The things of the world that can be taken for granted and viewed as astonishing all at the same time, like Calder’s snowflakes, birds, and other animals, also captivate this artist. A resident of Los Angeles, Lippire additionally represents the importance of that city as an incubator for new sculpture; Curry, Meadows, and Middlebrook also have significant connections to California; all received their advanced degrees in the state and Curry and Meadows also live in L.A. The seven sculptors selected for this exhibition also eschew the dark, often scatological tone of the works of the generation of sculptors exemplified by Los Angeles-based Mike Kelley (b. 1954) and Charles Ray (b. 1953) their immediate predecessors and if not directly their teachers-artists whose legacies looms large.4 There are certainly other artists who could have been paired with Calder in this exhibition. This essay is a way of broadening the scope. Everyone knows Calder. He’s so recognizable. Even if you never enter a museum, you walk by his works in plazas, in airports. People love him, but … Yes, but … The art world’s view is captured well by painter Carroll Dunham in his review of the Whitney’s 2008 Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926–1933. Not surprisingly, yet totally astonishingly, the article starts with the sentence “It’s difficult to know what to make of Alexander Calder.” He goes on to state, “He is arguably one of the most beloved and readily identifiable artists of his time, but it can be tough to take him completely seriously.”5 Yes, indeed. Calder faced this short-sightedness even during his lifetime, but never let it distract from his project of making art with legendary vitality. Unlike the work of many of the artists who have been
“Fernand Leger once called Calder a Calder’s reply is: ‘If you can’t
you can’t make them, and anything you imagine is
23 Jason Meadows, Black Panther (2001)
curricula; an advanced degree is ever more common. Yet as demonstrated by this exhibition, something is afoot that few who follow contemporary art foresaw, so enveloped are we by the intellectualized process of artmaking that long has been contemporary art’s calling card. As a long-time observer of the institution of the art school and the nature of how artists are educated, I had settled into a jaundiced view about what some have called the contemporary art academy. Traditional methods of teaching the visual arts that focused on passing down and refining technical skills with which an artist could express his or her ideas had long been supplanted by the art school’s version of “publish or perish:” come up with a body of work and be prepared to talk about it. Since at least the late 1970s, artworks that could be talked about, analyzed in systems other than aesthetics, and provide fodder for writings from reviews to PhD dissertations have dominated,7 and art school curricula quickly evolved into methods to develop an artist’s intellectual or psychological faculties that he or she may have something “to say” about the world.8
inspirational figures in contemporary art, Calder’s art is there for the seeing and the experiencing. One needn’t study the Kabbalah, plumb artist statements or manifestos, have read philosophy, delve into the psychosexual depths of an artist’s autobiography, or be conversant with the socio-political context of the artwork to appreciate a Calder. The fact that children historically have responded so viscerally to Calder’s art, often taken as a detriment by sophisticates, seems a particular strength in today’s highly intellectualized art world. As quoted by Marcel Bruzeau, Calder said “... children adore mobile statues and understand their meaning immediately. I have seen children ... run and shout with joy in my exhibitions. They like it instinctively.”6 And the reason that contemporary art tilts so heavily toward the intellectual is no mystery if one examines how artists are educated. It is the rare individual who emerges in today’s art world without having attended art school, many of which feature highly theoretical
“I feel an artist should go about his work simply with
great respect for his materials
... sculptors of all places and climate have used what came readily to hand.
knowledge and invention
... It was their which gave value to the result of their labors.
... simplicity of equipment and an in attacking the unfamiliar or unknown are more apt to result in a primitive, rather than decadent, art.”
Aaron Curry, Danny Skullface Sky Boat (Reclining) (2009)
4 Captured famously in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1992 exhibition Helter Skelter: LA. Art in the 1990s (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992).
5 Carroll Dunham, “High Wire Act,” Artforum 47, no. 6 (February 2009): 165; the writer argues for discarding such a limited viewpoint on Calder.
6 Marcel Bruzeau, “Alexander Calder, a Blacksmith in the Town.” Revue Francaise des Télécommunications (December 1973): 47–49.
7 Robert Storr indicted the tacit acceptance of the importance of theory in contemporary art in a recent interview with Helen Stoilas published in The Art Newspaper in which he states: “I’m not sure that art and theory were ever that close to begin with … what people now call theory is a vast field and a relatively small amount of it bears directly on art, or at least on art production. We’re in a very strange situation where some artists have derived a lot from their theoretical reading but never as systematically as people are inclined to think. … A lot of artists don’t want to tip their hands and show how selective
and shallow their understanding is; a lot of people who do theory full time don’t really want to acknowledge that the process of making art is fundamentally different from the process of writing theory. And, therefore, even though you may share a vocabulary, you don’t share at all the same kind of generative process or goals. See Helen Stoilas. “Robert Storr: Most theory has little bearing on art.” The Art Newspaper/Frieze Art Fair Daily. October 16, 2009.
8 This pedagogical philosophy was reiterated as recently as 2006 at the conference “A New Institutionalism: Where Artists & Curators Meet” sponsored by the School of the Art Institute. SAlC professor David Getsy summarized the presentations by such figures as Eugenie Joo, Michael Brenson and Bruce Jenkins by stating the art school had “shifted from a ‘haven’ to a ‘forum,’ and in that forum what was offered was “the format of a multiple conversation” which “keeps all levels of a conversation open” and allows “diversification of authority” that “asserts importance of other arts institutions and questions the meaning of art schools.”
To put it simply, it is the difference between individuals who “go around looking” and those who “go around seeing.” Going around looking implies approaching the world with a set of conditions and selecting out things that meet those conditions. Going around seeing implies that the artist doesn’t have set criteria guiding his or her observations. In this scenario one never knows what one will come across, what one will “see,” because one isn’t looking for anything in particular. And make no mistake, Calder was an artist who went around seeing. This is not a lament for the old ways or a claim that one approach is better than the other. But perhaps in an age where what should be obvious seems to take us catastrophically by surprise—the events of 9/11 and the economic meltdown of late 2008 being two key examples—it might be better to have artists seeing rather than looking. It might be a good idea to encourage those who are open to seeing what we haven’t already defined and classified, those who can see around and beyond the conventions which so quickly seem to coalesce—rather than merely looking for means by which to express one’s preconceptions. Yet of course as usually is the case, the artists are ahead of us, as the artists selected for this exhibition seem to be doing just this. The shift occurred in second half of the 1990s. Student artists were no longer content to swallow the anti-retinal/theoretical agenda that had so long predominated art school curricula. An interest in figures like Buckminster Fuller9 (1895–1983) and Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames10 (1912–1988) and subjects like modern architecture and design took shape. Student artists, tiring of the social-political-sexual identity nexus that had also long dominated so-called advanced practice, started using their eyes again. Young artists began roaming the modern galleries of art museums, making things with their hands, even tinkering.
Perhaps it is as simple as the exhaustion of tropes. Duchamp’s influence has, after all, dominated for over half a century. Perhaps it is another vagary of human nature, the attraction to the unfamiliar. Perhaps modernism as represented by Alexander Calder is being seen across the crowded years and the creature spied there is downright exotic. As Martin Herbert puts it, albeit much more cynically, “This refreshed attention to modernism’s potential might be considered a classic generational response to a bequest of obsolete tools.”11 Anthony Huberman, in the catalogue to the SculptureCenter’s pioneering 2005 exhibition on the subject of the new sculptural generation, Make It Now, suggests that an antidote to the current culture’s distort toward short-term memory is that artists “mine the long-term memory of art history, find its enduring forms and images, and make them in new ways that resonate with the contemporary moment.”12 Martin Herbert agrees “New Modernism is rampant,” in his article “Sifting Defunct Modernity in Search of Something Useful.” He also notes various names (besides his own “New Modernism”) to categorize the tendency, including Nicolas Bourriaud’s “altermodernism.”13 Whatever the reason, the floodgates are open and “re-modernism” (my neologism) is everywhere. This is not to say artists haven’t been sidling up to modernist tenets and in particular Calder’s innovations for a while. Artists from a slightly older generation and who thus are better known than the cohort represented in the present exhibition include Sarah Sze (b. 1969), who balances forms in space in dazzling feats of micro-architecture; Ernesto Neto (b. 1964), who besides activating the eye engages the nose with fragrant materials in many of his biomorphic hanging installations; and Tony Feher (b. 1956), whose use of discarded everyday objects such as plastic bottles and straws balanced into rudimentary mobiles puts him in a direct lineage to Calder. Likewise, New York artist B. Wurtz (b. 1948), although not as well known as many of his peers, has since the early 1990s explored the aesthetics of detritus such as produce nets, plastic bags and lids, shoe laces, and buttons in delicate balancing sculptures. Others employ modernist forms or quote from the legacy. British conceptualist Simon Starling (b. 1967) has explored modernist themes for at least a decade, and recently showed reproductions of Henry Moore sculptures balanced on a Calder-like mobile. The Brazilianborn, London-based sculptor Alexandre da Cunha (b. 1969) acknowledges Mondrian as an influence in a 2006 body of work and in 2008 created a Calderesque mobile titled Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción (2008)
9 The exhibition Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2008 was the first major U.S. exhibition of Fuller’s work in thirty-five years, in reaction to this renewed interest.
10 An important book on the Eameses, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, was published in 1997 on the occasion of a touring exhibition of the highly influential designers.
11 Martin Herbert “Sifting Defunct Modernity in Search of Something Useful.” TATE ETC, no. 15 (Spring 2009)
12 Anthony Huberman, “Things Don’t Fall Apart,” Make It Now: New Sculpture in New York (Long Island City, New York: SculptureCenter, 2005), 10.
13 Herbert, “Sifting Defunct Modernity in Search of Something Useful.”
“Calder’s art, although in its exuberance, was a not to be dismissed by writing it off as that.”
Pedro E. Guerrero
Nathan Carter, Radar Reflector Origin Petit Calvigny Grenada (2009)
Club Sandwich using pipes and baking sheets. A contributor to the website centrefortheaestheticrevolution writes that da Cunha “uses ordinary domestic materials and puts them into a new context. … However, the objects … do not function as readymades in a Duchampian sense, as they have been worked on and changed by the artist and thus enter into a contemporary dialogue with the vocabulary and aesthetics of classical modemism.”14 Rachel Harrison (b. 1966), especially in works such as Huffy Howler (2004), which features a bicycle as a fulcrum for various dangling found objects, features some of the same materials and formal concerns that Jason Meadows, Aaron Curry, and other of her peers use. But her method is conglomerative and installational, as opposed to the constructed and object-focused works of the sculptors featured in the current exhibition. Emerging artist Agathe Snow’s (b. 1976) ambitious Master Bait Me commission for the New Museum in 2008 consisted of magnetized rubber balls and popular cultural imagery in and around a cagelike metal column of rebar. A Calderesque avatar toiling in a Blade Runner version of America’s future might come up with such a work. The suspending of objects inevitably calls up the mobile form. New York-based Christian Holstad’s (b. 1972) wide-ranging practice includes sculptures made of fabrics, yarns, vinyl, and other soft materials that hang from the ceiling in the form of chandeliers, or cascade and drape provocatively from a central axis. The Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960) has also recently made works in the form of chandeliers, such as the spectacular Gamboa of 2008 of brightly colored, spinning discs and balls created for Prospect 1, the New Orleans Biennial of 2009. Jamaican-born, New York-based Nari Ward’s (b. 1963) Bottle Messenger, created for the Yokohama Triennale of Contemporary Art, Japan, in 2005 also suspends objects, in this case, recycled bottles, from a form suggesting a chandelier. And standing somewhat alone in that he explores a darker side of human life in his Calder-inspired constructions, Los Angeles-based Evan Holloway (b. 1967) has created a major series of works that balance tiny mask-heads on armatures of numbers.
This method of working is quite distinct from the group that refers to Calder or other modem masters in the archetypal postmodern way, such as Mario Garcia Torres (b. 1975) with his The Kabul Golf Club (2006). who uses Calder “as a symbol of progress and Western thought”15 or Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck (b. 1972) with the work UNstabile Mobile (2007), which used a Calderesque object to cast a shadow that replicated a map of an Iraqi oil field.16 As well, there are numerous other contemporary artists who hang their works in space, from the magnificent creations of Lee Bontecou (b. 1931) from the 1990s and early 2000s, or Magdelena Abakanowicz (b. 1930) and her abakans to those of their lesser-known peer Ruth Asawa (b. 1926), whose wire-vessel hanging sculptures arise directly out of modernism. These figures, along with artists such as Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), with his Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox) (1988), or Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) and Jorge Pardo (b. 1963), who suspend string of lights or lighting fixtures in the gallery space, clearly fall into very different aesthetic territory. It also leaves aside such figures as Judy Pfaff (b. 1946), whose influential body of work, which she now acknowledges as having been influenced by Calder, nevertheless seems to embrace an entirely different aesthetic, that of assemblage.17 Another artist of the 1970s, Ree Morton (1936–1977), often hailed as an important feminist, can also be seen as a fascinating figure in the lineage from Calder to the current generation. There is much research to be done tracing this lineage, which the present project can only hint about. Works such as Morton’s See-Saw (1974) or Untitled (1971–73) were influenced by her study of British psychologist Richard L. Gregory’s writings that explicated the nature of visual perception, which could also fruitfully be applied to Calder’s innovations: how form and scale of objects is determined by our perception of its distance and position is but one area Gregory explored.18 Alexander Calder’s unique artistic temperament—straightforward but highly sophisticated, expert but down-to-earth, utterly serious but displaying singular wit and playful humor—is unmistakable in his equally unique artistic innovations, of which the mobile is but the best known.
Kristi Lippire, Fumigated Sculpture (2006)
14 Pablo Leon de la Barra “Alexandre da Cunha ‘Club Sandwich’ in Berlin.” Centre for the Aesthetic Revolution, November 10, 2008.
15 Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 132. 16 A reviewer noted that “kineticism, a genre iconically connected to Calder, embodies the political reality wrought by the Iraqi war—the heightened instability that now characterizes the region.” The writer perhaps had never had the opportunity to observe that Calder’s mobiles, which while undoubtedly kinetic, are hardly unstable, almost magically finding their fulcrums and quickly reestablishing their balance if disturbed.
This was noted by none less than Jean-Paul Sartre in his foreword for a 1947 exhibition at Buchholz Gallery, New York: “The ‘mobiles’ … always return to their original form …” See Lisa Ann Favero, Sculpture 26 no. 8 (October 2007): 75. 17 While especially the “Paris Years” of Calder, dominated by wire sculpture and the Circus works, include assemblages, his mobiles and stabiles cannot be said to be works of assemblage, which currently is defined as a practice which amasses thoughtfully selected found objects and everyday materials.
18 For valuable analysis of Ree Morton, see Diana Baldon, “Toward the Temple of Artifice and Naturalism.” Ree Morton: Works 1971–1977 (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2009). We must thank the current generation of artists for refocusing our eyes on such treasure as Calder’s body of work. At the same time we must be entirely grateful to Alexander Calder for his fierce devotion to seeing and experiencing the world that makes his art so vital and alive and able to resonate so abundantly into the twenty-first century.