SALEM — An inclination to take seriously the work of Alexander Calder could be said to depend on how seriously you take beauty itself. But actually, beauty doesn’t need your seriousness, and may in fact be more at ease with smiles than sobriety. The same is true of Calder.
Smiles, creeping out Mona Lisa-style from the corners of the mouth, emerge before you even set eyes on the art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where Calder is the subject of a numinous exhibition, his first museum show in the Boston area since the 1950s. (He died in 1976 at 78.)
You enter the space and encounter not a “mobile” or a “stabile” — terms for Calder’s moving or static constructions coined by his artist friends Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp — but a slowly shifting shadow. The physical object casting the shadow, a large, suspended mobile from 1940 called “Eucalyptus,” has been placed behind a semi-transparent screen. In a nice curatorial ploy — floating suspense! — the piece itself isn’t actually seen until halfway through the exhibit, by which time you will likely be under Calder’s spell.
The show, which was organized by Stephanie Barron for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and overseen in Salem by the Peabody Essex’s Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, brings together 40 works, including mobiles, stabiles, and a few midsize maquettes made for the huge public sculptures that Calder produced for sites all over the world in the latter stages of his career.
Displayed chronologically, the exhibition begins with beautifully proportioned sculptures made from thin rods or wires that describe circles, open-ended right angles, and diagonals connected to small discs and spheres — black, white, or red — for balance and counterweight. They suggest celestial harmonies, astronomers’ models, or — slightly closer to home — Russian Constructivism transposed into three dimensions.
There follow works such as “Red Panel” and “White Panel,” in which Calder suspends gently moving cut-out shapes, painted a different color each side, in front of monochrome plywood boards, and more wire sculptures, these ones fluid and undulant, fanning out in organic patterns of preternatural elegance. Later works, their suppleness and intuitive rightness amplifying all the while, deftly combine solid bases with moving parts.
Calder’s best works are like great wit: You don’t see them coming. They accelerate through mind and body with an almost audible whoosh. They’re works of such simplicity, such seemingly effortless balance, that you feel you can take in everything about them with a glance. But it’s worth pausing.
Take a moment — or better still, a few minutes — to register how the relationships between parts, and between parts and empty space, shift over time; how what look like simple repeating patterns of line and shape, all in perfect balance, are actually subtly different; how Calder always puts asymmetry in tension with symmetry, and stable, weighted forms in tension with planar, suspended ones; or how his moving parts seem to carve out volume, and even to shape time.
If you do all this, you may, if nothing else, feel a fleeting kinship with Albert Einstein, who once reportedly stood for 40 minutes in front of Calder’s motorized 1934 piece “A Universe” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and later said, “I wish I had thought of that.”
There are comfortable, well-placed chairs throughout the exhibition, which encourage us to sit and succumb to what Barron, in the catalog, calls “a more languid apprehension.” Make use of them.
The presentation in Los Angeles was designed by the architect Frank Gehry. It has been redesigned — very effectively I think — at the Peabody Essex by head of exhibition design Dave Seibert. Working with less space and lower ceilings, Seibert has used curving white decks and white backdrops to enhance each work’s singularity, contriving a pleasant onward flow through the exhibit with curving platforms and eddying pools of contemplative space.
It seems crazy that the sheer loveliness of Calder’s work — its very tendency to trigger smiles — has had an adverse effect on his reputation. But over the years, that’s exactly what seems to have happened.
Clement Greenberg, the trenchant, agenda-setting critic in New York at mid-century, dismissed Calder’s works as “racy and chic,” claiming they were guilty of an “easy facility” and a “jejune reliance on tastefulness and little more.”
Misrepresenting him as an American interloper in avant-garde Paris, others have accused him of stealing ideas from such friends as Duchamp, Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Miró, when in reality Calder was a respected peer of these artists, engaged in open dialogue.
But of course, the extent to which we take a person seriously is determined in large part by how seriously they appear to take themselves. People who knew Calder understood that he was utterly dedicated to his art. But his persona was easygoing, charming, and guileless.
In this, he was very different from his father, the accomplished sculptor Stirling Calder, who was anxious and inclined to melancholy. It may be, as Jed Perl writes in the show’s catalog, that his son “associated an excess of introspection with troubling aspects of his father” and wanted no part of it. Stirling Calder’s career collapsed in the 1930s, just as his son’s was taking off.
Alexander Calder’s earlier renown as a maker of deft wire portraits and animal sculptures, and as the impish creative force behind the “Cirque Calder” — a model circus with puppet figures and mechanized parts that enthralled audiences of all ages — helped cast him as modernism’s consoling clown, a sort of jazz-age equivalent of a balloon twister.
“I am not trying to make people happier by my work,” Calder protested. “But it happens that all those who have something of mine . . . say that it makes them very happy. For example, children adore mobile statues and understand their meaning immediately.”
Indeed, the flourishing popularity of Calder-inspired hanging mobiles above infant cribs, and of children’s books like David A. Carter’s “One Red Dot” — a blatant, if immensely likable rip-off of Calder’s constructions — have only reinforced the perception of him as a maker of entertainments, not a serious artist.
But who needs seriousness? Let’s face it, it has always had limited purchase in modern art, which from the beginning cultivated a healthy skepticism toward old conventions of seriousness. Modern artists attuned themselves instead to other criteria — including the art of children and the promptings of the unconscious. Artists from Matisse and Picasso to Klee, Kandinsky, and Mondrian all simplified their visual idioms with the “innocent” eye of the child in mind. And the Surrealist milieu that prevailed in Paris during Calder’s time there was nothing if not playful.
But of course, a childlike feeling for play did not sit easily alongside the unfolding political and economic situation of the 1930s. Perl feels that, in Calder’s case, it was the financial crash of 1929, and the ensuing buildup of political strife in Europe, that made him see the need to sober up, to temper his ingenuousness, and to leave behind “the comic exuberance of his jugglers, acrobats, and athletes.”
Abstraction, to which he had been exposed on a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930, seemed to hold the most potential. He exploited that potential brilliantly, producing a body of work that — for beauty, spiritual equilibrium, and sheer invention — has few equals in the 20th century.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.