Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy
This horribly titled MCA show closes later this week, so if you feel inspired to go see it after reading this post, you need to do so ASAP. The show is presented in two parts divided between to the two whale-ribcage- sized rooms on the entry level floor. In the first room are works by Calder, and in the second is a presentation of seven contemporary artists inspired by Calder. The lineup: Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry, Kristi Lippire, Jason Meadows, and Jason Middlebrook. This show is really two shows. If you want to make close comparisons (or if you have short-term memory loss problems like I have), you’ll have to run back and forth from room to room. Some of the inspirations or cues derived from Calder are blatantly obvious, others more nuanced, others waaaay out there.
Calder in a hot topic right now in Chicago. Flamingo, 1973 is his best known public piece in Chicago. Recently Calder’s commissioned work The Universe at Willis (aka Sears) Tower has been in the news. The kinetic sculpture may possible be removed from Willis Towers, as Sears (the original owners) want to get their hot little hands on it. For you L.A. readers, there is a great Calder public work (also a kinetic sculpture) in Los Angeles; hidden in a corner of the LACMA campus is a huge Calder fountain called Hello Girls. For most of the year the fountain is dry, but during the hot seasons jets of water propel the huge mobile about languidly.
Back to Chicago, the first room (the Calder Room) looks like a giant moving Miro painting. A kelp forest of whimsical mobiles is hung from the high ceiling on delicate wires, and activated by the sublet air currents in the gallery. The artificial, diffused lighting is very white- cube-contemporary, and only a few glass vitrines disrupt the unity of the clinical space. Large (white of course) platforms, which I’m going to call risers, float like islands on the cement floor of the room. The works cast ever-shifting shadows on the risers and on the walls, but unfortunately the diffused gallery lighting diminishes most of this magical effect.
The show is roughly organized into themes, but with no regard for chronology, which is unimportant really in this show. One section focuses on Calder’s creative reuse. Bird , (from the MCA’s collection) made from recycled cans illustrates Calder’s choice to leave his raw materials visible. Another corner is somewhat sectioned off for a group of playful works with animal imagery.
A substantial amount of the artwork in this show comes from the MCA’s permanent collection, most donated to the museum by the Horwich Family. Calder was not from Chicago; Calder’s ties to the city were initially made through the Arts Club of Chicago. The Horwich’s and other Chicago collectors became introduced to Calder’s work by the private Arts Club, an interesting example of how a private members only club can directly affect (albeit many years down the road) a public art museum.
This show also has a large amount of works on loan from museums across the country. The loaners included: The Whitney, the Sheldon Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Art Houston. The Stainless Stealer (1966), from the Hirshhorn Museum (a notable work because Calder left it unpainted) hangs in a corner, and is surrounded on the floor by a raised border about four inches thick. The barrier seems foolish and is so unthreatening it dares you to walk over it. It’s odd the organizers of the show didn’t just put a riser underneath the work, people wouldn’t have stepped on that, or maybe they ran out of money. Another work from the Hirshhorn, Little Longnose(1959), is the only work not displayed on a riser and its spindly black legs made direct contact with the cement floor.
Along another wall is a combination of things I really disliked. First, laminated cards were offered on unfriendly hooks, for visitors to ID the works hanging before them. In addition to the lamented sheets wall labels were also provided. But since a visitor passed between the wall with the labels and the works across the way the labels were intended to identify, all comprehension was really lost. Big curatorial flaw in my opinion. I don’t know why they curators didn’t just put the labels directly on the risers underneath the works, as has been done elsewhere in the room. Despite this mess I was able to glean some fun facts. I was able to figure out that a monumental work was called Big Red, (1959) and that it had come from the Whitney. Also, the Broad Foundation really does lend broadworks out all over the country. They had been kind enough to ship out Laocoon, 1947 and The Brass Gong, 1948. The Broad Foundation also helped out financially with the show as well as Ruth Horwich (of the above Horwich Family no doubt).
The exhibition continued in the next room. Works by the seven artists were varied, some of the Calder comparisons are mind-numbingly obvious like Aaron Curry’s biomorphic sculptures, and some of them seem very farfetched like Kristi Lippire’s Three Under Parr, 2008, while others felt just right like Nathan Carter’s large three dimensional wire drawing, TRAVELING LANGUAGE MACHINE WITH #3 FREQUENCY DISRUPTOR AND DISINFORMATION NUMBERS STATION, 2007. Finally the exhibition continues even outside to the MCA’s sculpture garden, where some large loan pieces are displayed. And yes I touched them; they’re public art after all.
I know I’m not giving the contemporary portion of the show enough attention, but that’s because I don’t care for the framing device of Calder-as-inspiration. Rather go and view these works as individual pieces, some of them are fantastic, and some far more interesting than Calder (which isn’t that hard to accomplish really).