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Taking Calder Seriously

Yes, his mobiles are fun. But they're also the works of a thoughtful artist as a retrospective at the National Gallery shows

April 19, 1998|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is a Times staff writer

WASHINGTON — American sculptor Alexander Calder, inventor of the delightful, softly moving work of art known as the mobile, possessed both an impish sense of humor and a profound grasp of beauty. The fun could lull viewers into ignoring his seriousness, and Calder, who died in 1976, was sometimes discounted by critics.

There has never been any doubt about his popularity. "Despite ups and downs in the art market, his pieces have always sold well," said Marla Prather, curator of 20th century art for the National Gallery of Art, as she stood amid his work a few days ago in the museum's immense Calder retrospective. "If you talk to his family, you will find that there's an exhibit of Calder going on somewhere in the world all the time.

"But," she went on, "he never engaged himself with critics. They tended to see him as someone who was not very serious."

That changed, according to Prather, when his work was included in a 1993 sculpture show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York called "Picasso and the Age of Iron." Many critics suddenly realized that he could hold his own with Picasso, David Smith and other modern sculptors.

"It was time for a reassessment," Prather said.

That reassessment has come with the retrospective Prather has organized for the National Gallery on the 100th anniversary of Calder's birth. The show, which includes 267 mobiles, stabiles, wire sculptures, jewelry, paintings and monumental pieces as well as videos of works too fragile or enormous to exhibit, opened at the museum on March 29. It continues there until July 12 and then moves on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its only other site, from Sept. 4 to December 1.

The first reviews have been enthusiastic. Roberta Smith of the New York Times fretted that the show was packed with so much that it became "slow going" at times. Nevertheless, she said, the best works "coalesce into magical environments, veritable gardens of elegant lines, free-floating leaf shapes and dancing shadows." Noting that several pieces have never been shown before, she said, "It's only a slight exaggeration to say that this show may make it possible to know Calder as only Calder knew Calder."

Although Washington Post critic Paul Richard found the mobiles a little stale and dated in an age where almost every infant has a derivative hanging over the crib, he called the exhibition as "ceaseless as a circus, a show whose beauty keeps dissolving like cotton candy, or delight, into sweetness and air." The retrospective, according to Richard, helps us understand Dada painter Marcel Duchamp's assertion that "Calder's art is the sublimation of a tree in the wind."

Underscoring Calder's immense popularity, the U.S. Postal Service, which has tended in recent years to put celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Bugs Bunny on its stamps, honored Calder on the eve of the exhibition by issuing five stamps, each with a different one of his sculptures.

As a young man, Calder never seemed destined to become part of the mainstream of modern art. At first, in fact, he turned his back on the art world and then, when he changed his mind, became no more than a jester, albeit a popular one, on the periphery.

Calder was born on July 22, 1898, in a Philadelphia suburb to a family of artists. His mother was a portrait painter, his father and grandfather sculptors. As a child, he would earn a quarter whenever he posed for his parents for two interminable hours at a stretch. That may have turned him against art as a career.

Instead, he chose a more practical profession and graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey with a degree in mechanical engineering. "Sandy is always happy, or perhaps up to some joke," said his college yearbook, "for his face is always wrapped up in that same mischievous, juvenile grin." His mechanical skills and his smiling spirit would later prove a boon to his art career.

Engineering jobs bored him, and Calder finally decided to follow the family footsteps, enrolling in the Art Students League in New York in 1923. In less than a year, he found a job as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette, the most sensational tabloid of its day.

In 1926, Calder joined the legion of young American expatriates who flocked to Paris because it was both cheap and receptive to all new artistic and literary ideas. He would spend half the rest of his life in France.

Calder earned his keep by making toys. Then, delving into his memory of a Police Gazette assignment that brought him to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for two weeks, he delighted Paris with his "Cirque Calder," an intricate, mechanical circus that he put together with wire, string, wooden figures and pulleys.

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