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How he was shaped

A deft exhibition in San Francisco examines Alexander Calder's lively works for ideas they borrowed from and contributed to Surrealism.

April 17, 2006|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Too much often is made of biography in attempts to pinpoint origins of an artist's work, but in the case of Alexander Calder, known for his mobiles, "stabiles" and kinetic works made of wire, sheet metal and other materials, tracing biography feels like watching destiny unfold.

"The Surreal Calder," an impressive exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, focuses on works from 1929 to 1951 and almost effortlessly accomplishes its goal of considering Calder against the backdrop of Surrealism -- to which he contributed and from which he drew inspiration. But the exhibition also reveals much more and could well have been called "The Essential Calder," including in its examples all the characteristics that would define the artist's work until his death in 1976. It makes clear that it was early in his career that Calder found the approaches to material, form and space that would serve his fascinations with the movements and mysteries of bodies both earthly and heavenly.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1898, Calder was encouraged by his parents, both of them artists. His 1909 Christmas presents for them -- a toy dog and duck cut and folded from brass sheet -- were among his early creations. Later came studies in applied kinetics, a 1919 engineering degree, and work in hydraulics and the auto industry.

While working on a ship, Calder had an epiphanic experience of his spatial relationship with the cosmos when he saw a sunrise and a full moon on opposite horizons. The event -- one he would refer to for the rest of his life -- precipitated a commitment to becoming an artist and a 1923 move to New York.

There he enrolled at the Art Students League and took an illustration job with a newspaper, where one assignment was a stint sketching the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Calder crossed to England in the summer of 1926 and quickly hopped to France, where he fell in with American expatriate avant-gardists and enrolled in informal drawing sessions, thinking himself mostly a painter. Within months, however, he was drawing in space with bent wire, defining the shapes of animals and the movements of performers.

That fall, Calder produced what remains one of his best-known works, the "Cirque Calder" (Calder's Circus). Packed in a trunk so it could travel, it was an elaborate collection of miniature animals, figures and sets, made of wire, cloth and scavenged materials.

Over the next five years, as Calder made Paris the base of an international existence, he brought this circus to life, manipulating its elements by hand in performances lasting two hours. Drawing audiences that included some of the avant-garde's most important artists, writers and patrons, the circus provided Calder entry into circles of Dadaists, Cubists and particularly Surrealists.

That's where "The Surreal Calder" begins, and it does so aptly with a small collection of works from other artists of the period: Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Yves Tanguy. (The exhibition continues through May 21;

As one passes from the display of works by contemporaries of Calder into the galleries containing works he created, one sees clearly why they are included in Calder's company, and he in theirs, in some of Surrealism's most important exhibitions and social circles.

Mark Rosenthal, adjunct curator of 20th century art at Houston's Menil Collection, where the exhibition originated, did such a brilliant job of culling the show's 43 works from 14 collections that it's hard to point out highlights. But amid the generally impressive offerings, there are a few that will stop you in your tracks.

"Devil Fish," from 1937, and "Black Beast," of 1940, both assembled of steel sheets cut into free-standing stabiles -- a term Calder coined to distinguish his non-moving works -- are animal, industry and abstraction, all at once. Both are clear precursors to the at times massive steel creatures, seemingly born of a shipbuilder's unconscious, with which Calder would populate the world for the rest of his career.

"White Panel" (1936) is a stunning study in framing and perception and an approach to shape and space that commingles the concerns of a painter and a sculptor. The only one of its kind in this show, it's from a group of works in which Calder suspended small constellations of brightly painted sheet-metal shapes from booms attached to rectangular panels hung on the wall, creating a kind of kinetic, three-dimensional painting. The objects originally were meant to be twisted or cranked, winding up energy in the cords from which they hang, and unleashing a dance of forms in front of the rectangular backdrop. That pleasure isn't afforded viewers here, but the subtle movements generated by airflow and the ways the forms shift their relations to the rectangle as you move around the piece provide pleasure enough.

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