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Review: LACMA's 'Calder and Abstraction' a wonder of curved space

Marvel at how lines bend, edges arc and shapes bow in the hands of Alexander Calder at a beautiful exhibition of his mobiles and other works.

December 17, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Frank Gehry's unobtrusive installation design helps set the stage for Calder’s intricately curved works.
Frank Gehry's unobtrusive installation design helps set the stage… (Fredrik Nilsen / LACMA/Calder…)

If you like Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, you'll love the sculpture of Alexander Calder.

And vice versa.

As an artist Calder certainly wasn't in the business of illustrating difficult scientific postulates. (Born on the cusp of the 20th century, he died at 78 in 1976.) In fact, one frequent knock on him was the claim that, while charmingly whimsical, his sculpture is physically, emotionally and intellectually lightweight.

After all, this is the guy who built an entire miniature circus out of cardboard, some buttons and a bunch of twisted wire. He dropped humble metals for high-end silver and gold in order to craft bracelets, necklaces and brooches. And in the 1930s he hit his stride with the development of the mobile — suspended kinetic sculptures that drift on currents of air — eventually inspiring an entire commercial industry for the gurgling amusement of infants.

How could any of that be as serious as a modern theorem that revolutionized, well, just about everything — from the old philosophical belief in the possibility of absolute truth to conventional weaponry, which morphed into the apocalyptic power of the atom bomb?

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A fascinating feature of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's beautiful exhibition of his abstract constructions, especially the famous mobiles, is how deftly it reveals an aspect of Calder's work that, to me at least, had never been evident before. Motion doesn't really describe it. Instead, this is sculpture whose enduring fascination rides on the articulation of the curvature of space through time.

It does so with elegance and grace. Or, one might say, with the simplicity and profundity of E=mc².

As for abstraction, probably the most common design used to describe the structure of the modern world is not a curve but a grid, whose orderly repetition of squares symbolizes the triumph of the machine and mass production over organic rhythm and flow. For example, the flat intersection of the horizontal and the vertical is a hallmark of Piet Mondrian's paintings.

In fact, a 1930 visit to Mondrian's Paris studio inspired Calder's own leap into total abstraction. Yet what turns up again and again throughout the show is not a Mondrian-style grid but curved space. It dominates whether you are looking at suspended mobiles or Earth-bound objects standing on the floor or resting on a pedestal.

Curvature is obvious in the sculptures' organic forms. Except for a few bases and some stands, especially in Calder's earlier sculptures, you'll be hard-pressed to find more than a couple straight lines anywhere in the show.

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Instead, lines bend, edges arc and shapes bow. One coarsely textured, rather hefty bronze is weighted so that a limb reaches out over the edge of a plinth and curves downward, ending up beneath the tabletop. (Twenty years later, British sculptor Anthony Caro would make an entire suite of similarly cantilevered works.) More provocatively, though, Calder's mobiles trace infinitely complex curved paths through space.

Affixed to wire arms, the mobiles' carefully balanced disks, spheres and paddles cannot physically follow a straight course. Like the wire lines, cut edges and sheet-metal shapes, the pathways bend, arc and bow. "Snow Flurry" (1948), probably the most beautiful mobile in the show, is a gentle commotion of 30 white disks suspended on 26 delicately curved wires. In motion, the effects of gravity draw the curvature of space through time.

Einstein, upon seeing the 1943 Calder exhibition at the Museum of Modern art, understood. As quoted in the show's catalog, he lamented: "I wish I had thought of that."

Einstein got what eluded art critic Clement Greenberg. The writer savaged the MOMA survey as sculpture inappropriately mimicking paintings by Picasso and Miró.

But Calder's mobiles were important in the radical development of the concept of drawing in space. That technique became the structural lingua franca for much that came after, including art as various as Henri Matisse's paper cutouts, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Eva Hesse's sculptural skeins of latex, Gordon Matta-Clark's chain saw cuts into walls, Lucio Fontana's neon squiggles, Robert Irwin's translucent scrims and lots more.

One nice thing about the LACMA exhibition is that Calder's brand of curved, spatial "drawing" is made plain not through written wall texts but experientially, thanks to the whip-smart and unobtrusive installation design by architect Frank O. Gehry. Curved walls, many painted pale gray, set the stage. Lighting is carefully controlled (the skylights have been covered over). Essential artistic qualities in Calder's sculptures shine through.

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