Saluting Alexander Calder, American Painter in Paris

In the retrospective devoted to Alexander Calder: 1898-1976 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, one of the most revelatory moments for this visitor came at the very end of this very large exhibition. When you exit the show itself, there is immediately at hand one of the galleries devoted to the National Gallery’s permanent collection of 20th-century masters, and in that capacious room you are given what is, in effect, an illustrated tour of Calder’s most crucial artistic sources. As if marshaled for a salute to this American talent who had flourished so brilliantly in their company, there are works by Mondrian, Léger, Arp and Miró, as well as a group of sculptures by Brancusi. Nothing moves, of course. Setting in motion the forms, colors and structures of this modernist European circle was Calder’s special brainstorm. Yet it was clearly his immersion in the work of these modernist masters in Paris in the late 1920’s and early 30’s that set Calder himself on his unique artistic course.

His first visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio in the fall of 1930 has long been part of the Calder legend. “Already an admirer of Mondrian’s paintings,” writes Marla Prather, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art, in the catalogue accompanying the retrospective, “Calder was especially intrigued by the spartan, abstract environment Mondrian had created in his studio: ‘a white wall, rather high, with rectangles of cardboard painted yellow, red, blue, black, and a variety of whites, tacked upon it so as to form a fine, big composition.'” Calder ventured to suggest to Mondrian that these rectangles be made “to oscillate in different directions and at different amplitudes,” but Mondrian–according to Calder’s later recollection, anyway–rejected the idea. “No,” Mondrian is quoted as saying. “it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.”

Yet, as important as that visit to Mondrian’s studio may have been for Calder, Ms. Prather reminds us that a visit to Miró’s Paris studio two years earlier is likely to have played an even greater role at this crucial stage of Calder’s artistic development. In that regard, mention is made of the “Spanish Dancer” series of collage-objects that Miró was working on at the time.

In that room of modernist masterworks at the National Gallery, however, the painting by Miró called Head of a Catalan Peasant (1924) looks–especially to eyes that have been concentrated on Calder’s painted constructions for an hour or so–almost like a diagram for one of his early works. On an unevenly painted yellowish rectangle that fills the entire canvas, Miró painted a head constructed of wirelike lines, some straight and some curved, with two black disks for the eyes, a biomorphic form that may represent a nose partially painted red, an irregular starlike shape painted blue and many tiny black dots. If Mondrian gave Calder his palette, Miró certainly contributed much to his basic vocabulary of form.

Calder may also have gotten something else from Miró that he could not have gotten from Mondrian: permission to be funny, not only about art but in his art. For Miró is, among much else, a comic genius in his art.

When you revisit the retrospective after seeing that room with the Mondrian, the Miró, et al., you are likely to have an even more vivid sense of what was involved in Calder’s electric response to the Paris avant-garde. What he did not do was set out to imitate the modernist masters he admired. For one thing, they were all painters, and Calder’s gifts as a painter were never more than meager. What was even more important was the fact that the artists he especially admired were all European, while Calder’s own sensibility was thoroughly American, at once highly pragmatic in its approach to artistic problems and highly amused by the practicality of the invention he brought to their solution.

What we see, then, in this retrospective–especially in the work of the 1930’s, Calder’s best period–is a project of what might be called inspired translation, in which everything that is appropriated from the art of the Paris avant-garde is instantly rendered into a highly original American idiom. In this respect, Calder’s art reminds me a lot of the music of Virgil Thomson. There is a similar wit to be found in it, and a similar note of insouciance. And, of course, a similar act of appropriation–in Thomson’s case, from strictly French sources.

Is there also–dare one even ask the question?–a similar lack of gravitas in the work? I am afraid so. If you think back to the recent retrospectives devoted to Mondrian and Miró, the comparisons are not to Calder’s advantage. Even the humor in Calder’s work begins to look a little shallow when one attempts to place it in the company of Miró’s mordant comedy. Calder never lost the entertainer’s touch he had displayed early on with his Circus , his first big success in Paris, as you can see in the delighted, smiling faces of the many kids who make up a large part of the crowds in attendance at this retrospective. But that spirit of entertainment cost him something as an artist, and in an exhibition as large as the current retrospective, the humor begins to pall well before one has made it halfway through the 267 works on view. Oddly enough, the stabiles hold up better than the mobiles the more one studies them, and both stabiles and mobiles tend to be more effective the smaller they are. The huge mobile commissioned by the National Gallery for the opening of its East Building in the 1970’s is no exception, alas. It has aged as badly as the I.M. Pei building that houses it.

For this visitor, anyway, the best part of the exhibition is the work of the 1930’s when Calder’s project of inspired translation, as I have called it, elicited his freshest invention. What followed was often bigger but seldom better.

Alexander Calder: 1898-1976 , organized by Ms. Prather in collaboration with Alexander S.C. Rower, the director of the Alexander and Louisa Calder Foundation, remains on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 12, and will then travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Sept. 4 to Dec. 1).