Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Best Medicine

The next thing to discuss is the Alexander Calder show at the Whitney, subtitled The Paris Years, 1926-1933.  This was such a vibrant time in Calder's life, essentially where it all happens, and a great focus for a show.

--All images courtesy of the Whitney Museum, except where otherwise noted.

Basically, three things happen.  First, while studying at the Art Students League in New York, Calder makes extra money working for the National Police Gazette and is asked to cover the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus, and is strongly influenced by it.  Second, drawing upon his engineering education, he begins creating his miniature circus, performing it in a basement, which becomes a huge hit with the Parisian avant-garde.  And third, he goes to visit Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930, which he says "shocks" him into embracing abstract art.  It's in Paris that he creates a revolution.

The term "mobiles" was allegedly coined by Calder's friend Marcel Duchamp, "stabiles" by his friend Jean Arp.  Somebody really needs to do an Arp show soon, by the way.  I love his work.

The Cirque Calder, originally designed to fit in his suitcase, eventually grew to fill five suitcases, and of course, it's in the Whitney's permanent collection.  

They had the suitcases themselves on display there, as well, were showing videos of the different circus acts, and even had a guy performing some miniature acrobatic acts live in the gallery on a tray hanging from his shoulders.  I thought that was a great idea, but I'm not sure anyone could do it with as much charm as Calder himself.

At the entrance to the show is a wall of his portraits, presumably from before the Mondrian experience, although he was associating with such an awesome group of people, I wouldn't be surprised if he kept doing them.  I also think Calder was one of the only people to really do three-dimensional line drawings.  They have actual drawings of some of his circus performers, and you can really see the direct relationship between the pencil line and the armature wire.  Here's Jimmy Durante:
Ah, Cha-Cha-Cha.

He'd also met a toy manufacturer who'd suggested he start creating articulated toys, which he did.  He never found the man again, but they have some of the toys on display next to the circus.

Another room has all these smaller armature wire sculptures that, for me, illustrate one of the things I truly love most about Calder.  It was through Calder, almost singularly, that I realized not only that art can be fun, because that sounds like something you say to a kindergartener, but that art can actually be funny.  Calder wasn't expressing some depressing inner turmoil, he was playing.  He was really enjoying himself.

I think Dali was having fun, too.  And although, as I've said before, Fountain may very well be the most important piece of sculpture of the entire century--and on some level, I believe Duchamp knew it was--I also imagine Duchamp with a mischievous twinkle in his eye when he unveiled it.  

But when you compare Calder to a lot of the other work going around, it becomes clear that a lot of his contemporaries were just taking themselves WAY too seriously.  Not that their contributions weren't profound, of course.  In a way, I can see that if you're doing something that really is revolutionary, defies conventions of Beauty, or preconceptions about how art is or should be created, one strategy might be to be very, VERY serious about it, so that audiences will take it seriously, also.  Calder, on the other hand, used a strategy that may actually touch people far more deeply and universally: humor.

The best example of this is really Pigs.  I'm kind of annoyed that I can't find an image of it, but it's an armature wire sculpture of pigs mating from 1930.  That it's a male mounting a female is obvious as soon as you see it, which is pretty funny already.  But it gets better.  Of course, most of his sculptures are anatomically correct, and I love that, too, because he's just so matter of fact about it.  Male figures have penises, female have breasts: so?  If you look carefully, he's actually modeled the male pig's erect penis, penetrating the female, and there's this swirl of what I presume is armature wire semen.  Completely cracks me up.  

They're farm animals, so from the outset it reads as more just natural, mechanical.  Had he done this with human figures, it'd have been something completely different entirely.  But that's part of the genius of Calder.  It relates back to D'Arcy Thompson's brilliant book, somewhat influential in recent architecture, On Growth and Form.  Toward the end, Thompson breaks down the skeletal forms in various animals in terms of engineering, according to how they deal with tensions and stresses in the animal's body.  Calder's modeling of the structure of these figures, recalling the rib cage and musculature, wrapped up in a three-dimensional line drawing, reveals his understanding of anatomy and physiology.  What's more, he's representing the reproductive act, which automatically suggests movement, and even the biological process of it, in a way that suggests mechanics and engineering.  It's absolutely brilliant.

Then there's one of my favorite of his punch-lines in that same display case: a cow with a little pile of armature wire poop sitting behind it. 
--Image courtesy of MoMA.
Hilarious...and genius.  This accomplishes the same things.  The poop suggests both biology and movement, but in a very mechanical form.

But the cow goes further, because there's a wire connecting the head to the tail.  This one does obviously perform some actual movement.  This is one of the problems I had with the show, but more just with the whole concept of seeing Calder's work in a museum at all.  In the Whitney's defense, they really did do all they could do under the circumstances, and I'll get to that below.  But you can't touch them, interact with them, you can't really discover what they do, and I believe that interactivity is at the very core of what Calder was doing.  In other words, the very fact of being in a museum prevents the work from being experienced at all, a very unfortunate irony.

It became even more acute to me with his goldfish:
Right next to this was another one, a fishbowl.  The round bowl shape of it merely suggested by curving wires, and the water's surface around the top in wavy lines, like in this tank version.  The fishbowl I actually thought would illustrate my point better, but I can't be sure.  That I can't be sure is exactly what I'm saying.  If you look closely, the crank at the bottom right of the tank is connected to a somewhat elaborate mechanism.  These fish do something quite specific when you operate that crank.  In the bowl version, it appeared even more elaborate--it looked like there was both a crank and another lever that would do something else.  So maybe you can make the fish swim around in a circle and also have them swim up and down in the fishbowl.

The fact that I can't play with it is really tragic, the fact that I can't have the pleasure of discovering what these fish do.  Of course I can't.  Even if I owned the piece myself I probably wouldn't, at least not very often, and even so, I'd probably break it or otherwise damage it if I did.  But what the piece does, its very physical interaction with the viewer, is really what this piece is about.

There is something more, though.  It's that Calder has taken a natural process, fish swimming, and translated it into basic machinery.  To witness exactly how he rendered these movements in mechanical terms sheds an incredible light on the 1930s and its celebrations of new technology, a mode of thinking into which Buckminster Fuller seems to fit, as well, in fact.  The same goes for his sculptures that allude to astronomical movements:
This one has a crank at the bottom, too, you'll notice.  Those little spheres swing around and hit the wires of the outer sphere, spinning around on two axes.  It totally reminds me of those solar system machines they had in my science classroom:
I always thought those things were SO cool for some reason.

The next room had some of his largest sculptures, life size in many cases, and also showed some of his more mythological subjects, like Romulus & Remus.  A little bit creepy, a little bit Surrealist, I wasn't as impressed by these.  I did notice something kind of cool, though, how he executes his signature in wire:
This again draws a very literal connection between the wire and a pencil line.

Then there are the galleries showing his most complicated, abstract kinetic pieces.  The first gallery had mostly free-floating pieces or the manually-operated ones.  The other gallery showed mostly the ones operated by electric motor.  The motor-driven sculptures have to be the most conducive to museum exhibition, because no one has to touch them for them to do what they're supposed to do.  Of course, at this point, they won't (can't) turn the motors on and risk damaging the pieces.  I also think that's a horrible tragedy, as fully as I understand the reasons why it's not possible.

You know I love the Whitney, though: they do understand.  They get it.  In this room they had a video playing that showed I think almost all of these sculptures in motion.  I wish they'd posted the video on their YouTube, but in any case, I was extremely grateful they had it.   In fact, they also allowed one of the pieces to be plugged in for short periods of time, on and off (the timer had stopped working, so a guard had to keep coming over to do it), so you could witness it live and in person.  It was this one, Half Circle, Quarter Circle, and Sphere from 1932:

The reference to the sphere in the title is what makes this so absolutely brilliant.  The black bar, theoretically a one-dimensional object, physically a two-dimensional shape, maps out a three-dimensional object in space through the fourth dimension of time.  All this incredible transcendence solely because of a simple electric motor, because the piece is in motion.  A lever tilts the red circle into and out of the sphere, perfectly designed so it pulls out of the way when the black bar comes around.

Because these pieces are so extremely minimal, based on very primary, simple geometric relationships and primary color combinations, it's much more obvious that he wasn't just composing them--that's too simple--he was fully choreographing sculpture.  
--Image courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum.

--Image courtesy the Calder Foundation.
They had a separate video showing the movement of this one, Pantograph from 1931:
What really struck me was how very slow and serene its movements are.  The cycle is probably over ten minutes.  There are moments when you might not even notice that it's moving, if you weren't paying attention.  It's like the movement of heavenly bodies, heavy, monumental, timeless, and subtle.

Finally, there's the gallery with some of his larger hanging mobiles.  Here's where I had another problem.  I think it's a great shame that so many of Calder's pieces allowed to be outdoors are the stabiles.  The giant mobiles always manage to end up in some big atrium or museum lobby with absolutely no air circulation at all.  So they just hang there and do nothing.

Especially considering Calder's mechanical representations of natural processes and his interest in how movement plots virtual objects in space, it's their relationship to wind and air currents that should be doing the work.  These pieces need to be in motion to even be experienced.  Outdoors, they would draw attention to the sensation of the wind hitting your face, a tactile experience.  What's more, wind is invisible, so you have an object designed specifically to be seen that references something that can never be seen (clouds passing by overhead notwithstanding).

Like I said, the Whitney gets it.  They'd obviously had someone go in and set one or two of the mobiles in motion every hour or two.  Presumably, as finely balanced as they clearly are, they would continue to float around for a while.  But inertia is secondary to these pieces.  Primary by a long shot is the way they are created to respond to their environment.  Something about how the shape of each blade catches air current in a specific way and moves in a specific way as a result of its shape and size is, to my mind, one of the most important aspects of these pieces.  Barring the possibility of showing them outdoors where, granted, elements can be cruel to artworks, these galleries should have fans blowing.  There is not the slightest question in my mind, the galleries should have fans.

I'm also reminded of a piece by Olafur Eliasson which I didn't mention in my post about his show.  Ventilator was a fan in a shiny round metal cage hanging from a cable probably 50-feet long, blowing and swinging energetically around the soaring main space at the top of the stairs at the MoMA.  Incredibly dynamic, a great piece, and illustrates my argument perfectly.

The fact that there were almost always little kids chasing this fan around the room, obviously enjoying the hell out of the whole thing, is one of the best things about this piece.  It's the true magic of art at work and makes me so happy.  Calder's work had that, too, and it deserves to be experienced that way, with all the dynamics of joy and discovery and playfulness.

For this reason, the Whitney's Calder show really needs to be experienced in person, and I highly recommend it.  It's not a huge show, but is without doubt exquisitely executed.  I also bumped into a coworker of mine at the show, by the way--the second day in a row I'd bumped into this same coworker by accident.  Another (ex)coworker of mine works there now, too, and I spoke to him on my way out.  Very weird synchronicity.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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