Alexander Calder

New York

at the Whitney Museum of American Art


With the exception of one large sculpture in the middle of the room and a few hanging pieces, “Calder: Hypermobility” appears mounted almost entirely against the walls of the Whitney Museum’s top-floor gallery. That Calder referred to the large black work at the room’s center, The Arches (1959), as a “stabile” (and thus considered it in contradistinction to his mobiles) goes some way toward illustrating the incongruities between the show’s intentions and its effects. As many of the sculptures on view have been set on long platforms that hug the walls, their kineticism often appears stilled to an almost pictorial flatness. Some of the 1930s and ’40s constructions were in fact designed to be pictures of sorts. In a few, for instance, motor-driven sculptural elements move against backgrounds of flat, wooden quadrilaterals that resemble paintings—as in S and Star (1941), in which a calligraphic line and four-pointed star turn before a monochromatic brown panel, the overall composition suggesting the extent to which Calder’s art was in dialogue with Miró’s lyrical, biomorphic painted abstractions, particularly his “Constellations” (1939-41). Similarly, Calder’s Constructivist-style Black Frame (1934)—which recalls László Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus-era inventions, though it bears a comparative whimsy—is perfectly suited to being displayed against a wall, since the artist set this kinetic gathering of metal sheets, a white corkscrew-like wire, and other components within a boxy frame.

For the more emphatically three-dimensional sculptures and mobiles, however, the show’s installation suggests something of a missed opportunity. To be sure, for conservation reasons many of the works can be set into motion for only limited times. The exhibition, which was curated by Jay Sanders (a Whitney performance curator who has since departed to serve as director of Artists Space), thus deploys trained “activators” to launch some of the mobiles at predetermined hours. Organized in coordination with the Calder Foundation, the exhibition also includes rarely seen works that are not part of the gallery installation but rather displayed and activated in the museum’s theater. A series of events—from panel discussions to film screenings to the playing of instruments designed by Calder—expands the exhibition into further performative and temporal dimensions. Yet the dynamism of this wider programming only sets into relief, as it were, the relative flatness of the main installation.

The inclusion of bronze pieces like Whip Snake (Snake on the Post) and Octopus (both 1944) compounds the exhibition’s unwitting ambivalence, for, in their weighty material and ample bases, these works evince a certain earthly stability. With a thin form twisting up from a conical base, Whip Snake suggests a kind of drawing in space, and the stylized, biomorphic Octopus evokes Surrealist forms while also recalling Giacometti’s early work from the 1930s. Yet line remains wed here to solid, compact materiality rather than illustrating motion. Carved from a single piece of wood, Calder’s ingenious Double Cat (1930) shows a feline stretched out in prone tranquility, conjuring the very opposite of mobility. Of course, such range only demonstrates Calder’s sculptural versatility, and the breadth of his material and formal idioms. But why objects such as these would be chosen from his vast corpus as superlative examples of kinesis remains puzzling.

Equally puzzling is the dark blue in which the gallery’s side walls and platforms have been painted, and against which many of its mobiles are set, whether standing on the platforms or hanging from the ceiling. As anyone familiar with Calder’s mobiles knows, the shadows unleashed by their components extend the physical works into parallel plays of flattened forms. While the blue provides a marvelous contrast to Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry), 1946—an assembly of small white circles suggesting a snowstorm—it obscures the shadows issuing from nearby works.

In addition to focusing on mobility, the exhibition claims to explore the function of sound in Calder’s work. Yet, since the east wall of the gallery has a large cutout that opens onto the museum’s café, the room resounds with little other than the clink of plates, the steam of espresso machines, and ambient chatter. The appreciation of any aural nuances in Calder’s constructions requires neutral acoustics at the very least. Such silence may be afforded or enforced at fixed intervals, but my visit entailed no such moments.

The exhibition’s nonchronological organization allows viewers to consider Calder’s oeuvre apart from the successive movements of art history. Or perhaps it is the artist’s own disregarding of trends that separates his work from particular schools. With a metal disc mounted in front of a panel of yellow plywood, Square (ca. 1934) anticipates numerous anti- and post-painting experiments of the 1960s. Indeed, a presentation focusing on Calder’s often oblique, and even unintentional, rapport with other artists would make for compelling viewing, particularly in terms of his exploration of kineticism, which could be shown in relation to, say, Man Ray’s striking hanger assemblage (Obstruction, 1920) or the “Useless Machines” that Bruno Munari developed at the same time Calder launched his mobiles.

At one point during my visit, a fly landed on a mobile, Black Lace (ca. 1947), hanging in the middle of the gallery. Its horizontal rods shifted ever so slightly; its interconnected plates fanned and rippled for several moments. The exhibition’s titular “hyper”-ness proves somewhat hyperbolic, alas. But relative stillness need not be a liability. In fact, the kinesis of Calder’s sculpture is often most poignant in its subtlety. This moment of felicitous contingency offered a lyrical instance of unscripted mobility, which was otherwise muted in the staid installation.