Published: December 23, 2008
“Alexander Calder: The Paris Years,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art to February 15, is the first comprehensive, critical look at the formative seven-year period between 1926 and 1933, when Calder, on his way to becoming one of the greatest American sculptors, discovered his own singular artistic vocabulary.
A partnership between the Whitney and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, this exhibition presents a fresh perspective on one of the most well-loved and critically esteemed artists of the Twentieth Century, focusing on the period during which Calder came into his own. The exhibition, co-curated by Joan Simon, Whitney curator at-large, and Brigitte Leal, curator at the Centre Pompidou, will travel to the Centre Pompidou March 18⁊uly 20.
Calder’s years in Paris (including numerous trips back and forth to the United States) were a time of major transformation. When he arrived in Paris in 1926, at the age of 27, he was a painter and illustrator, specializing in urban realities, not unlike his teachers at the Art Students League, where he had studied between 1923 and 1925. By the time he left Paris to return to the United States in 1933, he had evolved into an international figure and a defining force in Twentieth Century sculpture.
It was during this crucial period in his artistic development that Calder arrived at his revolutionary notion of “drawing in space,” a concept that remained central to all of his work throughout his long career. In Paris, he invented a radically new kind of open-form wire portrait, at a time when sculptural portraiture was limited primarily to busts carved in stone or wood, modeled in clay or cast in bronze.
Focusing on Calder’s wire sculptures of the period, this exhibition follows from the artist’s earliest mobilizing of articulated figures for toys, to the extended cast of his animated “Circus” (made in Paris from 1926 to 1931), to independent figurative sculptures †including the open-form, dimensional wire portraits †and abstract motorized works, and finally to Calder’s releasing his line into buoyant, abstract, airborne gesture for his paradigm-shifting mobiles (so named by Marcel Duchamp), works that not only liberated sculpture from mass, but also incorporated movement as a “material” itself.
The exhibition includes works of art from institutions and private collections from around the world. Among the works from the Whitney and Pompidou collections, both of which are rich in Calder holdings, are the motorized “Half-Circle, Quarter-Circle, and Sphere” (Whitney, 1932), the stabile “Object with Red Discs” (Whitney, 1931), the portrait “Varèse” (Whitney, circa 1930), the animal sculpture “Old Bull” (Whitney, 1930), one of his first suspended wire figures, “Josephine Baker IV” (Centre Pompidou, circa 1928), and the subtly balanced “Requin et Baleine” (Centre Pompidou, circa 1933).
These sculptures †and others less well known †are juxtaposed with an extensive presentation of drawings, many of which have not been previously exhibited, as well as films, photographs, newspaper and magazine illustrations and correspondence.
Also included are examples of Calder’s toys, some made for the artist’s own amusement, and others for commercial production, and the watercolor and gouache drawings for them that include his detailed engineering instructions for their fabrication †echoes of his training and work as a mechanical engineer prior to his art-school studies.
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