Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Whitney: Alexander Calder's Paris Years

To me, Calder's name has always denoted whimsy and innovation. I got to see that and much more in Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933 at the Whitney. Loaded with wire portraits and figures, abstract sculptures and paintings, sketches, illustrations, film footage, and of course Calder's Circus, the exhibit is an exciting and busy experience.

First I was met with a wall full of contour-drawing-like wire faces of his friends and some famous people. Many were hanging, slowly spinning and casting crazy intersecting shadows. The shadows of Calder's wire pieces are a big part of the fun, so I think they should always be highlighted. Unfortunately the lighting didn't make for the boldness I would have liked, but still a cool collection of unique portraits.

Several rooms were dedicated to his abstract sculpture, many of which mechanical in some way or hung to encourage movement. Not too many mobiles, as I believe he began working on those more in the 30's. He seemed fascinated by the interaction of line and sphere, even devoting a series of large paintings to abstract studies of the subject. (I had never really seen his paintings before so I found these particularly interesting.) There were also some paintings and cartoons relating to the circus, which remained a pervasive subject for Calder.

A lot of miscellaneous wire sculptures were on display, including portraits of the singer and dancer Josephine Baker and an cute movable fish bowl. His understanding and use of line is marvelous. Several of them were abstract, complex, and movable, which was cool but I wish I could have seen them in action. There was a video showing one in motion but I was left to imagine how the rest functioned, which was too bad.

The largest room was a showcase for Cirque Calder, with several pieces of the set arranged in a glass case beneath videos of the pieces in motion. There were tight rope walkers, a bucking bronco, a belly dancer, a lion tamer, and various other excitements. Each wonder was mainly composed of wire and bits of fabric.

The walls were lined with even more circus-related sculptures and preliminary sketches. There was a small viewing room with a video of Calder performing his circus in the 1961. It is adorable. He operates his many delights with deftness and joy, controlling them with string and wire to entertain an unseen but laughing audience: a very early example of performance art. His ingenuity seems boundless, engineering scenarios I couldn't have imagined. One of my favourites was a large wire woman to whom small birds sailed down on plastic strings. There was also a little man who could smoke a cigar and blow up a balloon.

All in all it is a lovely exhibition, a testament to an incredibly talented man's gleeful imagination and penchant for entertaining. The sheer amount of pieces is very impressive, ensuring visitors a lengthy stay. I saw several children there and they seemed to be having as much fun as the adults. It's only up until Feb 15, so get yourself there as soon as you can! You can watch the circus video below.

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